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Are Burgers Behind the Buffalo Sauce Surge?

We ate 1.25 billion chicken wings during Super Bowl XVIII, a good portion of them with spicy Buffalo sauce, no doubt. The same was true of the 13.5 billion wings the National Chicken Council estimated Americans ate in 2012.

Source: Mintel Menu Insights

Source: Mintel Menu Insights

Buffalo sauce has been with us for years and it seems to be everywhere. But in fact, last year it was “more everywhere” than ever. According to data gathered for by Mintel Menu Insights, the number of items on menus at quick-service, fast-casual and casual-dining restaurants jumped 17% over 2012. That’s a significant one-year change for a product that already seemed fairly ubiquitous.

The number of menu products with branded Buffalo sauce increased last year, but only from 1% to 3%. That doesn’t account for the whole jump, nor does continued growth of Buffalo Wild Wings and the others in the category, although that’s obviously a factor.

But I’ll suggest that burger restaurants merit some of the credit, too. Buffalo sauce isn’t as common as barbecue sauce as a burger condiment, but Buffalo’s closing the gap. As burger chains expanded their chicken lineups, Buffalo sauce sneaked into the pantry. Now it’s being used across the menu. For example, Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s not only created a Buffalo Blue Cheese burger with Frank’s Red Hot sauce in 2013, they also used that topping to make last year’s Buffalo Blue Cheese Crisscut Fries LTO side.

Rockit Burger Bar's Buffalo-beer-battered bacon topping.

Rockit Burger Bar’s Buffalo-beer-battered bacon topping.

Two of the five new sandwiches McDonald’s added last year with the rollout of the Dollar Menu & More were the Buffalo Ranch McChicken and Bacon Buffalo Ranch McChicken. Those are its first use of Buffalo sauce as an ingredient other than as a dipping sauce. It’s only a matter of time before the Buffalo sauce goes on a McDonald’s beef burger now that it has a place on the ingredient list.

Many burgers bars are already there. DMK Burger Bar offers The Champions Burger. It’s a grass-fed beef patty with blue-cheese dressing, house-made Buffalo sauce, chili-rubbed onion strings and shaved celery. Across town, Rockit Burger Bar recently tried a Black Angus beef patty topped with Buffalo-beer-battered bacon and blue cheese.

Slater's 50/50's Buffalo Buffalo Burger

Slater’s 50/50′s Buffalo Buffalo Burger

Of course, leave it to Slater’s 50/50 to create a Buffalo Buffalo Burger. On their menu last May, it was a seasoned ground-bison patty on a bed of shredded celery and carrots topped with a spicy Buffalo-sauce-infused sharp Cheddar cheese, grilled onions and jalapeño medley, all with house-made buttermilk ranch dressing and hot sauce.

In December, stuffed-burger (or Juicy Lucy) specialist Blue Door Pub in St. Paul, Minn., invented the Buffalucy Blucy. They began by soaking Cheddar and blue cheese in house-made Buffalo sauce then crammed the cheeses inside a burger patty. Meanwhile, they slow-cooked chicken in Buffalo sauce, pulled it and piled it on top with blue cheese crumbles and celery chunks.

That alone could account for part of the increase in Buffalo sauce usage! And burger joints are likely to keep trying new Buffalo ideas.

Eater Names the Hottest New Burgers is out with its list of “The 19 Hottest Burgers in the US Right Now.” Only two of them (Mario Batali’s B&B Burger & Beer and Austin’s Atomic Burger) are really burger joints, but all 19 have opened in the past 12 months. And all serve terrific burgers. It’s a geographically diverse group that encompasses a variety of dining styles from haute to humble. As always, there’s something to be learned from each of them.

Alden & Harlow, Cambridge, Mass.

The burger at Exchange Pub + Kitchen

The burger at Exchange Pub + Kitchen

All Purpose, Milwaukee

Anton’s Taproom, Kansas City, Mo.

Atomic Burger, Metairie, La.

B&B Burger & Beer, Las Vegas

Bohemian Bull, Charleston, S.C.

Cavatina, West Hollywood, Calif.

CBD Provisions, Dallas

Chop Shop, Chicago

The Elm, Brooklyn

The Exchange Pub + Kitchen, New Albany, Ind.

Fog City, San Francisco

Ink & Elm, Atlanta

Porter Gastropub, Austin, Texas

The Rabbit Hole, Minneapolis

Tender Bar + Kitchen, Pittsburgh

Tongue & Cheek, Miami Beach, Fla.

Trifecta Tavern & Bakery, Portland, Ore.

Waypoint Public, San Diego

Why Dunkin’ Donuts Has Competitors Worried

Burger, chicken, bakery and other quick-serve and fast-casual chains had better factor Dunkin’ Donuts into their competitive analyses because Dunkin’s coming for them.

Its Bakery Sandwiches line gave Dunkin' Donuts a stronger midday presence.

Its Bakery Sandwiches line gave Dunkin’ Donuts a stronger midday presence.

In its quarterly call with analysts this week, the doughnuts-and-coffee chain made clear it’s no longer just a major morning contender. It intends to be a player all day, taking customers and market share from any chain that underestimates it. “We have learned that the Dunkin’ brand has permission to go into almost any category as long as it falls into being great food at a great value in a fast, friendly and convenient environment,” John Costello, Dunkin’ Brands president of global marketing & innovation, told analysts. “So we see opportunities to continue to expand the breakfast platform. We think there are significant opportunities to expand the PM platform on sandwiches. But we also think that there are … opportunities to expand grab-and-go.”

Dunkin’ manages to add LTOs without burning out its operations. “We work very closely with our operations and franchisee partners to make sure that those products are easy to make and very profitable for our franchisees,” Costello said. It doesn’t let LTOs hang around. They’re in; they’re out.

It isn’t bragging if you can back it up and Dunkin’ Donuts had the numbers last year to feel confident about 2014. U.S. comp sales were +3.5% for Q4, +3.4% for 2013 (+8 over the past two years). Operating income increased 27.3%. It grew by nearly 5%, opening 371 units in the U.S., the most in five years. And 80% of the new units have drive-thrus.

The DDSmart line caters to calorie counters and healthy-eating diners.

The DDSmart line caters to calorie counters and healthy-eating diners.

“We introduced more than 40 new products in 2013 and our product pipeline is stronger than ever,” said Chairman-CEO Nigel Travis. Some were breakfast items, like the Hot & Spicy Breakfast Sandwich line, but others were midday items like new chicken Bakery Sandwiches, a Deluxe Grilled Cheese and wraps. Its has a healthful-eating menu (DDSmart) and has tested gluten-free doughnuts and muffins. It has a specialty coffee program that is the equal of  McCafé and exceeds what Burger King or Wendy’s have going. And its coffee already is sold as ground beans or K-Cups at retail.

Its mobile app has been downloaded more than 5.5 million times and it has a loyalty program, Dunkin’ Perks, that most QSRs don’t. Dunkin’ Donuts has reloadable cards like Starbucks and saw double-digit growth in activations last year.

Like the burger chains, Dunkin’ Donuts is pushing unit remodeling. Its “Fresh Brew” designs include four styles: Original Blend, Cappuccino Blend, Dark Roast and Jazz. More than 600 of its U.S. restaurants have been reimaged, which is better than Wendy’s pace.

And no one beats its doughnuts.

And no one beats its doughnuts.

Dunkin’ still has plenty of room for growth. It only started selling franchises at the beginning 2013 and has commitments for nearly 100 already there. But CFO Paul Carbone told analysts “we believe we still have a 3,000 store opportunity east of the Mississippi River.”

“I’ve been amazed at the extendibility of the Dunkin’ Donuts brand,” Costello said, and that’s not what its competitors want to hear in a zero-growth marketplace.

And just maybe Dunkin’ Brands will acquire one of those competitors. Travis told Bloomberg this week that it “could take on another business if it’s a franchise business with growth. We would be extra cautious in whatever we would take on and it has to fit our mantra of a great brand with franchising potential.” He added that it’s “highly unlikely to be soon.”

But other chains had better be looking over their shoulders. Dunkin’s closing fast, fueled by a lot of coffee.

McDonald’s Refocusing on its Core

McDonald’s Corp. already is shifting its marketing and menu strategies, as it pledged to do. CEO Don Thompson last month said changes were coming as he discussed the chain’s disappointing Q4 and full-year 2013 results. “Our 2014 menu and marketing strategies better balance affordability with core products, new choices and limited-time offers,” he said.

McD_Can_NuggetPackAdditionally he said McDonald’s will “adjust the sequencing of product introductions”—i.e. slow down the new-product pipeline—and ensure that “these adjustments are complemented by a consistent focus on core equities like breakfast.”

These goals already are evident in McDonald’s marketing where it is celebrating core items or reviving former favorites rather than trying for blockbuster new menu platforms. That’s significant because the Winter Olympics are about to begin, with McDonald’s as a global sponsor, and it isn’t levering the event to bring out a tray full of new products. A new TV spot with Olympian Shani Davis promotes Chicken McNuggets.

McD_Ireland_ManFoodSome U.S. markets are offering two Sausage McMuffins for $4, two Big Macs for $5, a second Quarter Pounder for 1¢ or just hyping late-night dining. In the UK McDonald’s is promoting the Big Mac. The “Amore Meals” sweepstakes in Australia requires purchase of such core items as the Big Mac, McChicken or Egg McMuffin. Ireland is promoting Quarter Pounders, although with the awkward positioning line, “Serious Man Food.”

McD_Swiss_McSbrinzAn interesting example of something both borrowed and new is the 20-piece Chicken McNuggets Fan Pack box for two now on offer in Canada. This is McDonald’s taking another step closer to importing the multi-person boxed meals it sells in Australia and Europe. The $13.99 Fan Pack includes 20 Chicken McNuggets, two medium fries, two medium drinks and two medium cookies. Each Fan Pack also comes with one of five Coca-Cola collectible pins.

McD_China_DbleBeefSausageAmong items being returned to menus are the Sausage Double Beef—with two sausages atop two beef patties—in China and the delightfully named McSbrinz in Switzerland. It takes its name from the three rolled tubes of Sbrinz cheese atop the beef patty.

With Lent beginning March 5, McDonald’s menu may remain quietly focused on core rather than new products for some time. The arrival of McCafé whole-bean and ground coffee on supermarket shelves may be the next big splash.

France’s Favorite Food? Burgers

McBaguette has bested the baguette. A study from food consultancy Gira Conseil concludes that burgers now are the most popular food in France.

The French, who once turned up their noses at American-style burgers, now can’t get enough. And it’s not just McDonald’s 1,200 French locations that fuel the demand. The rise has come from burgers’ appearances in all types of restaurants, including increasingly popular food trucks.

McBaguette burger proved so popular that McDonald's has offered it elsewhere in Europe.

McBaguette burger proved so popular that McDonald’s has offered it elsewhere in Europe.

French chain Quick loves cheeseburgers.

French chain Quick loves cheeseburgers.

Between 75% and 80% of France’s more than 100,000 traditional restaurants have at least one burger on their menu, Bernard Boutboul of Gira Conseil told French news agency AFP.

“There has been a 40% increase in [burger] sales in the last two years; it’s just incredible,” Boutboul said.

“Protein between two slices of bread — the French love it,” Boutboul told Bloomberg. “The explosion of burgers is coming from restaurants. It’s affordable and chefs want to show they can make a quality burger.”

One of every two sandwiches sold in France is a burger. In 2001 it was one in nine; by 2007 it was one in seven, according to news agency France24. Burger King, which pulled out of France in 1997, returned in December with a unit in Paris’ St. Lazare train station.

Double cheeseburgers are the current promotion at McDonald's in France.

Double cheeseburgers are the current promotion at McDonald’s in France.

AFP quotes NPD data that the French now average 14 hamburgers a year, putting them behind only the British, who eat 17 each a year, among European markets.

During last month’s Q4 analyst call, McDonald’s Corp. Don Thompson said the company is “cautiously optimistic about France” thanks to positive sales in each of the last five months of 2013. “Strong promotional activity and an ongoing emphasis on relevant value offers like Casse Croute [value meals] help fuel our momentum,” Thompson said.

The chain has just followed a promotion for its huge 280 Burgers (280 grams or 9.88 ounces) with the return of its double-patty McRancher (Cheddar, bacon barbecue sauce) and McFarmer (Cheddar, tomato, mayo) and McTimber (Emmental cheese, onions, cheese sauce). An earlier “Breads of America” promotion featured such burgers as the Double Shiny Bacon, Double Cornbread BBQ an Grand Cheese Bagel.

Fast Casual Grows While QSRs Flounder

The battle for customers waged between fast-casual and quick-service restaurants proved about as noncompetitive last year as Sunday’s Super Bowl. Fast casual won. Again.

Source: The NPD Group/CREST

Source: The NPD Group/CREST

Full-year data from The NPD Group survey reveal that customer traffic at fast-casual restaurants increased 8% in 2013 (12 months ending November). Meanwhile, the total restaurant industry and the quick-service (QSR) sector were both shut out with 0% gains. QSRs had been up 1% through September but had a bad Q4 as McDonald’s and others have reported. Full-service, casual dining and midscale/family restaurants haven’t experienced positive growth in customer traffic for several years.

Rubbing it in, fast-casual restaurants saw a 10% increase in customer spending while the restaurant industry overall could muster just a 2% gain. Fast-casual checks averaged $7.30 in 2013 while spending at QSRs averaged $5.30, according to NPD’s CREST research. NPD tells that the average QSR burger check was $5.06 in 2013 (up from $4.95 a year earlier). Those compare with an average check at full-service restaurants of $13.66, why helps explain why many full-service concepts are struggling or reducing prices.

“Overall, restaurant customers are trading down, foregoing some of their visits to full service places while increasing the number of visits made to fast casual restaurants,” says NPD restaurant analyst Bonnie Riggs. “Fast-casual concepts are capturing market traffic share by meeting consumers’ expectations, while midscale and casual dining places continue to lose share.

Fast-casuals such as BurgerFi are drawing customers from QSRs.

Fast-casuals such as BurgerFi are drawing customers from QSRs.

The number of fast-casual chain units increased 6% in 2013 to 16,215, NPD reports.

The burger category continues to see a shift of customer traffic away from quick-service to fast-casual burger bars and chains such as Smashburger, Elevation Burger, BurgerFi, Burger 21 and many others. Last month, McDonald’s Corp. CEO Don Thompson acknowledged that some higher-income customers are leaving QSRs for fast-casual alternatives. “If we look in the U.S. particularly, one of the things that we see today is a bit of a bifurcation on a consumer base,” Thompson said in a conference call with analysts. “So some of the fast casuals are performing a bit better and customers are skewing that way a little bit more as a result of a bit more discretionary income and that economic class of individuals.”

In 2013, Technomic reported that more than half of consumers (51%) said they consume a burger from a fast-casual restaurant once a month or more. That was up from 43% in 2011.

NPD previously forecast brighter results for the industry this year, predicting a 1% rise in visits and spending gain of 3% by the end of next year. The QSR categories of gourmet coffee and doughnut, as well as the fast-casual category are forecast to do best this year.

Burgers of the Month for February 2014

Burger Boss's French Cauliflower Melt

Burger Boss’s French Cauliflower Melt

Silly me. I exMamaka_Popeyepected a lot more Valentine-themed Burger of the Month specials. There are a few such as Bucket List Burgers’ Heartthrob Burger. But there’s also the hopelessly anti-Romantic Seoul Crusher at Burger Revolution. A few specials recognize Chinese New Year (without taking the Year of the Horse to an extreme), among them The Oinkster’s Mandarin BBQ Chicken Sandwich.

Surprisingly (to me, at least), February brings Pizza Burgers to Burger 21, Grub Burger Bar and Slater’s 50/50 (which offers a choice of Hawaiian, Pepperoni, or Supreme style pizza burgers). Grill ‘Em All and Jake’s Wayback Burgers have pizza-ish specials this month.

As always, a few defy understanding. I’m talking about your Turkey Casserole Burger, Buckeye Beer Engine. But I’m going to believe that Burger Boss’s French Cauliflower Melt tastes better than it sounds. Or looks. Both get credit for “different.”

Burger of the Month specials are a global phenomenon and I’m happy to include these overseas burger bars this month:Brgr: The Burger Report Taft, Manila, The Philippines; Burger Theory, Adelaide, Australia (with a burger shout-out to Cleveland no less!); Makamaka Beach Burger Café, Barcelona, Spain; and MarienBurger in Berlin (though I know you folks can do better than this month’s tofu “burger”).

In fact, there are so many great Burger of the Month specials on menus around the world that the list has become unwieldy as a post. So here on out I’ll mention some highlights as here and simply attach a link to the pdf with all of the month’s featured Specials. Go,  look, borrow.

Burger Bars 3.0

Adaptability has allowed the burger-bar concept to thrive. The original idea for chef-driven burgers was reimagined first by the rise of craft beers and then recently by a new breed of burger-and-whiskey joints.

Gale Gand puts the spritz in the concept.

Gale Gand puts the spritz in the concept.

Now comes another way to do a burger bar: Spritz Burger, opening on Valentine’s Day on Chicago’s North Side. There are several twists here starting with its triple play of burgers, beverages and desserts. Another triple twist is the identity of the principals.

One is Gale Gand, James Beard Award-winning pastry chef, restaurateur, cookbook author, TV host and teacher. She will be creating the desserts, of course, and plotting the beverage menu. Gand has been marketing her own artisan root beer brand, “Gale’s Root Beer,” for four years. Now she’s creating syrups that will be combined with a seltzer spritz tableside to make craft sodas. The three are developing creative cocktails as well.

Also driving this concept are Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh, known through their past Food Network TV show and cookbooks as “The Hearty Boys.” Spritz Burger occupies what was, until December, their highly regarded restaurant Hearty. “It was a wonderful restaurant and got great reviews and was Michelin rated an all, but the restaurant business is changing,” says Smith. “We were a little too upper end and the direction the business is going is toward a more casual place.  People are looking for more value.”

"Hearty Boys" Steve McDonagh (l.) and Dan Smith have remade Hearty into Spritz Burger.

“Hearty Boys” Steve McDonagh (l.) and Dan Smith have remade Hearty into Spritz Burger.

The three have talked in the past about doing a restaurant together and they kicked around several concepts. What they sought was something that fit the relaxed nature of the neighborhood and that wouldn’t require them to be working the line or the room all day and night (service is dinner only). They’ve been there and aren’t eager to revisit that lifestyle.

“But burgers were a no-brainer,” says Smith. “Who doesn’t love a burger?” Burgers fit the tenor of the neighborhood, could be offered at the right price point and wouldn’t require too complex a kitchen. “We always had burgers on the menu at Hearty,” says Smith. “And what sold most regularly during the past four years were burgers.”

A few of Hearty’s comfy favorites make the transition including its much-loved fried chicken (“There was no way I could take that off,” Smith says). But burgers are the food focus. The concept may be more casual but the burgers retain Smith’s fine-dining sophistication. Gand calls them “well dressed.”

There’s a Poutine Burger with house-cut fries, Wisconsin cheese curds and a sage country gravy. Another begins (as all its burgers do) with a grass-fed beef patty, then gets crispy Spam, Havarti cheese, fried egg, roasted red-pepper hollandaise and balsamic-onion jam, served open-face.

The Pub Burger has sharp English Cheddar and thick-cut bacon,

The Pub Burger has sharp English Cheddar and thick-cut bacon,

The Pub Burger has English Cheddar, Major Grey chutney and roasted tomato. Another has a house-made Merguez lamb patty, mint, feta cheese, sun-dried orange relish and Greek yogurt and preserved lemon spread. They’ll be braising oxtails with raisins and dried plums, pulling the meat and forming a patty that is topped with more raisins, pickled walnuts, English Cheddar, arugula and mushroom ketchup. For old-schoolers there’s a Patty Melt as well.

All three discarded concept ideas they feared would be too intense or complex and that would require them all in attendance all the time. “I’m trying to do the unheard of and be up for Mom of the Year and also run a really great restaurant at the same time,” says Gand, who has a teenage son and 9-year-old twin daughters. “We want some balance in our lives and this concept sounds like we can do that. I’m looking forward to having a home again and to mentor and train. I’m doing desserts that don’t just need my hand to do it.”

“Homey and just friggin’ delicious” is her description of the dessert menu she is assembling. Butterscotch pudding with peanuts with salt and pepper on them is an example of her vision of “familiar desserts with a twist.” There are Devil Dogs—dog-bone-shaped marshmallow-filled Whoopie Pies—blueberry hand pies and individual lemon meringue pies.

“It’s the fundamentals: chocolate cake, pudding and pie,” Gand says.

For the tableside craft sodas, Gand is creating syrups: citrus, herbaceous and others. Some will have alcohol folded in. There are phosphates, too. Smith’s grandfather owned a soda fountain and Gand’s grandfather was a chemist who made his own root beer. For adults, the full bar will be creating Rickey’s and other fun cocktails.

Spritz Burger seats 52 on the main level with another 40 upstairs. A patio will open should winter ever end in Chicago.