Beefless burgers gaining in popularity

by Monica Watrous
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CHICAGO – Turkey, veggie and seafood patties are popping up on more burger menus, according to market researcher Technomic Inc., Chicago.

With beef prices on the rise and a shift in consumer eating habits, restaurant operators are keen to cater to meatless diets as well as experiment with exotic proteins, said Lauren Hallow, an assistant editor at Technomic.

“We’ve seen some really creative alternatives,” Hallow said.

Options range from an edamame cashew patty at Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar in North Carolina to ground kangaroo meat at The Thirsty Koala in New York to a chargrilled shrimp burger at The Habit Burger Grill, a chain with locations in California and Arizona. Customers at Bareburger in New York may choose lamb, wild boar, elk, bison or ostrich burgers.

Larger chains also are jumping on the beefless patty wagon. Both The Cheesecake Factory and Red Robin Gourmet Burgers serve turkey and garden burgers. Seasons 52’s menu features a tuna burger, and Ted’s Montana Grill, which offers a choice of beef or bison on its burger menu, has a housemade veggie patty. In March, Burger King introduced its first-ever turkey burger and a veggie burger for a limited time.

These options are designed to appeal to health-conscious consumers, Hallow said. However, some sandwich components, including popular turkey topper mayonnaise, contribute more calories than lighter condiments such as mustard. Burger King’s turkey burger contains 530 calories, nearly as many as a McDonald’s Big Mac, which has 550 calories.

“Customers perceive these to be healthier,” she said. “But you’ve got cheese on the burger, the bun, the sauce.”

Non-beef burgers may be dressed differently than a traditional patty. For example, a salmon burger may feature a dill sauce, and turkey burgers commonly are topped with avocado or cranberries, said Hallow.
“Burgers have been getting makeovers in past years, moving toward grass-fed or 100 percent Angus beef,” she said. “The next step, a way to move on from better burgers, is better-for-you burgers, with leaner proteins like turkey and chicken.”

The number of chicken burgers on restaurant menus rose 60 percent from the period between January and March 2012 to the period between January and March 2013, according to Technomic’s MenuMonitor data. During that time, turkey burgers increased by about 25 percent, seafood burgers grew by nearly 9 percent and garden or veggie burgers rose by more than 7 percent. The data reflects findings from 905 restaurant menus between January and March 2012 and 907 restaurant menus between January and March 2013.

“A lot of smaller chains have been adding black bean or fish or turkey burgers, but Burger King is the first major chain to offer one,” Ms. Hallow noted. “It will be interesting to see what other restaurants will do now that Burger King has done it.”

While beef remains the choice between-the-bun bite, alternatives deliver the indulgence of a burger over a boring chicken breast sandwich, Hallow said.

“Something we’ve seen more with consumers is that there is something more appealing about a burger,” she said. “They’re big, juicy, flavorful. A sandwich is kind of just something you bring for lunch.”

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