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Posh Making a Comeback on Menus

There’s a thaw under way that’s not just melting ice, it’s slowly melting away the fear of being too upscale that has gripped quick-service restaurants for the past year. From Burger King’s $1 BBQ Rib and McDonald’s Dollar Menu & More to Sonic’s $1 hot dogs, Checkers’ $2 Buffalo Chicken Strips and Jack in the Box’s 2 for $3 breakfast sandwiches, the menu discussion has all been about low prices.

Red Robin's spokeswoman dons white gloves and pearls to discuss new premium-price burgers.

Red Robin’s spokeswoman dons white gloves and pearls to discuss new premium-price burgers.

But there are signs that it’s once again OK to go a little posh in pricing and style. For example, a TV spot that began airing this week for Red Robin Gourmet Burgers has spokeswoman Melanie Paxson dressed in white gloves and pearls (at r.) to discuss the chain’s newly expanded Finest line of premium-price burgers.

“Dust off the bow tie and steam the dinner dress… It’s time to get a little bit fancy with our new schnitzel range!” McDonald’s wrote on its Australia Facebook page last week to announce its new “M Selections” line of premium-price chicken schnitzel sandwiches. Advertising proclaims that the sandwiches are “A little bit fancy.”

In nearby New Zealand, Burger King is promoting a Peppercorn Beef Burger with steakhouse-style peppercorn sauce.

In the U.S., McDonald’s has introduced its new Bacon Clubhouse burger with a similar appeal to “fancy” food: “Casual attire. Formal flavor,” says one ad. In some markets, McDonald’s has added Petite Pastries to the McCafé menu and in others it is testing the “build your own burger” option like more expensive concepts.

McDonald's Bacon Clubhouse has "formal flavor."

McDonald’s Bacon Clubhouse has “formal flavor.”

In fact, Johnny Rockets this week jumped into the “Build Your Own Burger” arena for the first time with custom burgers starting at $5.49.

Dunkin’ Donuts has adapted that most upmarket brunch item for its new Eggs Benedict Breakfast Sandwich. Starbucks just introduced upscale breakfast sandwiches it says were inspired by La Boulange, the Euro-style bakery it acquired. These include Slow-Roasted Ham & Swiss on a croissant and Vegetable & Fontiago with spinach, sun-dried tomatoes and caramelized onion on a multigrain ciabatta bun

Good Times Burgers & Custard this week added a very top-shelf Fresh Cracked Egg and Bacon Cheeseburger with Meyer Ranch All Natural Angus Beef. In announcing it, Good Times Director of Marketing Nicholas Corbishley said it was “inspired by burger recipes with fried eggs seen in the upscale casual theme segment.”

Fast-casual concept Smashburger has brought back beef and chicken burgers topped with spinach, cucumber and goat cheese.

The Counter's upscale new Southeast Asian Ahi tuna burger.

The Counter’s upscale new Southeast Asian Ahi tuna burger

"It's a little bit fancy" says the placecard introducing McDonald's M Selections.

“It’s a little bit fancy” says the placecard introducing McDonald’s M Selections.

Already positioned upmarket from QSRs, The Counter chain this week announced a new menu that includes such upscale items as a starter of deviled eggs with Cheddar, bacon and parsley, and a Kale salad with green cabbage, jicama, celery and feta in lemon vinaigrette. Two of the new signature burgers are a Southeast Asian Ahi tuna burger and an Un-Brie-lievable turkey burger with Brie cheese, greens, tomato, cranberries and apricot sauce. Ahi tuna, quinoa and Hawaiian buns are new permanent additions to the concept’s build-your-own options.

Wendy’s has been a bit of an outlier on dollar items and it introduced two new premium salads this week (Asian Cashew Chicken and BBQ Ranch Chicken). While many of its competitors have duked it out in the price basement, Wendy’s has stayed upstairs, promoting a series of pricey burgers such as the current Ciabatta Bacon Cheeseburger. And the strategy has worked: Wendy’s comp sales were up 3.1% for Q4 and 1.9% for fiscal 2013. Fancy that.

Burger Brackets Return on March 16

basketball brackets’s fabled Burger Brackets return for the 6th annual competition on March 16, sponsored once again by A.1. Steak Sauce.

Once again, we start the competition with 64 burger brands from across the country, from big (McDonald’s) to small (Freakin’ Unbelievable Burgers); from east (Boston Burger Co) to west (Blue Moon Burger). When it’s over there will be just one champion. The Burger Brackets don’t ask which is the best burger brand, they measure the strength of a brand’s customer support. Will the people who love it vote again and again over several rounds to keep the brand they love in the competition?

Last year’s champion was Burgatory in Pittsburgh. Its fans voted in waves to push it to and over the top. It’ll be tough to topple. Can your customers match or exceed the devotion of its fans?

The 64 competitors and the Round of 64 matchups will be announced here on Sunday, March 16 (known in the burger world as Selection Sunday). You bet there’s a trophy but it’s all for fun, all to celebrate the unique bond between burger lovers and their favorite burger joints. Visit on March 16 for more details on how to vote.

McDonald’s Readies Bacon Clubhouse Burger

McDonald’s next week will introduce premium-price Bacon Clubhouse beef and chicken burgers in an attempt to regain its pricing equilibrium after a long spell of Dollar Menu & More budget-price promotion.

Bacon Clubhouse

Bacon Clubhouse

McDonald’s describes the Bacon Clubhouse as “Thick-cut Applewood smoked bacon, caramelized grilled onions, white Cheddar, crisp leaf lettuce and fresh tomato, all lovingly layered on a quarter pound of 100% pure beef, then topped with Big Mac special sauce. Served on our artisan roll.” The chicken version can be ordered with crispy or grilled chicken. The sandwich was initially tipped on the GrubGrade site.  The sandwich is priced at $4.39 to $4.69 and officially joins the menu March 10.

Of course, the Bacon Clubhouse really is just another Quarter Pounder variation, made a little different by the first-time use of the Big Mac’s iconic special sauce on another sandwich.

But the burger’s grilled-onion-and-bacon lineage is interesting. It dates to 2011, when McDonald’s tested an English Pub Burger, using its third-pound Angus patty and topping it with Dijon mustard sauce, grilled onions, hickory-smoked bacon, white Cheddar and American cheeses and steak sauce. Remove the steak and mustard sauces and you get the Clubhouse Angus that McDonald’s tested in 2012 in San Diego.

Now that the Angus patties are gone from McDonald’s, a quarter-pound patty is the largest on hand. Keep the bacon, grilled onion and white Cheddar from the Clubhouse Angus and add lettuce, tomato and a shiny bun and you have…the Bacon Clubhouse.

Red Robin's new D.G.B.

Red Robin’s new D.G.B.

The Bacon Clubhouse is already included on the McDonald’s USA site, indicating its imminent national availability. Nutrition details are 720 calories for the sandwich, which has 40 grams of fat, 51 carbs and 1,470 mg of sodium. In other words, it’s an indulgence but a quite pleasant alternative to all the crusty cod sandwiches added for Lent.

Meanwhile, Red Robin Gourmet Burgers is extending its “Finest” line of high-end burgers that it began last November with the Smoke & Pepper Signature Burger. Now the line gets two new burgers.

Red Robin calls The D.G.B. (shown at left) “perhaps our Finest burger yet.” The name is an acronym for “Damn Great Burger.” The build is oven-roasted tomatoes, savory roasted-garlic aïoli and fresh arugula tossed in citrus olive oil dressing atop a half-pound Angus beef patty.

Also new to the Finest line is a Black & Bleu burger. It, too, has a half-pound Angus beef patty, topped with sautéed blackened portobello mushrooms, grilled onions, house-made blue cheese sauce and blue cheese crumbles with Dijon sauce.

The Smoke & Pepper burger is menu priced at roughly $13.49, balancing the $6.99 Tavern Double at the low end. Red Robin hasn’t released pricing for the new burgers.

Epic Burger’s Simple Plan

“Simple isn’t easy,” David Friedman says of Epic Burger, his seven-location “better burger” chain in Chicago. Unlike many competitors and against the current in the category, Epic’s menu is small: beef and turkey burgers that can be singles or doubles; chicken and Portobello mushroom burgers; a bunless burger for carbophobes and a grilled cheese sandwich. That’s it. Topping options are basic and classic, including three Wisconsin cheeses.

Epic_burger2“I think of us as the anti-Counter,” says Friedman, Epic’s founder, adding that his guiding principle is “Do less better.” But while simplicity is his choice, that doesn’t make it easy to achieve. “It’s not easy to cook a burger properly or to get the bun just right,” he says, noting that Epic butters and lightly toasts the white wheat buns it offers. “It’s not easy to run [the restaurant] right and to attract great people who believe in what they’re doing. We do that.

Friedman spent years as a fine-dining chef, served as head of new-product development for Boston Chicken (now Boston Market) and worked as a culinary consultant with a variety of food suppliers and processors. But the exposure to processed foods convinced him that there wasn’t much he’d want to eat at most quick-service restaurants. It also persuaded him to create a concept where diners—especially parents with their children—wouldn’t have to worry about what they were eating. Epic’s beef, turkey and chicken are naturally raised and free of drugs or additives. What goes into shakes has no artificial colors or flavors. Packaging is plant-based.

"Do less better," says David Friedman.

“Do less better,” says David Friedman.

“I could have opened David’s Organic Salads & Wraps or something, but I didn’t want to go that way,” Friedman says. Instead of hammering diners with “better for you” messages, he say he’d rather they eat great food, taste the difference and ask about their meal.

“The burger is the vessel for the message,” he says. “And the message is ‘Learn about the food you eat.’ The more they do, the better it is for them and for us.” Information about what is and isn’t in the food is written on a wall and otherwise available.

In addition to creating “A more mindful burger,” which is Epic’s marketing slogan, Friedman wanted to recapture something of the old-school burger restaurant approach. Epic has some of In-N-Out burger’s famous operational efficiency and the honest, seared-griddled-burger taste of the Steak ‘n Shakes that Friedman, an Indianapolis native, he says he remembers from his youth.

Just when the first Epic opened in downtown Chicago in 2008, “the burger segment went crazy,” Friedman says. Despite the crowding that followed, he’s confident that Epic has a solid marketplace position. “We’re fast casual, with burgers priced at $5.99, which is a great value. A lot of the other ‘better burger’ concepts are more full-service with bars,” says.

Six Epic locations are in Chicago; one is in a suburban mall. Friedman says he wants to see how a true suburban in-line location fares and he wants to see how Epic is received in another market. With answers from those tests he’ll be ready to get bigger. Franchising isn’t the route he’s taking now but he hasn’t ruled it out. Expansion is simple, but doing it right isn’t necessarily easy.

BK Moves Satisfries to Kid’s Meals

BK_SatisfriesAd2Burger King will make its new, lower-cal Satisfries the standard fries in Burger King Kid’s Meals.

Introduced last September, Satisfries have 40% less fat and 30% fewer calories than rival McDonald’s fries. Both chains have been promoting apple slices as an option moms can choose instead of fries with kids meals. But Burger King is acknowledging what every mother knows: Kids would rather have fries.

“Kids don’t want to give up their favorite snacks,” Eric Hirschhorn says in a release announcing the switch. “By adding our lower fat, fewer calorie french fry to the Kid’s Meal as  the standard fry, we are providing an option parents can feel better about giving to their kids, without children having to compromise on taste.”

Burger King revamped its kids meals in 2011 with new packaging and a new crown but has given the meals far less marketing support than McDonald’s devotes to its Happy Meals. The Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity estimated McDonald’s U.S. spending on Happy Meals at $42 million in 2012. The chain currently is promoting Happy Meals at a reduced $2.99.

Burgers of the Month for March 2014

It’s close but St. Patrick’s Day still edges out Mardi Gras as the most common theme for March burger-of-the-month specials. There’s a lot of corned beef on burgers out there this month. Burger Bar in Chicago’s march Madness puts steamed corned beef, house-made sauerkraut, Gruyère cheese and Louie dressing on a half-pound burger and serves it on a pumpernickel bun. The Dublin at Drakes Haus in Boulder, Colo., is a Merlot-infused burger topped with slow-cooked corned beef, braised cabbage, Haus-made stout mustard and Swiss cheese.

The Dublin from Drakes Haus

The Dublin from Drakes Haus

Love Shack's Peanut Butter Bacon Burger

Love Shack’s Peanut Butter Bacon Burger

The Mardi Gras burgers aren’t lacking for delicious creativity either. For the Louisiana Burger at his Bobby’s Burge Palace locations, Bobby Flay tops a spice-crusted patty with pepper-Jack cheese, griddled Tasso ham, spicy rémoulade and red-hot sauce. This month’s special at Grub Burger Bar in College Station, Texas, is a Cajun Shrimp Burger. It tops a Cajun shrimp patty with house-made crawfish étouffée, grilled okra and house-made rémoulade on a house-made French bread bun.

Inviting customers to create or at least name burger specials is increasing in popularity. Milwaukee Burger Co. in Eau Claire, Wis., lets burger fans do all the work. Allen Crisp’s burger creation is a double cheeseburger with provolone, Swiss cheese, bacon, Silver Spring habanero mustard, raw onion and a cheese sauce with pepper-Jack cheese, bell peppers, banana peppers and seasoned sour cream. At press time, Burger Revolution in Belleville, Ont., had decided on the winning name for its March Burger of the Month. The build: beef patty, Cheddar cheese, fried confit of pork belly, maple chili glaze, fried egg, lettuce, onion and pickles.

The complete list of March Burger of the Month specials from burger joints around the world can be found here. New to the list this month are Tim Love’s Love Shack in Fort Worth and MarienBurger in Berlin. Jump in. Find an idea to borrow.

Restaurant Growth Stalls…Except for Burgers

The burger boom rolls on. The number of independent burger restaurants continues to increase at a rate faster than those for chain burger units, all quick-service or the total restaurant industry.

Indie burger restaurants continue to grow fast than chain burger brands or the total industry. Source: NPD Group.

Indie burger restaurants continue to grow fast than chain burger brands or the total industry. Source: NPD Group.

According to The NPD Group’s just-released Recount survey, a census of restaurants open as of Sept. 30, 2013, the total number of U.S. restaurants of all types increased by just 0.7% to 633,043 in the past year. That matches the 0.7% growth for the previous year. Chain restaurants, which account for 44.5% of all foodservice units, increased in number by 1% while the number of independents was essentially flat compared with 2012 at 351,430.

However, the number of quick-service burger restaurants increased by 1.2% thanks to the continuing surge in non-chain brands (1 to 2 locations). The number of independent (non-chain) burger joints increased by 7.2% (to 6,187) for the 12 months ending September 30. This year’s increase is more than twice the 2.9% growth indie burgers achieved the previous year.

Chain burger units increased in number 0.4% in the past year and have grown at less than 1% in each of the last three years. But with 44,981 locations, burger chain units greatly outnumber the independents.

The fast-casual category (any menu type) continues to grow, although not as fast as indie burger joints. For the year, fast casual added 902 locations (totaling 16,215) for a 6% increase. The number of quick-service restaurants of all menu types increased 2% to 333,970.

The beleaguered full-service category (encompassing casual dining, midscale/family dining and fine dining) saw a 1% unit decline to 299,073 restaurants.

Americans made 61 billion restaurant visits in the past year but that was essentially unchanged from the previous year. Said Greg Starzynski, NPD Foodservice director of product management, “The restaurant recovery continues to move slowly and as a result operators are taking a cautious approach to expansion. This conservative approach to restaurant unit expansion will continue into the foreseeable future.”

The Hot Dog is Britain’s Trendiest Food

Hot dogs are the fastest-growing item on English menus, growing in popularity and  sophistication in much the same way that burgers have done in the U.S. over the past decade.

Last summer hot dogs cracked the list of the Top 20 foods in Britain across all categories (pub, restaurant and hotel) on British researcher Horizons’ Menurama survey. The just-released winter survey finds hot dogs not only holding on to that Top 20 slot but also continuing to grow in menu appearances. Since summer, hot dogs have increased their presence by 14%. Over the past year hot dogs have increased the number of menus on which they appear by a remarkable 191%.

London's The Owl & Pussycat just added a new menu of four upscale hot dogs.

London’s The Owl & Pussycat just added a new menu of four upscale hot dogs.

Dogs N Dough's Monte Cristo with Swiss cheese, strawberry jam and butter peanut butter optional).

Dogs N Dough’s Monte Cristo with Swiss cheese, strawberry jam and butter (peanut butter optional).

At restaurants, hot dogs are the No. 14 food (in menu presence) putting them ahead of traditional British favorite fish & chips.

Burgers remain the most common item on British menus, but their growth has slowed. Since summer, burgers are down 2% although they are up 6% year-on-year according to the biannual Menurama survey, which analyzes menu changes and trends at 115 brands. Pizza, the second-most-often-menued food in the UK, is not faring as well: It has declined 19% since summer and is down 21% compared with a year ago.

One reason for hot dogs’ surge may be that they are priced below other options. According to the Menurama research, hot dogs’ average price of £6.12 ($10.21) is lower than that for any other item in the Top 20 for restaurants. Across all segments, hot dogs average £7.14, compared with £9.42 for a burger, £10.02 for pizza, £9.66 for fish & chips and £8.26 for perennial favorite sausage & mash.

During their meteoric rise on British menus, hot dogs have been undergoing just the sort of diversification and experimentation that burgers have enjoyed here. Many of the sames themes of the burger explosion are evident in Britain’s love affair with the humble hot dog. Some examples:

  • Build Your Own. London’s Gourmet Hot Dog Co. lets diners choose a pork/beef, 100% beef, piri-piri-spiced chicken, lamb/beef, smoked 100% pork or veggie dog to start. Next comes the choice of 12 toppings and 10 sauces (ranging from Fiery Marrakesh to Rocky Mountain Maple).
  • Bacon, Bacon, Bacon. MEATmarket is one of many restaurants that offer a bacon-wrapped dog. Theirs is a wrapped, deep-fried pork dog served with mustard, onions, Danish sauce and spicy relish (£8.50).
  • Non-Meat Options. Street Kitchen at The Miller in London uses dog names for its fare. The Highland Terrier is a hot-smoked salmon dog served with pickled red cabbage, roasted beetroot, horseradish mayo and fresh dill pickles (£6.50). Click here to continue reading The Hot Dog is Britain’s Trendiest Food