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Americans Love Burgers. But How We Want Them Is Changing.

Consumer Insights, Food Trends, Ingredient Trends, Innovation, Menu Trends

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Burgers – hamburgers, cheeseburgers and varieties of all kinds – are some of Americans’ favorite foods, but burger trends, consumer tastes and consumption habits are changing, and foodservice professionals need data-driven insights to stay ahead. 

Datassential’s recently released Burgers keynote report offers fresh insights from consumers on how often they eat burgers, what toppings and proteins they crave, and what kinds of carriers (buns) they want to encase them. The report also offers a look beyond burger trends at how and where we get our burger fix (76% of consumers have had a burger within the last week) and where the opportunities are for operators, manufacturers and distributors. (Also, check out this article if you want to know how burger and sandwich trends are changing in Europe.)

But we’ll get right to the burger meat of it. Here are some key findings from the report: 

Consistent consumption

On average, American consumers eat three burgers a month from foodservice operators, and a vast majority of those burgers are from fast-food (QSR.) Casual dining chains are starting to take some more burger business, though, as rising prices (accelerating faster in QSR than any other segment) make the jump to a full-service dining experience easier. Still, all segments of foodservice are making their fair share on burgers – 45% of consumers buy them from fine dining restaurants on occasion. On the whole, consumers are eating about the same number of burgers – no matter where they get them – as they did a year ago. 

Critical core menu item

Just about every operator who has a burger on their menu knows how tempting they can be for consumers, but here’s a look at the (very positive) numbers: Two in 5 operators say burger sales have increased over the past year, while only 4% say sales have decreased. Operators who offer burgers report that burgers typically comprise about a quarter of overall food sales. They also have a relatively low food cost – an average of 27%.  

More than half of operators serving burgers say that they are a central part of their offerings, and two-thirds say that burgers are a profit center for their operation.

Plant-based is leveling off

While plant-based burgers certainly are still in demand from some consumers, specifically the small slice of consumers who are vegetarian or vegan, the novelty of these menu items for meat eaters has waned, and once-explosive growth is leveling off.  

While 2 in 5 operators offer plant-based burgers, and nearly half offer a veggie/garden burger, less than half say that vegetarian/vegan burgers can match the popularity of a burger made with meat.  And consumers are also less willing to pay more for plant-based options than they were just three years ago. 

Consumers demand (some) customization

At least some degree of customization is now standard at most restaurants, with more than half of operators now offering a completely customizable “build-your-own” burger – a menu feature that is up 4% from three years ago. A third of operators allow patrons to substitute ingredients. 

Still, many consumers want what operators are offering – a “traditional” burger with simple ingredients, like lettuce, onion, ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard and bacon. And while just over half of consumers usually order burgers as they are listed on the menu, one in five fully customized their last burger and almost a third (32%) modified their order, making over half of burger occasions customized. 

Customization is also aligned with consumers’ increased desire for value. If consumers know they can order exactly what they want – maybe add some ingredients they normally wouldn’t have at home – that adds value to their overall experience. Operators that allow their patrons to customize both traditional and innovative burger options are poised to win in terms of customer loyalty and satisfaction. 

Don’t reinvent the burger wheel. 

Over half of operators say that burgers act as a canvas to be creative and highlight interesting food trends. At the same time, most consumers love a classic burger with standard toppings. So how do operators balance the two? By staying within some well-worn lanes, but shaking their burger recipes up where it makes sense. 

What does this mean in practice? Maybe you don’t need a burger with bison meat and peanut butter, but instead a burger with an elevated cheese, premium beef, or bacon and eggs.

What consumers really want

There are several aspects of the burger where demand for consumers is greater than the current operator offering, spelling an opportunity. Here are some of those examples: 

Buns/Carriers: Consumers desire more upscale, savory burger buns like sesame, sourdough, pretzel, Kaiser, and potato. If operators want to make a swap, consider options like plain hamburger buns and brioche, which consumers still enjoy but the appeal is lower than the operator offering. 

Cheese: Cheddar and American cheese are by far the most popular topping on a cheeseburger, but there is some unmet demand with smoked cheese, providing an enticing flavor enhancer, as well as buttery, nutty Monterey Jack. Premium cheddar varieties on burgers appeal to about half of consumers, but only a quarter of operators offer them, pointing to another opportunity to easily innovate and elevate burger offerings. 

Protein: Upscale meats are another big opportunity – a third of consumers would be enticed by premium beef burger patties (wagyu, brisket or short rib) or meat toppings like pork belly.

And last but not least – don’t forget the toppings! Consider using an elevated sauce with a global twist to easily innovate an existing burger. A hint of spice or sweet can add complexity to burgers, and these flavors are particularly appealing to younger customers. 

This is just the tip of the iceberg (lettuce) when it comes to fresh insights on current and future burger trends. 

Want to see the full report, including deep analysis on consumer and operator perspectives, and exhaustive research on target customers and growing flavors? Reach out here to get your copy.

Samantha Des Jardins is the Content Marketing Manager at Datassential.