Industry News

Burger trends: Balance between meat and not, daring and classic

Who doesn’t love a good burger? These days, even vegetarians are steadily consuming them thanks to the explosive growth of plant-based patties. But the biggest opportunities for growth in the ever-successful category are innovative sauces, high-end meats and cheeses, and innovative replacements for the traditional bun, according to Datassential’s Burger Keynote report.

It’s no surprise that burgers are one of Americans’ most loved foods. Burgers rank eigth out of nearly 4,000 foods and beverages ranked by consumer affinity, according to Datassential’s FLAVOR database. And they’re consumed very frequently. More than two-thirds of consumers eat a burger from a quick-service restaurant (their favorite place to get them) at least once a month. And even though we were eating plenty of burgers before the pandemic, 28% of consumers say they’ve been eating more burgers in the last year. 

With all the buzz around the Impossible and Beyond Burgers in recent years, it should come as no surprise that “plant-based” was by far the fastest growing term on burger menus over the last four years. The plant-based trend is one that restaurateurs have quickly embraced to meet consumer demand. About a third of consumers are interested in plant-based burgers, according to Datassential, while about 29% of operators surveyed currently offer burgers featuring meat alternatives.

Still, meat isn’t going anywhere. Consumers are craving upscale meats, and are willing to pay more for grass-fed and high-quality grades and breeds of beef, according to our research. Nearly half also claim that they would be willing to pay more for burgers that came with detailed information on the proteins used. It doesn’t hurt to have transparency around bacon either, because it’s one of consumers’ favorite burger toppings. 

Many consumers will always go for a classic burger -- a beef patty, cheddar, bacon, lettuce tomato or onion, with a slathering of ketchup, mayonnaise or mustard. But a growing number of consumers -- particularly millennials -- are craving innovation in just about every way. 

For millennials, the most popular burger additions are beets, hummus, pesto, pico de gallo, waffle buns, gruyere cheese and teriyaki sauce. 

Across all consumers, the biggest trends on the horizon include the addition of sweet sauces, traditional bun replacements like waffles, or even burger bowls where operators can leave off the bun altogether. These are three categories with the biggest gap between consumer demand and operator adoption, and also the biggest opportunity. All three trends are in the Inception phase of Datassential’s Menu Adoption Cycle and could give operators a huge boost as pandemic-weary consumers begin to return to restaurants this spring and summer, craving a new iteration of the classic burger. 

The addition of brunch and breakfast burgers could also be a boon for operators because they could expand the opportunities for consumers to purchase a burger throughout the day, and offer more opportunities for innovation without the need to spend more for unique ingredients. More than 40% of consumers are interested in these burgers, according to our research, while only 20% of operators currently offer them. 

Upscale meats, gourmet cheddar cheese and the addition of macaroni and cheese on burgers are three other categories where consumer demand far outpaces operator adoption, according to the survey. 

Burgers are big business, and will always be a consumer favorite. Allowing customizations, while also leaning into burgeoning trends that haven’t yet been widely adopted, can bridge the gap for operators between customers that want to experiment and the loyal group who will always crave a classic. 

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Samantha Des Jardins is a writer for Datassential, a food industry market research and insights firm.

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