A classic American menu item balances the familiar with the fantastic.

Burgers remain at the top of the handheld heap when it comes to prepared sandwiches. Research by global market intelligence firm Technomic Inc. found that burgers accounted for 44 percent of total US handheld sales followed by sub sandwiches at 13 percent and deli sandwiches at 11 percent.

For consumers, burgers represent a classic American menu item that can serve as the jump-off to new ingredients and flavors. Foodservice operators view burgers as a low-cost platform for innovation and differentiation.

“Burgers are a menu classic – found on half of all menus,” global consumer research firm Datassential says. “We don’t track demand, but for the past several years, the number of restaurants offering burgers has hovered around 50 percent. We also recently found that trending ingredients will often debut in burgers before moving to other parts of the menu. Their lower price point compared to other entrees, especially dinner entrees, often means consumers are willing to take more risks here and order a burger.”

Datassential points to chains such as Red Robin and Wendy’s as foodservice concepts that perform well on purchase intent and uniqueness.

“Burgers are the ideal platform for safe experimentation as nearly all toppings on a burger seem at least somewhat familiar,” according to Datassential. “Red Robin often has items that build on their successful model in this way. Wendy’s will also offer a wide variety of LTOs [limited-time offers] with a particularly strong one being the Truffle Bacon Cheeseburger from September, which has the safe item of applewood smoked bacon, but paired with truffle aioli, which is rarely offered at QSRs.”

Picking proteins

Datassential found that beef was the leading protein for burgers, appearing on 38 percent of US restaurant menus. But meat and poultry are competing with alternative proteins for a share of consumers’ plates. The Power of Meat annual study of retail meat consumers showed that meat alternatives are gaining ground in foodservice as well as retail.

Veggie, turkey and premium Angus beef were among the top burger proteins behind beef; while the top proteins growing in popularity over the past four years include salmon, lamb, black beans and bison, according to Datassential. Driving this trend toward alternative proteins are consumer demand for variety; nutrition concerns; ease of preparation and cost.

Sports bar Walk-On’s in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, recently combined the trends of alternative proteins and hot and spicy seasonings to create the Ahi tuna burger, a fresh 8-oz. seared Ahi tuna filet topped with gochujang sauce, caramelized onions, Swiss cheese, oven-roasted tomatoes and garlic aioli served on a toasted brioche bun.

Health-conscious consumers are turning to bison as their burger protein of choice. The Agricultural Research Service (ARS) of the US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) states that 0.22 lbs. of raw bison (separable lean only) contains 109 calories and 1.8 g. of fat, while the same amount of choice grade ground beef contains 291 calories and 24 g. of fat.

“While the majority of Americans view burgers as a good source of nutrients, this is more indicative of health concerns being a non-factor as opposed to seeing burgers as a healthy choice. Further, we find that the decreasing consumption of beef is not affecting consumption of burgers, driven by Americans seeking more non-beef burger options,” Caleb Bryant, foodservice analyst at Chicago-based Mintel, a global marketing and research firm, said recently after the release of Mintel’s The State of the Burger report. “Non-beef burgers appeal to diners for a number of reasons. Beyond offering less fatty, more nutritious alternatives, non-beef burgers tend to have a ‘wow’ factor as they are new and different to many consumers. Having a line-up of non-beef burgers can help a restaurant’s menu stand out from other restaurants’ burger offerings.”

Mintel’s report found that nearly half of consumers wanted to see more chicken burgers on menus, while 42 percent of consumers surveyed expressed interest in more turkey burgers. Another 34 percent of consumers said they wanted to see more bison burgers on restaurant menus. Diners at Ted’s Montana Grill locations can get burgers with bison or beef. A veggie burger also is on the menu.