Surprisingly, celebrity chef Michael Symon, a James Beard Foundation award-winning chef, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who also earned the title of “Iron Chef” in 2007, says he’d rather have a hamburger than a steak anytime.

“I love hamburgers,” says Symon, who appears on the Food Network regularly. “I love the juices running down my arm. There’s just something incredibly satisfying about eating a burger.”

Symon adores hamburgers so much that he opened a chain of hamburger-themed restaurants called B Spot in the Cleveland area. B Spot offers premium hamburgers made from a custom-blended grind supplied by North Bergen, NJ-based Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors. The 16 specialty burgers on the menu, including the Symon Says burger (with bologna, coleslaw, sauce and American cheese) and the Kojak (burger with gyro meat, tzatziki sauce, lettuce, tomato, onion and feta cheese), aren’t cheap – they cost $6 to $9 – but they’re selling well.

Symon opened the first of his four restaurants in 2009. His timing was spot on. Burger consumption has spiked since 2009, with nearly half of today’s consumers saying they eat a burger at least once a week compared with 38 percent two years ago, according to a recent study by Technomic, a Chicago-based food and beverage industry research and consulting firm. One reason for the increase is the continued prominence of burgers on quick-service value menus, according to Technomic. But another big reason for the increase is the specialty burger craze that has spurred growth completely separate from pricing, which Symon has helped spear. These “better burgers” have gained a reputation for quality and are making an impact.

“The better burger restaurants in the fast-casual segment have put the burger top-of-mind for consumers, and even the quick-service chains have begun to respond and focus portions of their menus specifically on quality perceptions,” says Sara Monnette, Technomic’s director of consumer research.

Symon isn’t surprised that more people are eating burgers. “The burger is one of the true American classics and is at the heart of American cuisine,” he says.

Dave Zino, executive chef for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, also says the increase isn’t unexpected.

“The burger is iconic,” he adds. “It’s part of our fabric.”

The folks at Lorton, Va.-based Five Guys Burgers and Fries are certainly not surprised. While Five Guys doesn’t offer burgers topped with fried eggs and bacon like B Spot does, it does offer a high-end product that has fueled the better- burger craze.

Five Guys opened its first location in Arlington, Va., in 1986. After opening five company-owned restaurants, Five Guys began selling franchises in 2002. In 2006, there were 76 US locations. At the end of 2011 there were 946 locations.

Molly Catalano, director of communications for Five Guys Burgers and Fries, says the chain has attracted a loyal following, which has been instrumental in its success.

“I think it’s because we’ve remained true to our roots,” she adds. “We have a very simple product, and we haven’t changed our menu. We spend a lot of time on maintaining quality and simplicity.”

Catalano says Five Guys is capitalizing on America’s long love affair with hamburgers. At the fast-food level, McDonald’s sales are soaring, she points out. Other restaurant chains, such as Applebee’s, have also had success selling hamburgers. Chains like Five Guys, as well as other regional independent operators, have only expanded the concept.

“And consumers have responded by buying them,” Catalano adds.

But it’s probably not a coincidence that chains like McDonald’s and Burger King are offering more high-end burgers in the wake of Five Guys’ and other regional chains’ success, including the iconic West Coast chain, IN-N-OUT Burger. McDonald’s introduced its Angus line of burgers a few years ago. Burger King recently introduced the Chef’s Choice Burger.

Chef’s special

Monnette isn’t surprised that prominent chefs like Symon and Bobby Flay, who opened nine Bobby’s Burger Palace restaurants on the East Coast, have turned their attention to the hamburger.

“[The hamburger] is a platform that can be upscale or it can be value-oriented and convenient,” she says. “The chefs are using it as a platform to create their own burgers, and they see a lot of opportunity in it.”

Consumers assume burgers created by Symon and Flay must be good, considering their culinary pedigree.

Consumers also place value in the environment where they’re eating such burgers. If it’s Bobby’s Burger Palace, consumers have a higher perception of quality because the restaurant’s environment is a step above that of a fast-food restaurant, Monnette explains.

For Symon, the B Spot chain is serious business. He says he used “the same thought process” opening his casual-atmosphere burger restaurants that he did with opening his high-end restaurants, which are located in Cleveland and Detroit.

“We wanted to make sure that when we did the burger concept, we put a lot of thought into it,” he says.

“It’s actually harder to get a great burger than a great steak,” he adds. “If you want a great steak, you go to a great butcher and you get some aged beef. To a get a great burger, a lot more goes into it. You have to get the right level of fat and the right grind. It has to be formed the right way. All of that happens before you cook it.”

Symon says he tried countless grinds and combinations before settling on his menu. He aims for a minimum of 23 percent fat in the grind, with 25 percent being the goal.

“We achieve that by blending three whole muscles,” he says. “We grind short rib, brisket and sirloin – only whole muscle and of equal parts. We coarse grind it twice so it has more of that beefy, steak flavor. We grind it coarse because we want people to see the quality of beef that we use.”

Incidentally, branded grinds could be a trend within the segment, according to the NCBA. In-house meat grinding – chefs using proprietary blends of cuts (short ribs plus chuck) and grind-ins (bacon ground into the beef) – is becoming more popular.

Another secret to creating a great burger is proper handling when packing a beef patty, Symon says.

“I’m a firm believer that burger meat should be loosely packed,” he says. “It shouldn’t be rolled into this tight meatball and smashed.”

The topping factor has helped drive the better burger evolution, Monnette says. Consider Five Guys, which offers 15 free toppings that its customers can get with their burger purchase, including grilled onions, green peppers, jalapeno peppers, grilled mushrooms and a variety of sauces.

But chefs like Symon and Flay, as well as operators of other specialty burger outlets, are taking toppings to another level. Symon’s concept calls for meat on meat.

“We thought of the bacon cheeseburger, and then we just started thinking of different meats to play the role of the bacon,” he says. “We tried every piece of meat you could possibly fathom.”

Toppings will continue to fuel the category’s growth, Monnette says.

“People will pay more for burgers with them,” she adds.

That said, Symon doesn’t apologize for the price of his burgers. The cost is rooted in the high-end products used to create them, including the grind.

Symon says that chefs like Flay and him are educating consumers that burgers can be more stimulating than people imagine, even though they’re not as affordable.

“Better” for you?

Do consumers believe that eating better burgers is healthier for them? Monnette doesn’t think so. Considering that some burgers use a grind that’s 75 percent lean, she’s right.

But better burgers can be made from lean ground beef, Zino says, noting that he has a recipe featuring 95 percent lean ground beef, an egg white and breadcrumbs to create what he says is a “great burger.”

But consumers view better burgers as something more than fast food. The better-burger movement has made consumers more aware of quality.

Consumers consider the meat source of their burgers.

“There’s a higher demand for grass-fed beef or hormone-free beef,” Monnette says. “There’s also a demand for more locally produced beef.”

At the plant level, Jan Hood, category manager for Cargill Value-Added Meats Foodservice in Wichita, Kan., says she is seeing inquiries for burgers made from raw materials that help provide foodservice operators a better way to market the items on their menus, like Angus, USDA Choice, Chuck and to some extent hormone/antibiotic-free beef.

“We are producing to customer specifications, some of which are developed in collaboration with Cargill,” Hood says. “It begins with the cattle and knowing the producers they come from. Beyond that, it goes back to customer specifications and what we do to meet those requirements by providing them with quality, nutritious, flavorful and affordable ground beef products.”

Burger bubble won’t burst

The burger may be regarded as a commodity, but not when chefs are putting their own special twists on it, Zino says.

“That’s what sets them apart,” Zino says. “If you can build a better perception with a better burger and get a better price for it, that’s all the better.”

Monnette predicts increased burger consumption will continue, partly driven by better burgers.

“I say that because we saw double-digit growth in a lot of better burger chains last year,” she says. “And it’s demand that’s driving the growth.”

With tightening beef supplies, burger costs could rise. But steak prices could rise, too, and people eating higher cuts of beef could trade down to eating less-expensive better burgers, Zino explains.

“They might see the burger as an alternative, especially if it has value to it,” he adds. If it’s just ground beef on a bun, there’s not much value perception. But if it’s a specialty burger, there’s a value that consumers will pay for, Zino says.

Symon also expects the better- burger movement to remain strong. “We did a lot of research before [opening B Spot] because we want to be in this for the long haul,” Symon says.

No surprise there. The man loves hamburgers, after all.