The gourmet burger business is helping support wholesale ground beef prices at a time when retail sales are weak.

Sliders, those increasingly popular mini-burgers, are helping halt the swoon in the ground beef complex. Although beef sliders date back nearly 100 years, they have become one of the hottest items in the hamburger business both in the US and globally. The gourmet burger business meanwhile continues to thrive in the US. Both categories are helping support wholesale ground beef prices at a time when retail sales continue to be weak.

Americans still eat billions of burgers each year, well in excess of 11 billion in fact. Eight out of 10 foodservice establishments serve hamburgers, and ground beef accounts for 63 percent of all beef sales in the sector, and 37 percent of the beef revenue. The big names, from McDonald’s to Jack in the Box, still dominate the hamburger business. But sales weren’t exactly stellar in the past year, as other chains continued to take away market share. McDonald’s on March 1 said it was going back to basics and focus on its burgers and improving their quality.

Names that are likely well-known to burger aficionados and are quickly garnering iconic status include: Cook Out, 211 locations, all in the Southeast; Habit Burger, 160-plus locations in 10 states; BurgerFi, 83 locations in 23 states; Burger Lounge, 24 locations in California and Nevada; Umami Burger, 24 locations in California, Illinois, Nevada and New York; Bobby’s Burger Place, 17 locations in 10 eastern states; Hopdoddy Burger Bar, 17 stores in Arizona, California, Colorado and Texas; Larkburger, 13 locations in Colorado and Kansas; and Halo Burger, 10 locations in Michigan.

Most appear to be adding locations through franchising and all seek to differentiate themselves as much as possible from the giants. Cook Out, based in Greensboro, North Carolina, says it uses fresh never frozen hamburger patties, and Delray Beach, Florida-based BurgerFi has focused on traditional fare in a roadhouse setting.

These chains and others have increased the demand for ground beef, especially that made from more than just beef trimmings. They are asking for patties made from muscle meat (chucks, rounds and sirloins) and everything from Angus to Wagyu beef. This means specialty beef producers can get a premium for parts of a carcass that will go through a grinder.

Beef sliders meanwhile are helping boost ground beef consumption in their own unique way. Sliders date back to 1921 when White Castle introduced them as its signature item. A tiny patty with just a bun, onion and a pickle sold initially for $0.05 each. White Castle even trademarked the spelling variant “slyder” and used the name between 1983 and 2009.

Slider purists for years have claimed a true slider should contain only those four ingredients. They would be mortified at what Israeli-based chain Burgerim offers. Its 2.8-oz. mini-patties include regular beef, aged beef, Wagyu beef, lamb, salmon, turkey and spicy Moroccan meat. It even offers a veggie burger. Burgerim encourages its customers to order several sliders at a time, and its motto is “Always more than one.” It also emphasizes how customers can mix flavors in one sitting. Founded in 2005, Burgerim began franchising internationally in 2011 and in 2015 expanded to the US, the UK, Spain, Romania and Russia. It has three locations in California and one each in Texas and Tennessee but has dozens more planned.

The growing popularity of sliders and other gourmet burgers come at a time when ground beef’s tepid performance at retail continues to alarm the US beef industry. Sales of the industry’s most ubiquitous product have now been weak for 36 months. Part of the swoon is because of ground beef’s price versus the price of competing meats. Part is due to consumers’ rediscovery of their love for a good steak.