Talkin' turkey Burgers

by Larry Aylward
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Attitudes about the turkey burger have changed over time.

Hormel Foods knows a good thing when it sees it. That’s why the Austin, Minn.-based company has been in business for almost 125 years.

It’s also why Hormel recently introduced the FUSE Burger, a fully cooked turkey burger that combines spinach, brown rice, roasted onions, celery, dried cherries and seasonings.

Hormel is touting the healthy-for-you angle with its FUSE Burger, which many marketers do with turkey burgers. The FUSE burger contains 190 calories with 9 fat grams and 16 grams of protein. But in rolling out the FUSE burger, Hormel is also capitalizing on the turkey burger’s mounting popularity.

The turkey burger is no spring chicken. It has been available on restaurant menus and has been available at retail and foodservice for many years. But turkey in the role of a burger was perceived as “unusual” when it came on the scene in the 1990s, says Scott Hume, editor of burgerbusiness.com, a website providing news, opinions and insights about burgers and restaurants that serve them.

“But that thinking has changed,” Hume adds, noting that turkey burgers “have taken off” in the past five years.

Turkey burger offerings grew 2.2 percent in 2013 alone, according to MenuMonitor, an online resource for in-depth menu tracking from Technomic, a food marketing research firm. Twelve percent of US restaurant operators offer turkey burgers.

Turkey burgers have found a permanent place in foodservice and home kitchens.

According to research analyst Mintel, the number of turkey burger options increased 53 percent from 2009 to 2011.

“The established restaurant chains all have turkey burgers,” says Norma Farrell, consumer education specialist for the National Turkey Federation.

Along for the ride

The turkey burger has benefitted from the gourmet burger explosion of the past several years, Hume says.

“The way the burger category has exploded, burger concepts have had to differentiate themselves,” Hume explains, noting that burger joints and restaurants began offering weekly or monthly specials to do so.

When those places realized they could source ground turkey regularly and reliably, they kept the turkey burger on menus and utilized it as a concept, Hume adds. A good example is The Counter, a California-based chain that offers custom-built burgers, including the Baja Turkey.

Farrell says Jake’s Wayback Burgers, a Delaware-based chain that’s one of the top 10 fastest-growing restaurant concepts in the country, has also embraced the turkey burger. Jake’s offers the Turkey Burger Club, a turkey burger featuring bacon, lettuce and tomato.

“The trendy, hot, growing chains want turkey burgers on the menu,” Farrell says.

What spurred the turkey burger’s current popularity was its quick-service restaurant (QSR) debut about three years ago, Hume says.

Carl's Jr. Turkey-Jalapeno burger

“When Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s began selling charbroiled turkey burgers, it was a sign that turkey burgers had arrived,” he adds.

That’s because Carl’s Jr.’s and Hardee’s, which operate under CKE Restaurants, market their products heavily to what the chains call “hungry young men.”

“That’s their audience – 18- to 24-year-old young men who like big, overtopped burgers,” Hume says. “If you can sell them turkey burgers, you can sell them to anybody. Because that’s an audience that says burgers should be beef.”

Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, known for their risqué television advertising, hired Miss Turkey to appear in a commercial. The bikini-clad Miss Turkey, who is shown in the commercial biting into a turkey burger, surely attracted young men’s attention, Hume says.

Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s introduced turkey burgers to appease consumers in their 20s and 30s, who are more mindful about what they’re eating than past generations, said Brad Haley, chief marketing officer for CKE Restaurants, the chains’ parent company.

Last spring, Miami-based Burger King offered its customers a turkey burger for a limited time.

Burger King offered a turkey burger as part of the chain's Burger Fest promotion in 2013.

“There’s talk about whether McDonald’s will introduce a turkey burger,” Hume says, noting he believes the chain would if it knew it could get consistent supplies.

“That’s always the No.1 question with a system of that size,” Hume says.

For chains like Denny’s, Ruby Tuesday’s and Applebee’s that offer more than burgers, adding a turkey burger to menus wasn’t a stretch, Hume says. “They’ve done so many sliced-turkey sandwiches that going to a turkey burger wasn’t really a big jump,” he adds.

Chains that haven’t added turkey burgers probably figure they’ve done well enough selling turkey sandwiches that they don’t need to add another turkey option, Hume notes.

Farrell attributes the partial growth of turkey burgers to an increase in ethnic population, particularly people who can’t eat red meat because of religious reasons.

The turkey burger has also benefitted from its lower-fat, fewer-calories reputation. The movement toward more states requiring chain restaurants to list calorie amounts on menus could make turkey burgers look like the healthier option.

Hume thinks this has helped spur the turkey burger’s popularity to a degree. While some consumers may opt for a turkey burger after seeing on a menu that it contains fewer calories than a double-beef burger, Hume believes most consumers who are concerned about nutrition already know that ground turkey is more on the light side than ground beef.

Turkey burgers grew popular in small part because of people’s nutritional concerns, Hume says. “But they became popular in larger part because they are good,” he adds.

Turkey burgers may appeal more to women, but Farrell hopes marketers are targeting men, too.

“I hope that men are equally aware that they need to focus on their intake of healthier foods,” she adds.

The value-added factor

Turkey burgers have found a permanent place not only on many restaurant menus but in consumer dinner plans at home as well, Farrell says.

Honeysuckle White French Onion burger

Cargill’s Honeysuckle White and Shady Brook Farms, based in Wichita, Kan., says it recently introduced six varieties of individually quick-frozen turkey burgers nationwide to meet consumer demand in the growing turkey burger category at retail. Cargill says it performed consumer research before settling on the varieties, which are 87 percent to 93 percent lean and include swiss/bacon/onion, cheddar/jalapeño and swiss/mushroom flavors.

“We found that millennial moms, age 25 to 54, want high-quality protein for their families and they are looking more closely at ingredients, nutritional value, convenience and affordability,” says Mary Richardson, marketing manager for Honeysuckle White and Shady Brook Farms turkey products.

As with beef burgers, new flavors will play an important part in keeping turkey burgers popular in foodservice and at retail, Farrell says, noting that Cargill’s new line also fits the trend and the need for more value-added products in the kitchen.

“The American palate demands many different flavors,” she says. “And turkey is easily adaptable to a variety of flavors.”

Larry Aylward is a freelance editor from Ohio.

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