The buzz over burgers

In the last decade, we’ve witnessed incredible strides in nutritional food offerings in the supermarket and in restaurants. Going in the complete opposite direction is the burger. With ample amounts of meat, cheese and grease, burgers have never been synonymous with healthy snack foods.

Eating healthy is crucial, but so is indulgence. Instead of trying to fit a circle in the square peg, a new pedigree of burger joints aims to fit a humungous circle in an even bigger circular peg. These new restaurants treat the burger as the emblem of decadence, as if to say, “If you are going to cheat on your diet, cheat in style and cheat with us.”

I was first clued in to this during a recent visit to Los Angeles where an Angeleno ushered me to Umami Burger — “umami” being the little-known fifth attribute of basic taste (after sweet, sour, salty and bitter), describing savory flavor notes. Simply put, it was one of the best burgers I’ve ever had, and with such a unique combination of toppings.

Upon returning to Toronto to extol my recent discovery, I realized the umami craze wasn’t exclusive to SoCal. We now have two restaurants within a 10-minute drive from my office jockeying for position as the most decadent and artery-clogging in the city ± The Burger’s Priest and Holy Chuck. To give you a mental picture, when I visited the latter, I had a double bacon cheeseburger with the buns replaced by grilled cheese sandwiches and topped off with a peanut butter and jelly milkshake. I’m still working off the calories.

The remarkable fact is that these outlets of gastronomic awe are attracting big crowds — crowds that leave a little bigger, but that’s beside the point. These are not $8.99 burgers with fries. Full meals can land in the $20 range, and the foie gras patty commands a staggering $35 with fries and a drink. Did I mention that the shoestring fries are outstanding? Clearly, it’s not just the kids eating here.

Now turn the tables on your own menu. Reviewing your traditional hamburger and revamping this perennial favorite is neither complex nor costly. Think extremes — your F&B choices should either trend towards incredibly healthy or wholly indulgent. And this doesn’t even have to start and stop with burgers. Many of these changes are so easy that you could probably develop an action plan within 24 hours. So, in no particular order, here are some of my suggestions.

1. You have a soup of the day — why not the burger of the day? Imagine if your server said something like, “Today’s soup is chicken vegetable, and today’s burger is lamb with provolone and grilled onions.” Surprising, alluring and all part of the experience.

2. Create a completely separate burger menu. Start with the basics: regular and cheeseburger, and then add a series of additional items. Depending upon suppliers, this could include lamb, chicken and turkey patties as well as vegetarian varieties made from lentils, chickpeas, beets or falafel.

3. Be creative with the menu names. Don’t just call it a lamb burger with cheese, but something fun or fitted to a common theme, and then detail the ingredients.

4. I am less of a fan of fries included with an order. They too should be looked at as an opportunity for variation: regular, sweet potato, thick cut (wedges), Cajun-spiced or Coney Island. Maybe even consider some variation to your onion rings.

5. Have at lease one outlandish burger item. How about a triple patty with four different types of cheese and bacon? You may sell only a few of these, but don’t count on them as high-turn items. They are chiefly on the list for discussion amongst your patrons and public relations value.

6. The bun is also critical. Cheap, factory-made bread is a thing of the past. Try pita, whole wheat and gluten-free. Kaiser buns are great for holding loads of toppings, preventing big patties from slipping and soaking up sauce.

7. Burgers are fun to eat, and they should be fun to sell, too. Engage your waitstaff with this special burger program. Involve them in the naming processes and topping selections. This could also include providing bibs and extra serviettes for those who order the “monster” on the menu — creating a sense of anticipation.

8. Burgers are a good fit with social media programs. Have a property event where fans can taste your incredible new creations. Take photos. Post them on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest. Create even more buzz with contests. Additional idea: Put one or two burger creations on your social media only, and see what happens.

Alas, you’re not going to win any diet awards for these activities, but you will have fun, raise your profile and, hopefully, build revenues as well.