Pal’s Sudden Service likes to be different. The regional burgers and hot dog chain with 26 distinctive restaurants in northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia is poking fun at the big brands again.
Pal’s latest 30-second TV campaign points out three ways in which it differs from its competitors. One spot notes that Pal’s drive-thru service is three times fast than the QSR average. A second spot says Pal’s also is 10 times as accurate in order filling.
The soundtrack for both spots—the work of Pal’s agency Creative Energy in Johnson City, Tenn.—is “Face to Face,” a song written and performed by Elizabethton, Tenn. native Erin Aubrey. It’s appropriate because Pal’s drive-thru ordering is done face-to-face rather than via a speaker.
“According to our research, Pal’s makes one mistake in every 3,000 orders or so, and our drive-thru times are up to 10 times faster than our competitors’,” says Pal’s President-CEO Thom Crosby. “So when you’re not waiting in line, and you’re not having to come back to get an order corrected, that simply gives you more time to enjoy life. And that’s what we wanted to convey with this campaign. It is truly what makes us different and important to our loyal customer base.”
One more point of difference is that Pal’s Sudden Service in 2001 was the first restaurant chain to earn the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award for business excellence from the U.S. Department of Commerce.
This hasn’t been an easy year for all burger-joint operators—it’s tough to make a buck out there—but it has been great for burger lovers. So many great burgers and just 365 days to eat them all. And 2015 promises even better and ever more burgers. Here are some of the past year’s high- and lowlights:
Richard Cordeiro’s The Portugee at Luxe Burger Bar
BURGER OF THE YEAR
I know this sounds like one of those copouts when Time magazine makes “The Consumer” its Person of the Year, but 2014 truly saw the burger business turn over menu R&D to customers. It’s easier if you just tell us what you want to eat, it said to customers. McDonald’s “My Burger” promotion, conducted in several European countries, invited customers to dream up their own burgers, with the winners getting LTO stardom on the menu. Many independent burger joints run Facebook competitions, with customers submitting ideas for the next month’s special.
For example, at Luxe Burger Bar in Providence, R.I., Richard Cordeiro’s “The Portugee” was this year’s BYOB Contest. The build: Gold Label beef, fried egg, chorizo links, sliced fried potatoes, creamy goat cheese, caramelized onions and roasted peppers on a sesame bun. Heather Schmidt Wojtczak created the December burger of the month at Milwaukee Burger Co. in Eau Claire, Wis. Her “Burgers Hollandaise” starts with a third-pound patty that’s topped with an egg, bacon, tomato, green onions, red peppers and Hollandaise sauce on sourdough bread. Pretty good for amateurs!
I’m wary of the loose democratization that social media has spawned. There are no experts because everyone is an expert now. Letting customers function as chefs is part of this Twitterization of the culture, but it’s more benign than many other manifestations. If it truly builds a better relationship between a burger joint and its clientele, then it’s a good thing. And if it always results in big, flavorful burgers like The Portugee, then it’s a very good thing.
Jack in the Box’s Chick-N-Tater Melt
BURGER CHAIN OF THE YEAR
Jack in the Box
Jack in the Box could have won this honor just on the strength of the Bacon Insider burger it introduced in January. A “juicy beef patty with savory bacon piece mixed right in,” it was innovative during a year when every other chain just tried new variations on beef/cheese/bun. Many of the burgers from major chains were really good; none was truly new.
But Jack in the Box didn’t stop there. It began formally marketing its separate late-night menu, Munchie Meals, to which it added the year’s most out-there new major-chain item, the Chick-n-Tater Melt (a fried chicken patty, hash browns and bacon, topped with ranch sauce and three different cheeses on a buttery croissant).
And when McDonald’s, Burger King and other chains pulled back on new LTO introductions, fearing they’d overwhelm their kitchen staffs and confuse customers, Jack in the Box kept creating new limited-time wonders including the current Spicy Sriracha Burger; Meat Lovers and Grande Sausage Breakfast Burritos; Croissant Donuts; Spicy Chicken Club; Breakfast, Nacho and Bacon Ranch Monster Tacos; BBQ or Jalapeňo Ranch Ultimate Cheeseburgers; and Sourdough Breakfast Melts. Bravo, Jack in the Box.
INDEPENDENT BURGER RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR
Burger Revolution, Belleville, Ont.
It’s difficult to single out one burger joint, but Burger Revolution’s husband and wife co-owners Jeff and Rayling Camacho do a lot of things right:
- For starters, a great logo, and that counts;
- A solid list of 5-oz. signature burgers, including the Chévre Guevara (goat cheese, roasted red pepper, bacon, smoked-tomato jam);
- Slider Tuesdays when mini versions of any two signature or classic burgers are $11;
- The option to change your choice signature burger in a poutine for an additional $2.75 (small) or $4.75 (large);
- Great Burger of the Month specials, sometimes customer-suggested; usually customer named. December’s BOTM is The Whizard with a beef patty, roasted red peppers, caramelized onion, sautéed mushrooms, banana peppers and Cheez Whiz;
- House-made soups now to go with the burgers.
McDonald’s exploration of French beef breeds
BURGER OF THE YEAR (INTERNATIONAL)
McDonald’s European Beef Breed Burgers
If Angus is the only cattle breed you know, you could have learned a lot about livestock by following the burger specials this year at McDonald’s in France, Spain and Italy. The chain took the local-sourcing trend quite literally by the horns and introduced burgers made with regional beef breeds, some not well known. France has had burgers made with Charolais, Normand, Limousin and Montbeliard beef as part of an ongoing “Les Viandes de Nos Regions” (Our Regional Meat) program. Spain has seen a Grand Extrem burger made with Extremeña beef. A McItaly burger made with Marchigiana beef is on the menu in Italy now. A burger with Italy’s own Chianina beef was menued earlier.
The program hasn’t received much attention here but it has been an interesting and clever piece of the chain’s global effort to tell customers where the food it serves comes from.
CONDIMENT OF THE YEAR
Last year’s cutting-edge condiment was Sriracha (a romance that continues), but in 2014 it seems a burger isn’t properly dressed without a schmear of aïoli. Often that’s nothing more than flavored mayo, though the real thing is a delicate blend of crushed garlic, egg yolk, lemon juice, mustard and good olive oil. When it’s done right, an aïoli can beautifully elevate the flavors of a burger, so let the trend continues.
BURGER AD OF THE YEAR
Burger King, Spain
You’re being shown a lovely apartment for rent in Madrid. Here’s the foyer. This is the bedroom and this is the bathroom. And here’s the living room…with your very own Burger King! That’s the setup for this Burger King commercial in Spain, promoting home delivery. The looks on prospective renters’ faces when they turn the corner and see the BK counter tucked in by the couch are worth seeing. Credit goes to agency La Despensa in Madrid.
- Runner-Up: McDonald’s Norway’s all-marionette tale about the warm relationship between the burger chain and farmers. We just don’t see enough puppets in advertising any more.
- Miss Congeniality: Three-unit Ohio chain The Rail’s 30-second TV spot deconstructing one of its burgers while explaining the all-Ohio origins of each component, right down to beef from the state’s Holmes County.
WORST BURGER OF THE YEAR
BLT Rotisserie Chicken Burger
Did Boston Market learn nothing about burgers during the seven years (2000-07) it was owned by McDonald’s? This summer it introduced something it called the BLT Rotisserie Chicken Burger. But it wasn’t a burger; it wasn’t even close. It was a pile of chicken chunks on a bun. Even worse, Boston Market had the nerve to charge $6.99 for this pseudo-burger.
- Runner-Up: Carl’s Jr.’s Masher burgers might have taken the top spot if they had moved out of test markets to the national menu. Picture a burger or chicken patty topped with mashed potatoes, brown truffle gravy and crispy onion strings. Just…no. The 900-calorie creations were tested at $4.49, which was at least less than Boston Market’s would-be burger.
Baldwin Street Burger is proof that small spaces can hold great culinary imaginations. The dining room is only 600 square feet and there are just 27 seats at this burger joint in Whitby, Ont., outside Toronto. Yet co-owners John Wise and Ashley Alex consistently offer up the kind of inventive, appealing food that separates independents from the chains.
For Day 7: Choice of patty with house-made bacon jam, Brie cheese, mixed greens and roasted garlic aïoli.
That creativity is on display now as Baldwin Street works through its 12 Days of Christmas event. This series of menu specials began on Dec. 2 with an Indian-style Butter Chicken Sandwich and ends Dec. 20 with Chicken Wings. The specials include a Bacon, Jam & Brie burger; Fried Korean Chicken Sandwich; Fried Goat Cheese & Spicy Pepper Jelly burger and more. See the complete list on Baldwin Street Burger’s Facebook page.
But the 12 Days celebration is Baldwin’s gift to itself as much as to its customers. Each of the features is one of the weekly specials from the past year. In November, customers nominate and vote on their favorites, 12 of which are reprised in December. In addition to being a way to engage customers, the promotion gives Wise, Alex and the kitchen staff a brief respite from thinking up new specials.
Involving a young kitchen staff in the creative process is important. “It lets them have fun and gain confidence. But we also push them to not just create ideas but to cost them out, too. Is that idea feasible? It put the onus on them so they’re progressing in the restaurant business, even if it’s just at a little burger joint,” he says.
Just ending its third year, Baldwin for its first year offered a new special every day without ever repeating a featured dish. That was fun, but also often exhausting. “Going weekly allows people to come back two or three times in a week to get the special if they like it,” says Wise. “And it allows for word of mouth with people telling their friends about a feature.”
Click here to continue reading Baldwin Street Burger’s 365 Days of Creativity
Carl’s Jr. will introduce what it says is the first “all-natural, no hormones, no antibiotics, n steroids, grass-fed, free-range beef patty” from any major quick-service chain. The item also is the latest effort by a QSR chain to reach out to the 18-to-34-year-old Millennial age group, some of whom are choosing fast-casual chains such as Smashburger, Elevation Burger and The Counter, perceiving these chains’ food–including natural beef at many–to be higher quality.
The All-Natural Burger, available Dec. 17, tops the char-broiled beef patty with Cheddar cheese, “vine ripened” tomato, red onion, lettuce, bread-and butter pickles, ketchup, mustard and mayo on a baked-in-house bun. The new burger is priced a la carte at $4.69, or $6.99 for a double. Carl’s Jr. says customers will be able to request the Natural patty on any burger on the menu for an additional charge.
“We’ve seen a growing demand for ‘cleaner,’ more natural food, particularly among Millennials, and we’re proud to be the first major fast-food chain to offer an all-natural beef patty burger on our menu. Millennials include our target of ‘Young Hungry Guys’ and they are much more concerned about what goes into their bodies than previous generations,” Brad Haley, chief marketing officer for Carl’s Jr., said in a statement announcing the new burger. “Whether you’re into more natural foods or not, it’s simply a damn good burger.”
McDonald’s this week announced plans to expand availability of its “Create Your Taste” customization option for Quarter Pounders. That program also is seen as a way to appeal to Millennials. But as reported here earlier, NPD Group data shows that Millennials’ visits to QSRs have declined over the past five years but 25-to-34-year-olds still make 171 annual QSR visits, compared with 11 fast-casual visits.
Broadcast advertising from agency 72andSunny breaks Dec. 29. The chain says it will air an additional spot during the Feb. 1, 2015, Super Bowl.
The signature Oshi Burger
The burger category continues to evolve and grow as new concepts open, bringing fresh ideas and new clientele. In July I looked at 21 new burger bars that opened during the first half of 2014. Below are quick glosses on 25 more that made their debuts during the second half. These operations show how the burger business maintains consumer interest, whether it’s with Asian-style burgers or the “burger &” hybrids that I described in July, or even with retro concepts that recall vintage burger-and-shake shops.
Check out some of these newcomers; they’re the future of the business.
Oshi Burger Bar
Burgers with an occasional Asian twist. The signature $12 Oshi Burger is Wagyu American Kobe beef, soy glaze, shiitake tapenade, Swiss cheese and umami mayo. There’s also a50/50 Burger with ground chuck/ground bacon blend and the Blue Ribbon with Angus beef, Wagyu chili, beer-cheese mustard and pickled red onion.
Dis and Dat
A tiny burger and dogs (including alligator) joint in NOLA’s Mid-City neighborhood where the seats spill out the front door to the curb. The Surf and Turf Burger gets a topping of house-made crawfish étouffée.
A burger joint focused on local sourcing and house-made condiments. The $9 December special is an elk burger with house apple butter and oil& vinegar slaw coupled with a 4-Grain Salad with butternut squash.
The Salamanca, December’s burger of the month, gives an idea of international-flavor burger style: A custom-ground Davis Creek Meats 8-oz. beef patty on a pretzel roll, topped with chorizo sausage, salsa verde, pepper-Jack cheese, avocado, chipotle mayo, tortilla strips and spring lettuce mix. Click here to continue reading Class of 2014: The New Burger Bars
McDonald’s is extending its “Create Your Taste” customization option to chicken as well as beef as it broadens testing to 30 stores in five states.
Inclusion of chicken, confirmed by the company, makes sense given that beef prices are expected to continue to rise in 2015. This is not the only change as it green-lights expansion of the test: McDonald’s has jettisoned the “Build Your Burger” name initially used in favor of the “Create Your Taste” name it is using for a similar test in Australia. As reported here in October, the Australia test uses large freestanding kiosks where toppings are chosen while the U.S. test uses iPads. But using the same name could make it easier to share software or other technology between the two tests. McDonald’s Australia expects to have Create Your Taste available in all 900+ stores there within a year.
McDonald’s says the U.S. test, now in an handful of California stores, will be taken to stores in Georgia, Illinois, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. USA Today reports that the chain intends to have Create Your Taste in 2,000 locations next year.
Burger customization isn’t something new, obviously. Fast-casuals such Smashburger or The Counter make it part of their models. But it is difficult for quick-service operations to accommodate extensive customization. Allowing customers to scan 20 different toppings while they decide what to choose would quickly logjam the order counters. Create Your Taste lets them ponder options on the iPad rather than in line. The option also provides a bit of free menu R&D, giving McDonald’s valuable information on what customers want.
Create Your Taste burgers require more time to prepare. As a result, they are served fast-casual-style to customers at their table. Burgers are presented open-faced in metal baskets. Click here to continue reading McDonald’s Extends Customization Test to Chicken
Canadian fast-casual burger chain South St. Burger Co. opens its 29th location this week, but one of its stores is not like the others. No. 28, which opened last month on King Street in Toronto, is branded South St. Burger Bar. More like a pub than a typical fast-casual burger restaurant, the location has beer on tap at a bar that’s separated from the food counter. BurgerBusiness.com spoke with South St. Burger Co. President Jay Gould (r.) about the prototype’s genesis and future.
Was the decision to do the Burger Bar based on its location or were there changes you wanted to test?
To be honest it was a bit of both. We did find what we thought was a perfect location in an area that amazingly enough doesn’t have a lot of either watering holes or burger joints. It’s rare that you find those pockets in any major city these days.
This is a busy area on the east side of Toronto’s downtown core [260 King Street] that has been developing with lot of condominiums, a lot of office and not much food, which as I say is rare. There are very few places to drink. This particular location happens to be in a heritage building. The layout was such that it allowed us to place the food counter in a different section than the bar itself, so it was ideal.
We do have seven or eight of our restaurants that are licensed [to sell alcohol]. It’s mostly self-serve. We don’t sell a lot of beer or wine but if dad comes and brings the kids he can have a beer. The location we’ll open this week is licensed.
It’s too early to tell if we should be rolling [the Burger Bar concept] out Canada-wide. It’s only been open for about five weeks. It’s been off to a tremendous start but we want to be sure it’s on the right track before we put our stamp on it. Click here to continue reading South St. Burger Co. Steps Up to the Bar