Burgers are big business in this country. And they’re getting bigger, both literally and figuratively.

As anyone who has taken a look at restaurant menus or the supermarket meat case lately can attest, it is clear that while traditional patties remain a marketplace staple, some burgers are more akin to a small meatloaf these days, if not in form than in weight. What’s also hard to miss: the splashy promotions built around new or improved burger lines.

The family-casual chain Chili’s, part of Dallas-based Brinker International, touts its aptly named Big Mouth Burgers in a major new campaign. Meanwhile, McDonald’s has pumped up its burger menu with third-pound Angus burgers, sold with the tagline “Bigger is Better”. Five Guys Enterprises, which started in Arlington, Va. and quickly garnered buzz for its hearty double-patty burgers, was the nation’s fastest-growing chain last year.

Fine-dining restaurants are in on the trend, too, with celebrity chefs like Bobby Flay opening burger joints in hip neighborhoods. If they’re not delving into softball-sized burgers, chefs are spotlighting high-end burgers made with Wagyu beef, pork belly and even foie gras.

On the retail front, pre-portioned beef patties are thicker and wider. Such larger portions are billed as “pub burgers,” “restaurant-style burgers” or simply “premium” burgers.

Foodservice experts say this sizable shift is notable and likely long-lasting. “The burger used to be the center of the bun – now the burger is the center of the meal,” observes New York-based restaurant consultant Clark Wolf.

There is room to grow in this segment, believe it or not. Darren Tristano, executive vice president for market research firm Technomic in Chicago, has followed burger trends for years and points to some newer and even larger products in the works. “It’s definitely across the board,” he reports, citing one QSR that is trying to outdo the competition. “Hardees’ is testing a foot-long cheeseburger, with three burgers on a roll.” (Tristano saw just how big burger portions can get when he recently visited a restaurant called the Heart Attack Grill in Scottsdale, Az., which serves up a 2-lb. patty on a bun. And yes, he finished it.)

It’s not like there isn’t an audience for burgers. As a recent Technomic study revealed, 85 percent of consumers polled said they eat a burger at least once a month. Technomic pegs the burger market in this country at $65 million – and growing.

Why big is bigger
The appeal of the humble groundmeat sandwich, of course, is not new. There is a reason why German pushcart vendors found early success with their Hamburg-inspired, hand-held meals and why fast-food hamburger restaurants grew so rapidly in the middle part of the last century.

As Tom Tonra, product manager, forming at Provisur Technologies/ Formax in Mokena, Ill, puts it: “The standard statement is that something is as All-American as hot dogs and apple pie. I think we need to amend that and say burgers and apple pie.” He, too, says the big-burger movement is evident across the food chain, from the highest-end eateries to fast-food franchises to home tables.

The latest evolution – make that expansion – of the hamburger can be attributed to many factors in today’s marketplace. One significant driver is the economy.

“The burger is a recurring theme. It comes and goes and can be affected by a lot of things in culture, but it’s definitely an economic issue right now,” observes eatery consultant Wolf. “People are spending more money now on big, good casual meals. Plus, a lot of protein in tough times makes you feel strong.”

Likewise, Tristano says big burgers satisfy consumers’ penchant for goodtasting food that they don’t have to feel guilty about eating, at least from a budget perspective. “The steak chains aren’t doing that well, but burgers are a great value. A burger is filling, it’s comfort food and you just can’t beat its price,” he says.

Although burgers are once again a culinary darling, it’s not your father’s burger. Certainly, traditional ground beef is used in majority of burgers, but increasingly, burgers are billed by the type of beef used in the grind, whether it’s by breed, like Angus, Kobe or Wagyu, or the type of cut, such as prime or sirloin.

Rob Kovacik, manager of sales and marketing for equipment manufacturer Hollymatic, Countryside, Ill., agrees that bigger burgers often go hand-in-hand with the notion of better burgers. “It’s the enhanced quality of the product and craving for more than just the ‘mystery meat’ hockey puck by the on-the-go-public,” he says. Foodservice operators who have introduced bigger burgers agree that today’s patrons know what they like. “McDonald’s recognized the opportunity to create a product for burger enthusiasts. Our customers have told us that they love the taste and quality of a bigger, premium burger and we’re providing them with a unique and high-quality taste experience with the premium Angus burger at the everyday value and convenience McDonald’s can offer,” remarks Danya Proud, spokesperson for McDonald’s USA, Oak Brook, Ill.

As foodservice operators across many categories are scoring with big burgers, people who grill or cook their own burgers at home are embracing larger portions, as well. “This trend does also appear to be gaining momentum at the retail level,” says Kovacik, who notes that ground beef remains the most-popular item in the meat case. “Marketing a quality fresh product catches the consumer’s eye.” |

Looking good
As part of the demand for bigger, premium burgers, taste and appearance are more important than ever among today’s discerning burger eaters.

For example, manufacturers of forming systems report that processors are creating burgers with a more hand-formed appearance “Everyone is looking for that consistency in portion size, yet they don’t want that stamped look,” Tonra says, adding that Formax developed its own HomeStyle patty system for consistent portion control, as well as a natural, irregular appearance and a texture that is “second to none.”

Achieving a premium look for a comfort-food favorite also was a priority for Reiser. The Canton, Mass.-based company has added to its line with a high-speed gourmet patty former, the Vemag FM250.

“Our customers, the processors, are determined to differentiate their products,” says John McIsaac, vice president of strategic business development. “Mega-burgers with a premium look have quickly become a way to differentiate. Unlike tradtional mold-plate formers, our Vemag FM250 uses low-pressure forming to produce gourmet patties with a true ‘homestyle’ appearance. The result is a burger with a homemade look and a more tender bite and texture.”

Processors are also looking for the flexibility to efficiently produce different burgers, along with other products, he adds. “The Vemag provides this flexibility--it allows quick changeovers to run different shapes and sizes,” he continues. “It can handle blends that include particulates such as cheese, bacon or mushrooms. It also means flexible systems to allow interleaving and stacking of product, as well as automatic placement into trays. “We believe the processors will continue to add new looks,” McIsaac says. “We are adding different belts and rollers to put different textures and scores on the burger surfaces. We will continue to listen to our customers and work to keep them ahead of the trends.”

Equipment manufacturers are upgrading machines used for ground meat and burger production in other ways. “The target that all processors are looking for is bigger, stronger and higher volume with lower cost of ownership and we’ve put a concentration on that in our designs, both in updating existing designs and in new forming equipment we’ve developed over the last five years,” reports Tonra. Among other changes, Formax is showing customers how to upgrade existing equipment with new features that allow them to form something completely different than they’ve done in the past. In addition, the company offers the Tender-Form tooling system that allows users to cook or freeze a patty using less energy and a more equilibrated temperature throughout the process.

Today’s formers are, just like the burgers they create, getting bigger and better. New Lenox, Ill.-headquartered NuTEC Manufacturing, for instance, offers processors a larger former that runs up to 28,800 patties per hour.

Technology is helping create bigger, premium burgers in a variety of ways. At Hollymatic, Kovacik says that the company has moved to PLC controls for filling systems with larger production machines. “The machine can be programmed to stay in the filling position for a longer period of time, thus allowing for larger portions, exceeding 8 to 10 ounces and higher,” he explains.

Of course, in talking about ground meat, food safety remains a top priority for those who prepare and serve hamburgers and for those who make the equipment on which raw product is processed. “Every processor in the world will tell you that issue number one is sanitation, and Formax equipment is designed and built for easy cleaning and maximum hygiene” concurs Tonra.

Such farm-to-mouth efforts for safety, quality, consistency and volume will likely continue as big burgers stick around for a while. “The larger burger is going to have a more permanent place. I think it’s here to stay,” predicts Wolf.

Lynn Petrak is a free-lance writer based in the Chicago area.