To get a grasp on the popularity of the better-burger segment, one needs only to look toward the nearest strip mall or street corner.
Among the ubiquitous quick-service burger joints like McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's are now more upscale counterparts like Five Guys, Shake Shack and Smashburger. The emergence of these chains comes in response to finicky diners, many of whom are Millennials, seeking to trade up from the traditional burger joints.
"America still loves burgers, but the segment is very saturated, and became even more so in the last five years with the growth of better burger places," says Bob Goldin, a partner in Chicago-based Pentallect Inc., a food industry consulting firm. "All the major quick-service burger chains are stable, flat or up just slightly in sales, as these are very mature businesses."
According to the 2016 Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report from Chicago-based market research firm Technomic, limited-service burger chain performance increased 3.3 percent from 2014 to 2015, the most recent year for which data is available. This translates into $75.5 billion in U.S. sales in 2015, up from $73.1 billion in 2014. Unit growth was essentially flat during this period at .5 percent with 43,364 units.
It can be difficult to stand out in the better-burger arena, as this menu staple is not limited to restaurants in this segment. "People can get a good burger almost anywhere, and that's nothing new," says Goldin. "The price points are a concern to some, and there are just too many people chasing the business."
When it comes to menu category growth, Technomic reports burgers have made more progress in the fast-casual sector than in quick service, with the former experiencing 15.2 percent growth compared to the latter at 2.9 percent in 2015. A number of trends will continue to impact the burger segment overall, including antibiotic- and hormone-free beef; incorporating more ethnic and regional ingredients; breakfast offerings to drive sales throughout the day; and loyalty marketing, according to Technomic.
With quick-service chains upscaling ingredients as well as the overall offering, the lines will continue to blur between the better-burger chains and traditional outlets. "With everyone chasing the better burgers, price point can be an issue," says Goldin. "But it's a huge market, and consumers will continue to love burgers."
A Focus on Fresh
Established in 1986, Five Guys could very well be considered one of the better-burger pioneers. The concept was the brainchild of the Murrell family: Jerry and his sons Jim, Matt, Chad, Sam and Tyler.
The first site opened in Arlington, Va., with the sons investing college money put aside for them by their father. "Jerry gave the boys permission to use the money to start a business," says Molly Catalano, Five Guys' vice president of marketing and communications.
Over the next 15 years, the brothers opened a total of 5 fast-casual restaurants in the Arlington and Alexandria areas, before franchising in 2002. Today, Five Guys has 1,437 locations in 49 states and 9 countries. "As we grew, we opened corporate stores, and we now have 400," says Catalano.
A sharp focus on fresh ingredients serves as one of Five Guys' defining traits. The restaurant's staff form beef patties by hand and chop whole lettuce on-site each day. The simplicity of the menu allows for a concentration on the production side of the business. Five Guys takes no shortcuts in terms of the time it takes to prep menu items, which consist of only burgers, fries, hot dogs and milkshakes.
Most locations measure roughly 2,500 square feet, with the kitchen and back of the house consuming about 45 percent of the space. "About 25 percent total is designated for prep or production, which is not in view of customers," says Catalano.
The workhorses of Five Guys' operation are its standard 3-foot grill, 5-foot meat grill, four fryers, a basic hood and milkshake machines. The equipment package remains consistent from one location to the next.
"Our one proprietary piece is our potato sink, which was developed for us about five years ago and implemented two years ago. It has reduced our water usage and labor costs," says Carl Napiwocki, vice president of global supply chain. "It's used to extract starch from potatoes and compliments our potato cutter, which has an enhanced width and plate size to separate our fries from other chains."
The chain has recently taken additional measures to reduce costs and operate in a more environmentally friendly manner. For example, its griddles utilize a chrome top and are designed for enhanced energy performance. Five Guys' kitchens also incorporate fry basket towers that stack in the middle of the fry station for added efficiency. "Our stores are easy to build, but the focus with our equipment is on durability," says Napiwocki.
Five Guys' menu now includes milkshakes, too. The company first started testing them in 2014. The fast-casual burger chain's updated front of the house features new seating and tables as well as upgraded signage. "It's still minimalistic compared to other concepts, but a good evolution for us," says Catalano.
Rather than dedicating a large part of its budget to marketing, the chain rolls it back to its employees through an extensive secret shopping program that includes substantial monetary bonuses. "That's where we spend a majority of our marketing funds. Last year about $23 million went to our hourly level crew in the form of bonuses," says Catalano.
A Cravable Concept
The theory behind the Umami Burger brand is similar to what makes people crave pizza and hamburgers.
It all began when founder Adam Fleischman began investigating why ingredients high in umami, such as shiitake mushrooms, truffles and parmesan, appeal to people and actually contribute to cravings. "In the early 1900s, a Japanese scientist did research and published an article about this topic," says Greg Frazer, Umami Burger's COO. "The word translates to mean deliciousness, and umami is a flavor in line with savory, sweet, sour and salty."
Eight years ago, Fleischman opened his first location in La Brea, Calif., focusing on burgers that included shiitake mushrooms, truffles and parmesan. The popularity grew quickly, fueled by celebrities, and the chain now has 24 locations. This past October, shareholder Sam Nazarian, CEO of Los Angeles-based hospitality group SBE, expanded ownership of the Umami Burger chain to hold a 78 percent stake in the company, with plans to grow the brand in the U.S. and internationally.
SBE operates hotel brands SLS and The Redbury and recently purchased the Morgans Hotel Group. Its restaurant concepts include Cleo, Doheny Room, Katsuya and Bazaar. Fleischman will stay on as a shareholder and board member. "There are plenty of burgers in the premium category and a lot of competition," says Frazer. "The ingredients we're using are the best, but this drives up the food cost perspective."
Staff make all of Umami Burger's menu items from scratch. This includes burgers that are ground on site fresh daily, sauces and cheese fondue.
The one word to describe these burgers is decadent. Varieties include the Manly Burger, with house beer-cheddar cheese, bacon lardons, smoked-salt onion strings, Umami ketchup and mustard spread; and Cindy's Casa Burger, a jalapeño beef patty topped with miso-mustard, avocado, American cheese, caramelized onions, queso fresco and tortilla chips. Chicken sandwiches include the Crispy Diablo Burger topped with fried chicken breast, diablo sauce, roasted garlic aioli, dill pickles and spicy slaw; and the Manly Chick, a chicken breast patty, house beer-cheddar cheese, bacon lardons, smoked-salt onion strings, Umami ketchup and mustard spread. Appetizers on the menu like buttered corn, short rib slicers and caramelized Brussels sprouts are strong sellers.
Locations range from between 2,500 square feet and 6,500 square feet and between 65 and 110 seats. Umami Burger has two fast-casual locations in Los Angeles' LAX Airport and New York City's World Trade Center. "Approximately 25 percent of our square footage is allocated to the kitchen," says Frazer. "We have a pretty dialed in cook line, and we do try to minimize and make it effective."
In other words, the back of the house is as small as possible, while still being functional, efficient and able to accommodate adequate storage. The core of the cook line includes deep fryers, salamanders, griddles, a range, a convection oven, salad make stations and refrigerated low boys.
In the cooking process, the idea is to use the highest heat possible in order to brown or caramelize the proteins to get a good sear. "We accomplish this with high-temp equipment as well as a high metal gauge on our griddles," says Frazer. "We look for equipment innovations that can improve speed of service and ticket times without sacrificing product quality."
Because this is a casual dining as opposed to a fast-casual concept, the staff's approach to customer service differs slightly from other burger concepts. "We're offering experiential dining, where servers can explain the umami concept," says Frazer. "Competition is good and bad. It's insatiable, but people are always going to go out for burgers, so it's about offering product with a value proposition that's high quality."
With a Tokyo location opened March 24 of this year, Umami Burger plans to expand internationally into such markets as Japan, Europe and the Middle East. "We have a 10-unit deal in Tokyo over the next 5 years, and a significant amount of international logs in the fire that we're exploring," says Frazer. "We've grown organically for the last eight years and are now piggybacking on the SBE expansion."
Simplicity Leads to Success
It was 11 years ago that David Friedman had the idea of bringing a mindful burger operation to Chicago. The result is Epic Burger, which now consists of eight corporate-owned locations in the city and surrounding suburbs.
It's both the ingredients and simplicity that make this operation unique. Dishes use all-natural ingredients, meats are not treated with antibiotics or hormones, and animals are raised humanely. The burgeoning chain also uses eco-friendly packaging. The thought behind it is that customers will connect with locally sourced foods and restaurants that focus on the environment. It seems Epic Burger has hit that mark.
In terms of the menu, simplicity is key. It consists of burgers, fresh-cut fries and milkshakes. Other options include chicken sandwiches, a turkey burger and portabella mushrooms. The list of burger toppings include lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, raw or grilled onions and the chain's signature Epic sauce. Upgraded toppings like bacon, three types of cheese and a fried egg, cost extra.
With this fast-casual concept, customers order at the counter and staff bring the food to their tables.
Although each restaurant features a different footprint, the minimalistic ambiance remains the same, incorporating warm colors like red with wood tones and a mixture of tables and booths. "The back-of-house square footage depends on the store," says Aaron Langguth, facilities manager. "While one has less than 400 square feet, another has almost 900. And it varies as a percentage, with between 25 to 35 percent of the total encompassing the kitchen."
The equipment lineup is as simplistic as the menu. The cook line includes a flattop griddle and fryers. Staff access ingredients from two or more reach-in refrigerators and two undercounter reach-ins. One of the undercounter units is a modified refrigerated sandwich table that holds all the burger toppings. The griddle rests on a refrigerated base with four to six cooling drawers. There also is a wall-mount fry cutter in operation, along with tomato and onion slicers.
"We've historically used gas griddles, but found the electric version is better in terms of maintenance," says Langguth. "We have two right now and will switch over to electric in our remaining locations. These are reliable and have incredible recovery time."
Epic Burger keeps it basic with its fryers, foregoing any bells and whistles, since the chain uses these units solely for french fries. "We don't need programming and timers," says Langguth. "We get away with as few moving parts as possible; that works out best for us."
He recommends to those opening a similar operation to keep in mind the service life limitations when it comes to cost. "If there's equipment that takes a lot of abuse and typically won't last more than five years, I make sure it's broken down into separate components, rather than one solid piece," says Langguth. "For example, in the past, we've used several banks of fryers built into one unit. In this case, if one fryer pot goes down, we need to buy a whole new unit, but if it's a component piece, we can just disconnect one fryer vat and replace it. There's value in making the right decision up front and understanding how you're using the equipment."
Although it can be challenging bringing the best possible quality to the table and serving it at a price customers are willing to pay, Epic Burger is addressing this by making a connection to the food.
Although its business model has stayed the same for the past eight years, the chain continues to seek expansion opportunities and is evaluating these as it grows.