The world is flat, or at least that part of the world that is the restaurant business in 2016. Flat sales. Flat (at best) customer traffic. The National Restaurant Association’s Restaurant Performance Index, which index the industry’s health, stood at 100.8 in October (the latest available), virtually unchanged from its 100.6 in January. The NPD Group reported that the number of QSR hamburger restaurants open in its Spring 2016 count was 51,694, just 229 fewer than a year ago, or…flat.
That doesn’t mean the year hasn’t had its curves. The burger business never is boring. It has been a year when delivering food or selling it at supermarkets were all the buzz. When hot dogs were on burger menus and almost everything seemed to have sriracha on it, and when “house-made” became mainstream. When “Have It Your Way” became everyone’s slogan. When Chipotle crashed and then opened a burger concept. When breakfast went 24/7 at McDonald’s.
It also has been a year when every day, thousands of burger joints created dozens of new ideas for how to prepare a burger and planned where to open their next locations. The burger business is very much alive.
Even in a flat year, of course, there are highs and lows. These are just some of them:
BURGER OF THE YEAR:
McDonald’s Lone Star Stack (Texas only)
This is a business award, not a culinary one, so the Lone Star Stack wins not because it tastes great but because it’s important, because it embodies 2016 so well. This year has all been about customization and regionalism, about building your own and about asking customers what they want in a burger. In March, McDonald’s Houston co-op announced a competition to find the “official McDonald’s burger for the great state of Texas.” Consumers were asked to submit their burger ideas (using McDonald’s existing pantry) and it received 27,170 entries. From among five finalists, diners chose the Lone Star Stack: a quarter-pound beef patty, white Cheddar, applewood-smoked bacon, caramelized onions and sweet onion BBQ sauce between Texas Toast.
Mobile apps, loyalty cards, local taste preferences, social media and all are about getting closer to customers, getting in touch with their wants. The Lone Star Stack exemplifies that.
MOST INTRIGUING BURGER OF THE YEAR
The PsychoBilly, Gourmet Burger Kitchen, UK
Lamb patty, beetroot & mint hummus, whipped goat’s cheese, Cajun relish, piquillo pepper and lettuce. Could you ask for more flavor that that? This is the epitome of the sophisticated burgers we see overseas before the trends emigrate here.
BURGER CHAIN OF THE YEAR:
The chain showed that it was fallible (customer traffic declined 0.7% in Q3), but it still seemed unstoppable. While other burger concepts struggled to keep their heads above water, Shake Shack kept opening new stores (10 in Q3 and another 22 planned for 2017) and posting sales (averaging $103,000 a week) that no one else can touch. It took the Chik’n Shack chicken sandwich national to strong sales and it began testing a Salt & Pepper Honey Chick’n Shack. A flood of LTOs has included brats for Octoberfest, a Goat Burger for the Chicago Cubs, an Al Roker burger and more. Its Bacon Cheddar Shack burger (above) is back and proving that simple—but high quality—sells, even at $6.89.
SMALL CHAIN OF THE YEAR
Standing for something and carving a niche truly all your own is tough in the burger business but Fairlawn, Ohio-based The Rail has done that. It’s a proudly Ohio concept, with locations added in North Olmsted, Canton and Strongsville. Its burgers are 100% Ohio beef or chicken; its bacon, eggs and more also are locally sourced (this month’s pie specials are from a bakery in Medina, Ohio). It creates not only wonderful Burger of the Month specials but also inventive weekend burger specials. One recent creation was the Spicy Pork Melt: A half-pound Ohio beef burger with honey habanero BBQ pork, pepper-Jack cheese sauce, lettuce, tomato and tobacco onions on Texas Toast
BURGER CHAIN OF THE YEAR (INTERNATIONAL)
Since opening first in Vilnius, Lithuania, in 2013, the concept has spread to Bulgaria with two units. Every crazy burger special tell me co-founders Adel Zakout and Lachezar Tsachev are having a hell of a good time. Consider the Slumdog Millionaire (yogurt & tandoori marinated fried chicken, Indian pickles, masala aïoli, iceberg lettuce and fresh tomato) or the Hotter Than Your Sister (Black Angus beef patty, melted Cheddar, Texas-style chili, sour cream, jalapeňos, Doritos, Boom! Sauce, lettuce and tomato). We all should have such fun.
INDEPENDENT OF THE YEAR
The winner is every indie burger joint that devotes itself to raising funds to help those who need a hand. I’ve always been impressed by how connected to their communities most independent burger shops are. Standard Burger in Staten Island, N.Y., is offering a Toys for Tots Burger this month, with 10% of sales going to Toys for Tots. At a time when so many people’s hearts have Grinched, burger-shop operators continually extend a hand, and my hat’s off to you all.
OVER THE TOP BURGER OF THE YEAR:
The Skeletonwich; Kuma’s Corner, Indianapolis
Signature beef patty, venison salsa-verde chili, house-made cactus tortilla strips, Carolina Reaper stuffed chile relleno and Romesco sauce.
[I carry this description in my wallet as an answer to the “What’s the craziest burger you’ve seen?” question.]
MOST DISAPPOINTING BURGER OF THE YEAR:
Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s Midnight Moonshine Burger
Yeah, yeah, yeah. We’d seen this snickering “Let’s pretend it has liquor in it!” schtick before from Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s. Its Jim Beam Bacon Burger in 2013 was the same deal. The brilliantly simple California Classic Double Cheeseburger and all-natural chicken breast fillet that Carl’s introduced this year held promise that the brand was going to grow up, but apparently it still likes to giggle.
SIDE OF THE YEAR
Ha! You thought I’d say tater tots, right? And I would have but I’ve written a lot about tots recently, so I’m saying sweet potatoes. According to Schweid & Sons’ 2016 Burger Trends Report, sweet-potato fries are close to overtaking onion rings (28% vs. 31% for rings) for second place on the list of most popular sides. Burger bars are putting sweet-potato fries on the side or on the burger itself. Look at Boston Burger Co.’s Hot Mess Burger: beef, bacon, sweet-potato fries, house-made Thousand Island dressing, diced pickles, jalapeño, red onion, lettuce and American cheese. Edinburgh’s Bread Meats Bread plunks down a bowl of Maple Candied Bacon Sweet Potatoes (above). McDonald’s has tested sweet-potato fries in Texas an its Hong Kong operation even created a new dessert called Sweet Potato Sensation that blends sweet potato and vanilla ice cream. But we don’t have to count that.
BURGER ADVERTISING OF THE YEAR
Jack in the Box, VR Campaigns
In July, Jack in Box laid claim to being the first QSR to launch a product using virtual reality in advertising. In connection with the Jack’s Brewhouse Bacon Burger introduction, the chain (and OmniVirt) created a special VR video where consumers could step into a brew house and meet Jack. A second VR video in November, (created in partnership with Horizon Media Los Angeles, David&Goliath and VR Playhouse) was a trippy 360-degree voyage into Jack’s mind for the launch of the Brunchfast menu. Did they boost sales? I can’t say. And while I’ve never been a proponent of using technologies just because we can, Jack took digital marketing where no one else dared go.
Burger King, “Whopper Sign”
The chain’s mascot kind has never spoken, but for National American Sign Language Day, Burger King (and agency David) created a video in which he signs. He asks Whopper fans to come up with an official sign for the chain’s signature burger. Burger King also gave a scholarship donation to help those studying ASL. Bravo.