Consumers are looking for a combination of traditional tastes as well as something new when it comes to today's burgers. 

Most of today’s meat companies that process hamburgers for a living, would attest to two things that at first seem contradictory: Burger products are becoming more and more innovative, featuring many different kinds of “burger designs.” At the same time, they say, hamburgers are among the most traditional meat dishes there are. So how can this be?

“On the one hand, the changes in burger design are taking place because what customers and consumers want in a burger is changing,” says Jamie Schweid, president of Schweid & Sons, a family owned and operated, fourth generation ground beef purveyor headquartered in Carlstadt, New Jersey, not far from New York City. Running the company with Jamie are his brother, Brad Schweid, executive vice president, and their father, founder David Schweid.

So there are “natural” burgers – and there is a big move toward natural ground beef conforming to how government regulators define “natural” foods as “minimally processed.” Schweid believes this move is based on two factors: the affordability of ground beef and its availability. “When the cattle supply was tight, there was no incentive for this,” he says. “But in the last 12 to 18 months, the demand came back. Today, consumers are very interested in where their food comes from and how it is processed. The people who sell burgers and ground beef to them – restaurants and grocery stores – want to supply customers with what they want.”

Burger processors like Schweid & Sons are making burgers from different blends of beef: the chuck brisket, the prime burger, Wagyu beef burger and the Angus beef chuck burger. 

Brent Cator of Canada’s Cardinal Meat Specialists Ltd. based in Brampton, Ontario, believes the “natural” term is misused and is not classified by rigid standards. Although it has driven significant volume in the industry, he is hearing from some of his customers that “natural” may have run its “marketing” course.

In addition to wanting to know what’s in their meat, consumers are also looking for more adventure in what they’re eating, says Cator, president and CEO of the family owned business going back more than 80 years, specializing in burgers and fully cooked products, selling all over Canada and in selected areas of the United States.

“There is a strong push for products perceived to be more transparent and at the same time, more adventurous,” Cator says. “On the transparent side, people are looking for organic, from cattle raised without antibiotics and added hormones, less processed, and more like ‘I had made it at home from scratch.’” For these demands, the company offers blends meeting all those needs with a product called Natural Texture Forming, which forms products with near zero pressure.

Blended Burgers

Looking at changes in burgers, Schweid points to different burger blends: the chuck brisket, the prime burger, highly marbled Wagyu beef and raised all natural, beef chuck from Black Angus cattle, and the Royal Choice, from Certified Hereford beef.

Cator talks about selling ground beef and burgers to restaurants that build on creative toppings. “One area that is clearly growing in interest is ‘stuffed,’” he says. “Chefs love the creativity element in that,” he says. The company makes stuffed burgers that do not explode with heat, without the risk of hot liquids leaking from the patties’ center.

He also thinks foodservice brands looking for new items around the breakfast menu may soon take advantage of pork sausage-based stuffed items.

But Schweid also notes the continued popularity of the traditional, like ½-lb. burgers. “It’s always been the driver, a value proposition. Brioche rolls continue to be very popular – in fact brioche rolls always were the most popular. And we offer a burger we call the “All-American – 100 percent ground beef chuck – can’t get more traditional than that.”

But then he points to another change that isn’t about the meat: “Potato rolls are becoming a force in burgers.”

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In addition to wanting to know what's in their meat, consumers are also looking for more adventure in what they're eating. 
What’s on top?

And then there’s cheese. Plain old American cheese is still tops, far ahead of fancier or more exotic cheeses. “I think it’s part of the heritage with hamburgers,” Schweid says. “Cheese has always been associated with hamburgers – cheeseburgers and hamburgers. But then, on the change side, there are a lot of unique cheeses today that are being used to top burgers.”

Cator believes that burger customization is becoming increasingly important, and that movement is plain to see in 2016. “It’s huge,” he says. “Whether it’s restaurants seeking to own market positions, or groceries trying to advance new front page ads, custom offerings are key, and not just in beef, but also poultry and veggie offerings are growing dramatically,” he says.

There’s no doubt that burgers have become more expensive over the past few years, but both processors agree that hasn’t hurt the market for them at all. “Beef markets have been up for the past few years, based on worldwide supply and demand,” Cator says. But he predicts this beef cost hike will ease meaningfully over the last half of this year.

“They’ve increased in price, no doubt,” Schweid adds. “Beef has gotten more expensive the past few years; there have been higher meat costs so that transfers to burgers.”

The big interest in blends didn’t used to exist in the ground beef industry. “I think it’s because we’re trying to create unique flavor profiles,” Schweid says. “During the past five years, a lot of purveyors and chefs are looking for grinds to provide more flavors in burgers. The Japanese genetics, for example, provide a different flavor and a different texture of beef for burgers.”

Cator notes that different types of beef are unique and have different customer applications. He says blending meat from different species can provide different flavor profiles. “We custom produce blends based on customer needs. We do all meat proteins excluding seafood,” and the company is also Canada’s biggest veggie burger provider.

But he also has a feeling that blending, whether different types of beef or different species, has a great label appeal and is something that’s becoming fashionable, in a way, because it’s really a marketing benefit, more than a product benefit. “Everyone is striving for their point of distinction or distraction, if you know what I mean,” he says. “But blending really may be more cost effective than anything else.”

Consumers today are asking for their burgers to be cooked medium and sometimes rare which has re-ignited the ground beef food safety debate. 

Food safety debate

Schweid and Cator both have opinions about the food safety debate that’s been re-ignited, over how “done” ground beef and burgers should be in order to be eaten safely.

Schweid says in the market he operates in – the Northeast – there seems to be a liking for medium rare burgers. “But the big companies are putting huge amounts of money into food safety. There are a lot of steps taken when the cattle are slaughtered and dressed, to keep the pathogens out.

“At the purveyor level, there are a lot of interventions to reduce E. coli. There is a lot of consumer education, but consumers feel that cooking burgers well done takes all of the flavor out.”

Cator says American consumers demand medium and rare items because the pure beef grinds they ask for are often dry when cooked to safe and proper temperatures. “I think it’s embarrassing that food safety officials have allowed restaurants to hide behind disclaimers on menus which make the consumer responsible for taking the risk in consuming undercooked meats at their establishments,” he says. “North America has dealt with these sorts of food safety hazards proactively and continues to.”