LATHAM — The gourmet concept to hamburgers is no longer new, not since French chef Daniel Boulud introduced a $27 burger back in 2001. But, the business model has been followed, tweaked and survived the Great Recession of a few years ago. Now, in 2015, it continues to trend stronger than what one business magazine prognosticated four years ago.
The better-burger movement is beyond a decade old, with pioneers such as Shake Shack and Elevation Burger first opening in metropolitan areas. The revolution, however, has waged on here in the Capital District for nearly as long. Red Robin being one of the first of the chains coming into town several years ago, now the list of names include Juicy Burgers, Smash Burger, Burger 21, Shake Shack, and Five Guys. That list is already expected to grow with the anticipated openings of Elevation Burger and Crave later this year, but not any sooner than the newest kid in town: BurgerFi.
Opening its doors in Latham last week, BurgerFi falls into the better-burger niche by promising beef that is chemical-free and a menu uniquely creative.
Since opening its first storefront in February 2011, the franchise has opened 72 locations, making it among the fastest growing restaurant chains in the country. The chain plans to have 100 locations operating before April of next year. Earlier this year, the corporation announced plans to open locations internationally, with 40 stores in and around Mexico City and additional locations in Panama and England.
These figures defy a June 2011 Fortune article announcing the “The end of the ‘better burger’ bubble.” Couple BurgerFi’s successes with the fact shares of ownership in both The Habit Burger and Shake Shack have publically exchanged in the stock market since last year, the bubble keeps growing.
Albany Jane, of the popular local food blog AlbanyEats.net, admitted she was skeptical over the prospects of yet another burger place in town. But, she said the trend is a welcomed one.
“I don’t know what’s fueling it, but I really hope we can keep doing it,” said Jane. “Hopefully it’s more from the consciousness of the public to have a better understanding of the ingredients that they eat. People have seen the pink slime and the McNugget videos. I hope that’s where it’s coming from.”
#Pink slime made headlines in 2012 when ABC News ran a segment on low-cost meat products. Former USDA scientist Gerald Zirnstein described the product produced from processing meat scraps as “pink slime.” Future reports included the notorious image of a pink substance akin to a squeezed out tube of toothpaste.
#[Albany Jane keeps her identity a secret to keep her reader’s attention on the reviews.]
“I think the trend is transparency,” said Daniel Berman, a community ambassador for Yelp.com and amateur food blogger at FUSSYlittleBLOG.com. “People are starting to be aware of where their food is coming from, and they want to know what’s going on and what’s going into their food.”
According to a food service research and consulting firm, it’s the spice of life influencing the popularity of the better burger trend.
Technomic said the increase of availability and variety of gourmet burger restaurants that promise customization and high-quality products is continuing the popularity of the better burger industry. Last week, the firm released results from its Burger Consumer Trend Report, compiling information from approximately 1,500 consumers, of which 57 percent reportedly consume a hamburger on a weekly basis.
“Utlizing value beef cuts and incorporating non-beef proteins can help lower costs and broaden the range of need states burgers can satisfy,” state Sara Monnette, Technomic vice president. “Specialty ingredients like pretzel buns can enhance the value perception, and unique toppings and sauces, stuffed patties and premium sides can add to crave-ability and brand differentiation.”
BurgerFi boasts of providing products coming “from the farm” and “not the lab” in its marketing material. The beef comes from Meyer Natural Angus in Montana, a roam-free ranch where the cattle are grass fed (for the majority of their lives, explained one representative. The cattle are later fed grain to create the desired marbling of the meat.) The ranch promises no hormones or antibiotics, and the humane treatment of the animals is audited through a USDA-FSIS approved third-party certified process.
The restaurant offers a chef-inspired menu with sandwiches like the “Breakfast All Day Burger,” that dresses the patty with fried egg, hash brown, grilled onions, bacon and dressed with maple syrup. There are several different burgers to choose from, including a 28-day dry-aged brisket burger, aptly named “The Twenty-Eight.” But, if none of the combos fit your fancy, there is a customization bar at the counter.
“It’s an exciting time, knowing that we’re introducing our customers to healthier and higher quality alternatives to some of the food they may be used to,” said Bill Lia, Jr., partner of Burger Ventures, LLC. “We’ve got great food and a great atmosphere, and we’re keeping sustainability in mind at the same time.”
Each franchise location is said to be built to reduce its carbon footprint on the environment, speaking to another conscious movement, the Green movement. At the Latham location, tables are constructed with compressed wood, and each chair is made from 111 recycled Coke bottles.
“I think it’s a good addition to have fast food where the product is well raised – it’s grass-fed, no hormones or antibiotics,” said Jane. “It’s really nice to walk into a place that’s competing with Five Guys and Red Robin, in those price markets, and bring a superior product in the quality of beef they have.”
For Berman, who went into the food blogging world eight years ago to help educate consumers on local restaurants, he hopes BurgerFi will establish a new benchmark in service.
“Hopefully, what it will do is serve to elevate the standard of burgers,” said Berman. “Not just in fast food places, but also from the other restaurants around town.”