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Americanization of British Menus Continues

Burgers are the most commonly found food on increasingly Americanized British menus, reports London-based researcher Horizons’ 2013 Menurama survey. That Americanization extends to cost-cutting measures: Burgers average 6.35 ounces, a 17% decrease from the 7.69-oz. average found in the summer of 2010. Still burgers showed a 13% increase in menu listings in the past year.

A burger with chorizo relish (and more) at London’s Gourmet Burger Kitchen chain.

The decrease in size hasn’t made burgers cheap: The average menu price (including pubs, restaurant and hotels) is £9.27 (US$14.53)  according to Menurama.

The top 10 entrées on British menus are beef burger, pizza, chicken burger, fish & chips, rump steak, roast chicken, rib-eye steak, chicken curry, sirloin steak and Sunday lunch (roast).

Horizons reports that the U.S. fascination with upscale hot dogs is taking hold in the UK. Hot dogs are on 85% more menus than just one year ago. Hot dogs have joined the top 20 menu items, bumping traditional British favorite scampi & chips. Pub chain Marston’s has added an American-influenced Mac ‘n Cheese Hot Dog. One reason for the growth may be price: Hot dogs average £6.12 (US$9.59) on British menus.

One of Honest Burgers’ three London locations.

“Against a backdrop of rising food costs and squeezed consumer spend, the reduction in weight of key meat dishes demonstrates that operators are having to become more savvy with regard to menu and price engineering,” says Nicola Knight, Horizons director of services. “This could explain the huge growth in hot dogs on menus they are relatively cheap to produce and operators can easily add value to them enabling them to charge more.”

Horizons’ Menurama analyzes menus of 115 chains covering the pub, restaurant, quick-service and hotel segments. Among the other findings of this year’s survey:

Such American foods as pulled pork, chicken wings and ribs show significant growth in the past year. American descriptors and items such as “black & blue steak,” “Cobb salad” and “slaw” have gained acceptance as well.

Use of healthy-eating descriptions declined in Britain during the past year. Horizons’ Knight suggests this may be the result of operators steering menus toward more-indulgent offerings.

Food Trucks: A Threat or Expanding the Market?

The Informal Eating Out (IEO) market is what McDonald’s executives like to call the total universe of away-from-home dining options open to consumers. It includes restaurants of all types, of course, and, increasingly, it also includes mobile food trucks in most large markets.

Ready to roll: Boston’s Baddest Burger & Sandwich Co.

So it’s not really surprising that new research conducted by The NPD Group finds that money spent on food-truck meals is money that could have gone to a traditional quick-service restaurant. In fact, half the adults surveyed said they would have gone to a QSR had they not eaten food from a truck or cart. Another 20% say they would have skipped the meal altogether, so in that sense food trucks are expanding the IEO universe while also taking sales from other options.

NPD finds that the most-often-cited reasons for patronizing a food truck or cart is the availability of “interesting” foods. That makes sense to anyone who has enjoyed a Pork Burger at Los Angeles’ Flatiron Truck: A 5-oz. pork patty with bacon-tomato jam, pickled red onions, arugula and Manchego cheese in a brioche bun. Brick-and-mortar restaurants can compete with menu items like that, but not with “convenience,” which is the second-most-mentioned reason for food-truck dining.

The burger with Japanese tomato jam, jalapeno-Jack cheese, fried egg Japanese BBQ sauce and crispy onion strings from Yume Burger in Austin, Texas.

Food trucks’ ability to follow the crowds is double-edged: It heightens convenience but lessens repeat business and loyalty. NPD finds that more than half of adults aware of food trucks in their area say they patronize them once every two to three months or less often.

What do food trucks offer? NPD finds that 71% have hot sandwiches; 61% have Mexican food; 44% menu cold sandwiches; 24% feature soups; and 22% have salads.

The slider lineup at Dallas’s Easy Slider truck.

“For now at least, food trucks need not be viewed as a threat to restaurant demand nationally,” Bonnie Riggs, NPD restaurant industry analyst, said in a statement. “However, in markets with a developed food truck presence, QSR operators may wish to take note of the benefits food trucks offer, such as different and fresh food, especially as a means to build their snack business and/or protect lunch traffic.”

While some of the best trucks have gone brick-and-mortar (such as Grill ’Em All in Alhambra, Calif., and Brunch Box in Portland, Ore.), many chains and burger joints are hitting the road. Among the indies with trucks are Los Angeles’ Rounds and Pie ‘n Burger, BRGR in Pittsburgh, New York City’s GO Burger, Sacramento’s Krush Burger and Baltimore’s Kooper’s Tavern. To help operators better know the mobile competition and to learn what’s being offered out there, BurgerBusiness.com offers a list of “55 Burger Trucks Worth Finding.” Check the menus. They’re all members of the IEO universe.

If your burger-menu food truck is among the many not listed, leave a comment and set us straight.

Monday Meeting: Localization Strategies & Blue Cheese

 The year’s second half began for McDonald’s with the same disappointing sales in much of Europe reported during the first two quarters. Comparable sales for the region were down 1.1% in Q1 and 0.1% in Q2 before dropping 1.9% in July. The continuing storyline is that the UK and Russia are strong but France, Germany and southern Europe (primarily Italy and Spain) have been soft.

McBaguette varieties now are bundled as “Casse Croute” combos.

Those stagnant markets are the regions where McDonald’s has most sharply veered from its standardized menu to create dishes linked to local tastes. In Italy, for example, the company announced a partnership with pasta giant Barilla and launched a pasta salad with tuna, tomato and olives with Barilla pasta. It failed to boost Q2 sales. Now the chain is trying a calzone-like Pizzarotto in Happy Meals.

In France, menu localization has brought the 280 Burger topped with a sauce that includes herbes de Provence. Earlier McDonald tried a series of small burgers with French cheeses (Comté, Camembert, Raclette and Chèvre this year). But McDonald’s sales in France and Italy are not growing. So is the localization strategy working? It doesn’t appear to be. But is it just a victim of consumers’ spending cutbacks on premium-price items (which many of the the “local” items have been)?

There is one local menu item that has caught on, however, and its secret may be its simplicity. McBaguette. Given a six-week test run in McDonald’s French stores beginning in April 2012, the ham-and-cheese-on-baguette idea clicked and has been offered since. But is its success due to the French love of baguettes or of a good value? McBaguette is now part of a €4.50 (US$6) “Le Casse Croute” (snack meal) sandwich-and-drink combo that also includes beef-and-mustard and chicken-curry sandwich varieties.

Testing at Hardee’s

McBaguette now is migrating to McDonald’s in other hard-pressed European markets where baguettes have no iconic status, such as Hungary and the Czech Republic, as well as French neighbors such as Switzerland.

Those who loved Wendy’s Bacon & Blue burger in 2010 and Hardee’s Blue Cheese Steakburger in 2011 will be cheered to hear that Hardee’s is in a blue mood again. In the nation’s heartland (Iowa and Missouri), Hardee’s is testing a third-pound Frank’s Red Hot Buffalo Blue Cheese Thickburger. The company did not respond to a request for information on rollout plans for the burger. (Thanks to @davidweihe for the photo.)

Hooters Parent Buys American Roadside Burgers

Chanticleer Holdings, parent of the Hooters chicken chain, announced an agreement to acquire all outstanding share of five-unit burger chain American Roadside Burgers (ARB). Terms of the acquisition were not released.

The signature four-patty Roadstar burger.

ARB like Chanticleer is based in Charlotte, N.C. The concept opened 10 years ago in Smithtown, N.Y. It also operates two locations in Charlotte as well as units in Columbia and Greenville, S.C.

Chanticleer Chairman-CEO Mike Pruitt said in a release that the deal for ARB “is our first departure from our ongoing development of Hooter’s restaurants in foreign countries. This acquisition will in no way change our focus on the development of Hooters restaurants internationally, but American Roadside presents a unique strategic opportunity in a high-growth space.”

ARB’s signature menu item is the four-patty Roadstar burger ($8.95). Other specialties include the Roadside Rally double cheeseburger ($6.95) and Route 66, a double-patty burger with pepper-Jack cheese, bacon and barbecue sauce ($6.95). The menu also includes pulled pork and Philly Cheesesteak sandwiches, salads, chicken wings and hand-scooped milkshakes.

Terms of the preliminary agreement call for Chanticleer to issue 740,000 stock (HOTR) units to the owners of Roadside Burgers, with each unit consisting of one share of common stock, and one five-year warrant, priced at $5. The value of the share exchange will be dependent upon Chanticleer Holding’s stock price at date of closing, which is expected to be Sept. 30, 2013.

Farm Burger’s Answer to $1 Menus

Feeling the pinch from QSR burger chains’ $1 menus? Consider this response from Farm Burger in Decatur, Ga. On Monday, Aug. 19, it will hold “Grassfed Fête” to celebrate its 3½ years in business.

The celebration feature’s the concept’s own version of a $1 menu. And this one has local connections that no chain can match: $1 Moonshine Meats 100% grass-fed beef sliders; $1 pulled pork sandwiches from a whole roasted Anderson Farms hog; $1 Darby Farms Spicy Chicken Wings; $1 quinoa veggie burgers with goat cheese and pickled veggies; $1 beer-battered onion rings and $1 sweet-potato or regular fries. Lil Farmer Meals for kids are just $1, too. Red Hare root beer is $1 and so are Red Hare root beer floats.

Atlanta’s Southern Folk Preservation Society All Stars provide the music.

With locations in Buckhead (Atlanta), Dunwoody and Decatur, Ga., plus Asheville, N.C., the chain has built a reputation for great daily specials. On Aug. 14, for example, the Buckhead location’s Daily Burger was a grass-fed beef patty with pepper-Jack, cheese, red cabbage slaw, pickled jalapeños and sherry-date BBQ sauce. At Decatur it was grass-fed beef with Gruyère cheese, sautéed local Lacinato kale, mushrooms and paprika mayo.

Check Increase Buoys Red Robin Sales

The difficulty of the current restaurant marketplace is such that despite reporting solid results, Red Robin Gourmet Burgers executives felt compelled to advise analysts that sales increases are hard won. “The environment continues to be volatile from a consumer spending [perspective],” SVP-CFO Stuart Brown cautioned. “Consumers continue to pull back even more than we had expected at this point in the economic cycle.” He said the market has softened more just in the past several months, explaining the series of negative growth reports for July given by several chains.

For its second quarter ended July 14, 2013, Red Robin reported a 4.3% gain in same-store sales for company-owned restaurants. However, that gain came from a 5% increase in average check mitigated by a 0.7% decrease in guest counts.

More than half (2.7%) the 5% check average came from increased sales of appetizer, beverage and dessert sales, with the remaining 2.3% coming from pricing. Red Robin’s instituted tiered pricing for appetizers this spring. Items are grouped as $3, $5, $7 or $9 in price, which has helped boost sales. The appetizer plan has “resonated well with consumers,” said SVP-CMO Denny Marie Post. She cautioned that appetizer sales may have benefited from initial trial that may not be maintained.

Tiered pricing for appetizers has won customer acceptance.

Red Robin says it has improved food plating and presentation as well as service as a result of its “brand transformation” tests.

The increased pricing has come from shifts such as upping the price for the Pig Out Style burger-toppings option to $1.50 from $1 and adding a Kuzuri Style option at $1.50. Post said the chain has seen “no evidence that [the Style price hikes] cause any harm.”

But Red Robin’s $12.15 average check remains one of the lowest in the casual-dining segment, CEO Carley said.

Carley declined to give details about Red Robin’s test of premium burgers. But as previously reported here, that test includes three Black Angus prime beef burgers with toppings such as oven-roasted tomatoes, sautéed Portobello mushrooms and house-made aïolis and sauces. Coupled with the chain’s Bottomless Steak Fries, the premium burgers are at priced from $12.99 to $14.29. The premium burgers, served with the chain’s Bottomless Steak Fries, are priced from $12.99 to $14.29.

Red Robin’s “brand transformation” initiative involving a test of three levels of remodeling investment continues to provide useful insights, Carley said. The nine restaurants (of a total of 20 remodels) that have received the full $400,000 treatment have seen a 6% sales lift. Red Robin is doing an additional 20 transformations this year and then will “rest” to evaluate results, said Brown. Next year the chain intends to test a lower-cost remodel package for lower-sales units. The payback period on the investment is estimated to be less than five years.

Updating the Summer’s Burger Trends

Here’s where we are with four trends influencing the burger business:

Sonic’s Breakfast Burritos: now with egg whites.

 BLT: Bacon mania has, not surprisingly, brought a renaissance for the BLT sandwich. BLT burgers had to follow and they have. McDonald’s first tried a Quarter Pounder BLT in Japan, then moved it to Canada. Now the QP BLT is offered across Texas, North Carolina, Virginia and other markets. Watch for it to be nationally available soon.

Egg whites: Sonic Drive-Ins have followed McDonald’s lead and now offer the option of egg whites only in place of whole eggs in breakfast burritos and sandwiches. McDonald’s Egg White Delight McMuffin started the trend. Is anyone out there offering an egg-white-topped burger?

Cronut Burger from Epic Burgers and Waffles in Toronto.

In Japan, McDonald’s has added an eggless McMuffin that’ more lunch than breakfast. The summer McMuffin has a sausage patty with tomato slices, Cheddar cheese, lettuce and yellow mustard.

Ruby Tuesday’s pretzel burgers

 Cronuts: The hybrid of the croissant and doughnut created (and trademarked) by pastry chef Dominique Ansel has received far more media attention that it merits. But when the trend creeps into the burger arena, well, that’s news. Toronto joint Epic Burgers and Waffles and bakery Le Dolci are teaming to offer Maple Bacon Cronut Burgers at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto from August 16 through September 2. The price for such trendiness? The burgers will be $10 each.

Pretzel-bun burgers: They’re the burger trend of 2013 (which you’ll recall BurgerBusiness.com forecast would be The Year of the Bun). Wendy’s Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger kicked it off. Dunkin’ Donuts has answered by offering any of its bakery sandwiches on a pretzel bun. And casual-dining chain Ruby Tuesday has joined the parade with a set of four pretzel-bun burgers. The varieties: Spicy Jalapeňo Pretzel Cheeseburger; Portabella Crispy Onion Pretzel Cheeseburger; Bacon Cheese Pretzel Burger; and Black and Blue Bacon Pretzel Burger.

Tim Hortons and QSRs’ “New Reality”

Marc Caira took over as president and CEO of Tim Hortons on July 2, 2013. Previously Global CEO of Nestlé Professional, the 50-year-old Caira is just Canadian-based Tim Hortons’ fourth CEO. Paul House, whom he succeeded, lauded Caira during last week’s quarterly earnings call for spending his first month on the job meeting corporate team members and operators across Canada and the U.S. in 21 regional meetings.

Caira obviously listened and observed during that month because in his first quarterly call, he showed a surprisingly clear and insightful view not only of Tim Hortons—which reported Q2 same-store gains of 1.5% in Canada and 1.4% in the U.S.—but also of the quick-service marketplace in general. He says the brand needs more efficiency in its drive-thru, its menu, and its service. It needs to think deeper about how to expand the brand because grow is slow for all QSRs.

Tim Hortons isn’t a burger chain and isn’t likely to become one, but its nearly $6.5 billion in systemwide sales last year is larger than all but those for the Big Three burger chains and it goes head-to-head with all QSRs for consumer dining dollars. Tim Hortons commanded a whopping 42% of the Canadian QSR sector and 77% of the brewed coffee sector in 2012, according to its 10-K filing. In addition to the coffee and doughnuts it’s best known for, its menu includes fresh baked goods, Panini sandwiches, soups and more. It dominates at breakfast a daypart it has extended until noon in Canada. A recent morning addition was a Jalapeňo Cheese Flatbread Breakfast Panini. Its Canadian stores average $2.17 million in annual sales with U.S. units $1.1 million. Tim Hortons shouldn’t be overlooked.

Breakfast includes Jalapeno Cheese Flatbread Panini.

But sales growth has slowed for all quick-service concepts and Caira wasn’t afraid to tell analysts that this is more than a short-term cyclical downturn. “I talked about this new reality that I see. And this new reality is this low-growth environment, this very high competitive intensity. Those things are there, and I think they’re going to be there for a while. Our challenge is to really look at ways that we can win in this new reality,” he said.

What he heard from franchisees is that Tim Hortons menu is inefficiently large. There is, he said, “a lot of complexity in our restaurants. So how do we simplify our operations? How do we reduce the number of products, the number of sizes, the number of price points? How do we simplify the menu boards?” These aren’t questions often asked in public by QSR management, let alone after one month on the job. But Caira showed he’s not afraid to ask questions that challenge brand assumptions.

Tim Hortons CEO Marc Caira

“There are no sacred cows here. We’re going to have to look at all of the menu, all of the price points, the SKUs and decide what we absolutely need and what we don’t need,” he said. “And to me, it’s more about, ‘Do you have the right platforms to be able to grow? Do you have the right platforms to be able to innovate, to differentiate yourself?’ And I think that we do have the right platforms in our stores. But I think the issue is that maybe there are too many products on each platform. So we’re going to have to look at that and streamline it.”

Tim Hortons could be coming your way. It’s in 13 states now and Caira wants to push on, not retreat, despite disappointing U.S. sales growth. “I consider the U.S. to be an important part of our growth strategy. I very much see the U.S. as being a must-win market for us,” he said. He said the company will find well-capitalized franchise partners “that have resources that perhaps are better tailored for local markets, whether it be real estate, media, that type of thing, which allows them to move faster than we would.”

One innovation on the 2013 calendar is a rollout of branded Tim Hortons coffee in Keurig-compatible single-serve cups. Added CFO Cynthia Jane Devine, “You’re going to see new things from us in the back half of the year.”