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2013 Burger Trend Forecast: The Year of the Bun

Surprisingly, none of the food/restaurant prognosticators this year is forecasting the collapse of the better-burger bubble. Instead we read that people will abandon colas, that neck meat will be all the rage and that fast-casual concepts will all add drive-thru windows. Given such guesses, what the heck, here are BurgerBusiness.com’s predictions for 2013.

The marbled-rye bun is central to the Patty Melt burger at Crow Burger Kitchen in Newport Beach, Calif.

Not surprisingly, last year’s forecast that 2012 would be the Year of the Commodity Cost for the burger business was on the mark, but that was easy to spot. Haven’t we seen a lot of chicken on burger menus this year? However, the summer drought took it up a notch, putting unexpected additional pressures on protein prices that will extend in to 2013. So, other than still more chicken, higher prices and stronger consumer resistance to both, what will characterize the burger business next year?

Well, when you don’t want to spotlight high-priced proteins or cheeses, there’s one promotional pathway left: 2013 will be the Year of the Bun for the burger category. Think about it. Focusing on buns is an opportunity to expand customer customization choices for a burger menu (always good), add gluten-free alternatives (responsible) and direct attention to the better bun if that better burger needs to shrink a mite due to higher meat prices. Win-win-win.

This is a case where indie burger joints have taken the lead. No self-respecting burger-centric restaurant uses the kind of personality-less bun common at the chains. But even the indies will be spotlighting the bun more, including it in menu descriptions if not done now.

The chains will have to catch up, and they’re already trying. Wendy’s and McDonald’s already have tested flatbread sandwiches. Wendy’s told analysts it is looking at a Cheddar-topped jalapeňo bun for a Spicy Santa Fe Chicken sandwich. A pretzel-style roll is being considered with a Pub Club sandwich it has in development, and pretzel buns are featured with Red Robin’s and Steak ’n Shake’s Oktoberfest burgers. Burger King offered what it called an “artisan-style” bun for its Memphis BBQ Pulled Pork sandwich, but chains can do better than that.

The Open-Faced Breakfast Burger is on the weekend menu at Grange Hall Burger Bar in Chicago.

The rest of the world is miles ahead of the American market when it comes to burger buns. The global PR buzz Burger King got from the black bun it used in Japan and the black-and-white buns that McDonald’s had in China show just how compelling a bun can be. McDonald’s spotlighted its sponsorship of the Euro2012 tournament by using buns that look like soccer balls. Take a look at the fancy “M” burgers McDonald’s offers in Europe: What’s special here? The bun.

Two other trends that will accelerate into 2013:

◙ The success of Pizza Hut’s $20 Big Dinner Box (with two pizza, breadsticks and choice of pasta, Pizza Rollers or wings) means 2013 finally is the year that multi-person boxed meals come to the burger category. McDonald’s already does it in Australia with its Family Meals and in Europe with the Chicken Box and Snack Box concepts. It works. Watch for one of the big chains, perhaps Burger King, to jump in first here.

◙ Watch for more burger bars to offer weekend brunch with a separate menu. Brunch allows the kitchen staff to spread its culinary wings beyond burgers, and it often attracts a different crowd from those who come for Tuesday dinner. Both are good.

At Burger Bar & Bistro in South Norwalk, Conn., the weekend brunch menu includes Kobe Burger Benedict Minis topped with poached eggs and truffled Hollandaise on mini muffins with a side of hash browns. Three for $15. In Chicago, Grange Hall Burger Bar’s Farmer’s Breakfasts on Saturday and Sunday include not only an Open-Faced Breakfast Burger but also Peasant-Style Baked Eggs, Soda Biscuits and Sausage Gravy and more.

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