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Jack in the Box’s Smashed Jack has a beef blend that’s different from the chain’s other burgers, as well as a new “Boss Sauce.”

Restaurant chains up their burger game

McDonald’s, Jack in the Box and others rework operations and upgrade ingredients to offer customers tastier items

We’ve spent a lot of time in recent years talking about chicken. Justifiably so — demand for the protein surpassed beef as younger consumers in particular prefer chicken’s health-halo, versatility, and portability. 

But during all of this, a number of chains have been reworking their burgers, pouring time and money into upgrading the sandwiches themselves, as well as the equipment used to make them, ensuring their core products are top of mind for an increasingly sophisticated consumer who still very much loves beef. 

Among them is McDonald’s. And when McDonald’s makes adjustments, the industry is wise to pay attention. Other brands sharpening their focus on burgers recently include Red Robin, Jack in the Box, and Mellow Mushroom. Let’s take a look at some of these changes, a few of which have already started to yield strong results. 


In April last year, McDonald’s announced it was gearing up to launch its “best burgers ever” — a bold statement from a concept that built its giant foundation on burgers. The new burgers, which were made available nationwide at the end of January, feature several changes, like new, softer and more aromatic buns with a more buttery and yeasty fragrance, and more of the signature Mac Sauce on the Big Mac.

There were also tweaks made to the cooking process to yield a more consistent sear and meltier cheese, and the company moved its diced onions from the prep table to the griddle, adding them to the beef patties as they cook for a caramelized flavor. All told, more than 50 changes have been made, the company said.

Among those changes is the way the burgers themselves are cooked. Now six frozen patties are added to the griddle at once instead of eight, resulting in more even cooking as the surface cools down less, and resulting in fresher, hotter burgers for customers.


McDonald’s revamped Big Mac is made with fluffier, more aromatic buns and a larger serving of Mac Sauce.

But apart from the buns, the ingredients haven’t changed, said Chad Schafer, the Golden Arches’ senior director for menu strategy in the United States.

McDonald’s last made changes to its burgers in 2018, when it transitioned its Quarter Pounder with Cheese to fresh beef that’s cooked to order. That same year, the company also removed artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives from its entire burger lineup.

The Quarter Pounder with Cheese hasn’t been touched during McDonald’s latest round of menu innovation.

During McDonald’s Investor Day in December, Jo Sempels, president of international developmental licensed markets said McDonald’s has maintained its market leadership in beef, but is “not resting on its past success,” which is why the company has launched this “best burger initiative.”

“Small changes add up to a big difference that customers are noticing,” he said. 

Jack in the Box 

Jack in the Box kicked off 2024 with the introduction of its “Smashed Jack,” a 1/4-pound, smashed-inspired patty made with seasoned beef, topped with grilled onions, pickles, and a new Boss Sauce all served on a buttery brioche bun. It was introduced as a six-week limited-time offer, starting at $8.49, but it sold out in two weeks.

“No marketing, no advertising, we just put it on the menu and we couldn’t keep it in stock. I think we sold 70,000 on the first day,” chief marketing officer Ryan Ostrom said. “Our expectations were blown away by the performance.”

In contrast to McDonald’s adjustments, the Smashed Jack isn’t replacing Jack in the Box’s other burgers, and pretty much everything is different about it.

Mellow_Mushroom.jpegPhoto: Mellow Mushroom’s new core burgers use smash-style patties.

The patty has a looser grind than other burgers and it’s a different blend of beef cuts. Additionally, the grind comes pre-seasoned, unlike the chain’s other burgers, which are seasoned as they cook. Ostrom described the burger as “smashed-ish” because it’s not actually pressed into the griddle as it cooks. It comes from the manufacturer pre-flattened and then it’s pressed with a cool cover while it cooks to help with even cooking and to improve crispiness and caramelization. “An employee’s not pressing on it,” he said.

He added that the San Diego-based chain drew inspiration from the smash-burgers sold on food trucks.

“That’s what takes time [in development]: Trying to figure out how you take a burger that is so hand-crafted on food trucks and bring it to 2,200 stores consistently,” he said.

The Smashed Jack has been slated for a systemwide rollout in February as a permanent menu addition.

“We hope the patty will be on a few other burgers as well,” Ostrom said. “It’s by far the most elevated patty we have put out in years.”

According to the Jack in the Box, smash-style burgers are trending and, indeed, according to Technomic Ignite data, smashed cheeseburgers have experienced nearly 20% growth on menus over the past year.

Mellow Mushroom

Mellow Mushroom, a 160-unit casual-dining chain based in Atlanta, also just revamped its burgers, replacing its traditional burger style with two smash-burger style patties. The burgers feature two hand-pressed patties made with black Angus beef served on a buttered brioche. There are two curated options from which to choose: Mel’s Classic Burger, with lettuce, tomato, pickle, and onions, and the Ritz Burger, with melted Swiss cheese, caramelized onions, aïoli, romaine lettuce, Roma tomatoes, and pickles. Guests also have the option of building their own burgers, starting with Mel’s Classic and going from there.

Red Robin

Red Robin Gourmet Burgers & Brews rolled out a new menu in the fall as part of its five-point North Star plan put into place by CEO G.J. Hart in late 2022. To execute the new menu, Red Robin invested in new flat-top griddles that have replaced the belt-driven char grills that had been in place at its more than 500 locations. The change is allowing the company to improve its core burgers and create opportunities for additional innovation, including healthier appetizer options, chief financial officer Todd Wilson said during a recent analyst conference

Hart also brought on a new chef, Brian Sullivan, with whom he had worked when he was CEO of California Pizza Kitchen from 2011 to 2018. Sullivan joined Red Robin at the beginning of 2023 and immediately set to work overhauling the burgers.

The new burgers are also smash-style, “so we’re locking in the juices and caramelizing the beef,” Sullivan said in an interview last year.

He said the new process requires more skill, which has improved morale in the kitchens.

“For the cooks, and the managers as well, they’re not just taking a patty, placing it on a conveyor belt, and waiting for it to come out on the other end. They’re actually cooking. There’s more talent involved and it’s more interactive,” he said.

Red_Robiin_SMASHED_AVOCADO_N__BACON.jpegPhoto: Red Robin undertook a wholesale reworking of its burgers that included the replacement of its conveyor grills with flattop griddles.

The beef blend is different too, and now is a 75/25 lean/fat blend. The grind is also lighter and looser. It comes to the restaurants fresh in what Sullivan described as an “expanded puck shape,” which allows for more consistency than a true ball would.

And unlike at Jack in the Box, Red Robin’s cooks are smashing the patties themselves.

Other changes in Red Robin’s burger have included replacing the cross-cut top bun with a lighter brioche bun that condenses better. It has the same seasoning blend, but more of it.

Hart has said on several occasions that the focus on improving Red Robin’s core product is necessary to reflect the “gourmet burgers” in the brand’s name and its signage. 

In early October, we took our commitment to returning our burgers to true gourmet status to the next level, unveiling new and improved recipes for each one of our more than 20 gourmet burgers now prepared with higher quality and more flavorful ingredients to deliver on our guest promise and a competitive elevated burger experience,” he said during the company’s Q3 earnings call in November.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected] and Alicia Kelso at [email protected]

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