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Most of Us Eat Burgers, but More Often It’s the ‘Better’ One

Long live the burger, consumers are clearly saying. But evidence continues to mount that just which burger we're talking about is undergoing quite a change at the restaurant level.

In-N-Out Burger
In-N-Out Burger

According to data from industry-researching firm Technomic, some 95% of consumers eat a burger at least once a month — and they're getting pickier. Backing what analysts have said and what large chains such as McDonald's (MCD) and Burger King (BKW) have had to start dealing with head on, the fast-casual "better burger" segment, as well as customization options, are driving the sector, the findings of a new report say.

In a press release Thursday, Technomic said chain restaurant value menus "are evolving from a sub-$1 pricing model to one that emphasizes high quality, variety and craveability for a low price." Darren Tristano, executive vice president of the firm, said the better burger group, which includes names such as Smashburger, In-N-Out Burger and Five Guys Burgers and Fries, "continues to thrive in the overall burger category and that shows no signs of stopping."

Fast-casual, higher quality

Broadly speaking, the fast-casual restaurants are names that tend to emphasize the quality of their ingredients, sometimes bill their offerings as healthier, might focus on social issues like animal welfare — and are virtually guaranteed to come with a premium price tag. While they're not burger sellers, Chipotle (CMG), Starbucks (SBUX) and Panera Bread (PNRA) are representative of this type of food.

As for the burgers themselves, what consumers want is shifting, Technomic says. Among the headlines of its Burger Consumer Trend Report are:

  • 51% of consumers say they eat fast-casual burgers at least once a month. That's up eight percentage points from 43% in 2011.

  • The same percentage say it's "highly important" that the beef in their burgers has never been frozen, also up from 43% two years back. The survey found that 55% of diners want menus to specify the type of beef used in the burger, a seven-percentage-point increase in two years.

  • Almost two out of three survey respondents liked the build-your-own burger concept, with roughly that number saying they want to customize their toppings.

  • Specialized diets are becoming more the norm, led by young people. Among all consumers, more than 20% say it's important to have gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian burgers available.

Taken together, it signals that the battles the McDonald's and Wendy's (WEN) of the world have to fight are probably going to get fiercer. Both of those chains reported earnings this week, and while they were each profitable for their latest quarters, same-store sales growth, a key measure for any retailer, was tepid. At McDonald's, U.S. comparable sales were up 1% but fell short of analysts' expectations of 1.3%. For Wendy's, its 0.4% same-store increase in North American company-owned store sales trailed the 1.1% forecast.

With that said, the well-known chains are still giant, entrenched companies, with millions and millions of patrons every year. McDonald's has more than 34,000 restaurants worldwide, and Wendy's has over 6,000. Burger King is right at 13,000. They're not going anywhere anytime soon.

However, at the same time, they are trying to adapt to a more discerning consumer, mixing in healthier offerings such as salads or fruit as a side dish, with higher-end creations on the burger side. For instance, Burger King recently put a limited-time turkey burger on the menu. McDonald's only weeks ago dropped its Angus burgers, but rolled out new Quarter Pounder sandwiches. And at Wendy's, a bacon cheeseburger on a pretzel-dough bun is now being offered.

The ground beef component of the beef industry is a huge business. Technomic data available on the website of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association says that, in 2008, the foodservice sector bought 8.18 billion lbs. of beef. Of that amount, 63% of the volume, or 5.15 billion lbs., was ground beef.

This article has been corrected to note Burger King's recent introduction of a turkey burger on a limited-time basis. Originally, it had highlighted the inclusion of a veggie burger on the company's menu, erroneously stating it was new, but Burger King has previously offered a veggie burger.