2014 Burger Brackets Voting is Over

Congratulations to champion Burgatory! Thank you for casting a record 149,789 votes and thank you to A.1. Steak Sauce for making this year’s competition possible.
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Wendy’s, Jack Ready Spring Chicken Menus

Wendy’s celebrates spring by continuing its romance with nontraditional burger buns. Later this month it will introduce nationally a Tuscan Chicken on Ciabatta sandwich that it tested last year. Wendy’s favorite cheese, Asiago, is back for the Tuscan sandwich, where it will be coupled with spring mix, tomatoes and garlic aïoli.Wendys_TuscanChicken

Jack in the Box also is in a “spring chicken” mindset: Tomorrow (April 10) it will introduce a Jack’s Blazin’ Chicken sandwich with a fiery ghost-pepper ranch sauce for a suggested $4.69, the company confirmed. Also on its spring menu are Sourdough Breakfast Melts (with egg and bacon or ham), priced at two for $3.50; a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Pie and new Vanilla and Caramel Iced Coffees.

These are just some of a wave of new items—several of them sporting trendy ingredients such as arugula, burrata and aïolis—heading for restaurant menus in the traditional post-Lent refresher phase. Those pesky fish sandwiches will leave to make room for more interesting and flavorful spring items.

Jacks Blazin Chicken Umami Burger’s spring menu includes a new Caprese Burger piled high with on-trend ingredients (roasted portobello mushroom cap, basil-almond pesto, burrata, heirloom tomato, wild baby arugula and truffled balsamic glaze).  A new turkey burger called The Springbird (with ricotta and goat cheeses, marinated portobello, braised kale and apple crema) joins the menu, along with a dessert called Arnold Palmer Bowl (green-tea ice cream, limoncello sorbet and a snickerdoodle cookie).

A new Fiesta Burger with guacamole, pico de gallo and jalapeňo salsa on a toasted brioche bun is one of more than 30 new items in the largest menu revamp in Hard Rock Café’s history. The overhaul included a complete reassessment of its burger line and added salads, sides, starters and more.

Jukebox Burgers' new Poutine Burger for spring.

Jukebox Burgers’ new Poutine Burger for spring.

It’s not just chains that are doing spring menu cleaning, of course. Burger bars are perking up their offerings as well. The “Moo Cluck Bloom” spring menu at Moo Cluck Moo burger bar in Dearborn Heights, Mich., features a Moo Bloom burger with herbed goat cheese aïoli, Berkshire bacon, watercress and an onion ring. Also new is The Tarragon Cluck chicken burger with grilled rapini, red cabbage slaw, Grana Padano cheese and arugula.

A new spring menu at Jukebox Burgers in Montreal includes a cheese-curd-topped Poutine Burger and a Breakfast Burger plus Fig and Walnut Salad and more. In Toronto, The Burger Cellar’s spring addition is a Watermelon Salad with kale, mint, Kalamata olives and jalapeňo.

It’s spring everywhere in the Northern Hemisphere, of course! Bread Meets Bread in Glasgow, Scotland, welcomes better (sort of) weather with a new line of what it calls Smash Hit Burgers. The star is a triple-patty burger with American cheese, lettuce, tomato pickle and sauce to which bacon, pastrami, pulled pork or brisket can be added for additional charges. That’s the way to welcome spring.

Technomic: Burger Chain Growth Peaks

Fast-casual chains such as Smashburgers have fared better than QSRs.

Fast-casual chains such as Smashburger have fared better than QSRs.

Sales by the top burger-menu chains was $72 billion in 2013 but nominal growth was just 1.2%, according to researcher Technomic. Inflation-adjusted sales show a decline last year. “Burger chains have finally reached maturity,” the company concludes in its latest report.

Technomic says the number of burger-chain locations increased by 1% in 2013. That’s in line with earlier research from The NPD Group that found the burger-chain unit count up just 0.4% last year. However, NPD, which tracks independents as well as chains, reported that the number of non-chain QSR burger units increased by a strong 7.2% last year.

Fast-casual burger concepts, not quick-service brands, grew the most last year, Technomic finds. Fast-casual burger chains posted a 10.4% sales growth, compared with just a 0.9% increase for QSR brands. Sales for fast-casual leader Five Guys Burgers and Fries were up 5% to $1.1 billion, but that contrasts with a 14% jump in 2012. Smashburger sales rose 32% to $214.9 million, thanks in part to the addition of 54 new locations, Technomic says.

Sales for top QSR burger chains totaled $69.7 billion in 2013, according to Technomic. As reported here earlier, the Top Five U.S. Burger Chains had aggregate sales last year of approximately $60.7 billion.

Burgatory Repeats as A.1. Burger Brackets Champ

The winner! Again!

The winner! Again!

Click for larger.

Click for larger.

For the second consecutive year, Burgatory has turned back all challengers to win the A.1. Burger Brackets trophy. The Pittsburgh burger-bar concept with two-and-a-half locations open (including a scaled down burgers and shakes stand in Consol Energy Center) and two more opening soon, defeated Texan burger chain Mooyah in the finals, but not without a close, tough fight. Mooyah’s supporters were relentless.

The annual Burger Brackets competition doesn’t determine which brand has the best burger. It was created as a way to show how strongly connected burger-lovers are to their favorite burger joint. They will vote again and again and not stop in their drive to proclaim their favorite place the very best. A total of 149,789 votes were cast during the tournament. The Brackets test devotion across three weeks and six rounds of voting. One brand wins. But 63 others also get to put their customers’ support on display. So all the brands that took part deserve congratulations. Nothing beats a great burger from a great burger joint.

Burgers of the Month for April 2014

Bucket List's Spring Burger

Bucket List’s Spring Burger

Spring! Remember spring? It’s coming back and many burger joints are celebrating its return with April Burger of the Month specials. Romers Burger Bar in Vancouver, BC wins best name with its Spring Chicken Burger. The Spring Burger at Bucket List Burgers in Riverside, Calif., is a beef patty nestled into—yes—spring mix. At Kooper’s Tavern the Spring Burger is Angus beef with goat cheese, watercress, fried green tomato and basil aïoli on a brioche bun. You’ll notice a lot of brioche buns on this month’s list. Is it the new pretzel bun?

There are some new burger joints from around the world making their debuts on this month’s list. Welcome to The Bronx Burger Bar, Copenhagen; Burger 25, Toms River, N.J.; Burger Monster, Victoria, Australia; The Cannibal Café, Vancouver, BC; Clarke’s Standard, New York City; Haché Gourmet Burgers, Copenhagen, Denmark; and TAG Burger Bar, Denver. Check out their specials!

8 Oz. Burger's Nacho Burger

8 Oz. Burger’s Nacho Burger

There are, as always, a few that merit special shout outs for creativity. One is Burger Shack in Whitehall, Pa. Its Catty Shack special works pierogies into the burger. That’s a first for me. Find it on the list. You don’t often see gyro meat on a burger, either, but leave it to Slater’s 50/50 to try it.

And then there’s 8 Oz. Burger & Co. in Seattle. Its Nacho Burger was an April Fool’s gag but you all make so many over-the-top burgers (see Giant Orange’s H-Bomb) that I believed it. Here’s the build: Four patties, five slices of American cheese, a can of chili, salsa, nacho cheese, lettuce, tomato, sour cream and a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos.

The list of April’s Burgers of the Month specials is so long it had to be put off-site. But it’s worth finding. Click here. Lots of great ideas.

U.S. Supermarket Testing of McCafé Coffee Has Begun

[Update: Photo added of McCafe on shelves.]
[Update: McDonald's responded with this statement: "McDonald’s is committed to serving delicious, high quality coffee that our customers can feel good about – at a value. We are building on the momentum of our McCafé beverages in our restaurants by expanding these options as we increasingly strive to become our customers’ favorite cup of coffee. By testing a variety of packaged ground and whole bean coffee as well as on-demand single cup options sold through grocery stores and other retail locations, McDonald’s is collaborating with Kraft to provide customers a new way to enjoy their McCafé cup of coffee at home.”]

McDonald’s Corp. already is test marketing its McCafé bagged coffee in U.S. supermarkets. And the test goes well beyond the ground Premium Roast coffee it has sold in Canada since late 2012.

McCafe sports new graphics in its U.S. test.

McCafe sports new graphics in its U.S. test.

On Monday I suggested that the current McCafé coffee-sampling promotion might be a prelude to testing of bagged McCafé coffee at retail. McDonald’s and Kraft Foods Group said last year that testing would begin in 2014. But I have since learned that retail sales already have quietly begun in selected locations.

One is the Wegmans supermarket in Mechanicsburg, Pa., near Harrisburg, where McDonald’s McCafé brand is currently well represented on the coffee aisle. But in addition to ground Premium Roast McCafé coffee, ground Breakfast Blend, French Roast and Decaf Premium coffees are offered. For those who like flavored coffee, a French Vanilla-flavored Premium Roast is available.

These bagged coffees—all ground—are priced at $7.29. That’s slightly higher than the CAN$6.99 (now roughly US$6.32) at which a 12-oz. bag of McCafé was priced when introduced in Canada.

But McDonald’s also is testing interest in single-serve cups, too. Premium Roast, Decaf and Vanilla McCafé blends are offered at Wegmans in K-cups®. At the Wegmans in Mechanicsburg, 12-count boxes of single-serve McCafé cups are priced at $7.49. As reported here previously, researcher Mintel says the single-serve-pod market was worth $3.1 billion in the U.S. last year and could account for 50% of coffee sales by 2018. The total coffee market was valued at $11.7 billion, according to MarketWatch.

McDonald’s Corp. did not respond to a request for comment on McCafé testing, so I can’t say in how many markets or at what price points McCafé currently is being offfered. It is not available in all Wegmans markets, according to sources, but other grocery chains and other cities no doubt are involved.

In 2010, McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson said coffee accounted for more than 6% of its U.S. sales. That share may since have increased, but even 6% of the chain’s 2013 domestic sales would be $2.15 billion. Coffee is an important product to McDonald’s. Click here to continue reading U.S. Supermarket Testing of McCafé Coffee Has Begun

White Castle’s Authentic Waffles; McD’s Pretzel Buns

WhiteCastle_WafflesThe great thing about White Castle’s announcement that it will add three sandwiches built on Belgian waffles is that these literally are Belgian waffles, as in imported by White Castle from Belgium. Why would you do that when waffles are so simple to make? Wouldn’t you want to make them fresh in the restaurant? The chain says it wants “to bring Cravers an authentic taste of Europe.” Personally, I’ve never looked to White Castle for that.

Taco Bell seems to have laid down an innovation challenge with its Waffle Taco for breakfast. White Castle’s responses are two new breakfast sandwiches on its authentic Belgian waffles: One has bacon, egg and cheese between waffles; another nestles in sausage, egg and cheese.

One of McDonald's pretzel-roll sandwiches in Germany.

One of McDonald’s pretzel-roll sandwiches in Germany.

There’s an available-all-day waffle sandwich coming, too: the always-popular chicken-and-waffle-and-gravy combo.

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Before everyone was buzzing about breakfast menus we all were talking pretzel buns. Wendy’s had ’em and then so did everyone else, it seemed. But not McDonald’s.

Not so fast. In Germany, McDonald’s has introduced new snack-size sandwiches, two of which are on pretzel rolls. Both have turkey-ham, Emmental cheese, arugula and a mild sauce. But one adds sliced egg; the other has sliced tomato.

The other snack sandwiches are Ciabatta Tomato Mozzarella and a Ciabatta Ham and Cheese.

Is McDonald’s Free Coffee a Setup?

The news is that McDonald’s will be giving away free small coffees during breakfast hours from today through April 13. Why? Could it be the prelude to testing McCafé coffee at retail?

McDonald’s frequently hands out free coffee. National Coffee Day, Sept. 28, 2013:  Free coffee in most markets. Again last December: free coffee in many markets. So the tactic is hardly new: Burger King gave free coffee with breakfast in January. But McDonald’s insists this will be its “first-ever national Free Coffee Event.” Again, why?

McDonald's sells bagged McCafe coffee in Canada and plans to test it here. Is now the time?

McDonald’s sells bagged McCafe coffee in Canada and plans to test it here. Is now the time?

“Breakfast wars!” is the sexy if horribly clichéd explanation. The thinking is that free coffee will keep breakfast eaters from swapping their Egg McMuffin for the A.M. Crunchwrap on Taco Bell’s new breakfast menu. But I wonder how many McDonald’s breakfast eaters even know if there’s a Taco Bell on their way to work. If Taco Bell were a major threat, its annual per-store sales would be higher than roughly $1.4 million. McDonald’s are more than $1 million higher.

So what’s the official explanation? “This event is McDonald’s way of encouraging new guests to try McCafé Coffee while giving our breakfast lovers even more reason to enjoy the great taste of our signature blend,” the company said in its release.

Right. McDonald’s Corp. 10-k SEC filing says its marketing plan for 2014 is, in part, to “enhance the breakfast experience by emphasizing coffee through high-quality McCafé products paired with delicious foods—both existing and new.” So this coffee promotion is in line with the existing marketing plan.

Now here’s my question: Wouldn’t McDonald’s be smart if it conducted these upcoming “Make Friends with McCafé” coffee-sampling events right before it launches McCafé coffee at retail?

McDonald’s hasn’t said when it will begin testing McCafé whole-bean, ground and K-cup coffee in supermarkets (as it already does in Canada). But last October, Tony Vernon, CEO of coffee partner Kraft Foods, said testing would begin this year. A McDonald’s Corp. spokesperson said then, “We are building on the momentum of our McCafé beverages in our restaurants by expanding these options…to grocery stores and other retail locations.” Click here to continue reading Is McDonald’s Free Coffee a Setup?

Your Four 2014 A.1. Burger Brackets Semi-Finalists

Four burger brands with passionate, loyal, won’t-quit fans. Six days to cast votes that will decide who faces off for the A.1. Burger Brackets national championship trophy.

Semi-finals voting ends Saturday, April 5. Vote once a day, every day. Tell your friends. Explain it to your mother. You don’t want your favorite burger joint to come this far and fail to make the final contest, do you? Go to the VOTING PAGE. You know what to do. Good luck!

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