While the basic burger sandwich shows up on plenty of menus, there’s lots of room for innovation between the buns. Several operators share their buying strategies and cooking tips.
Santa Monica, California
Item: 1/3-pound burger on bun with cheese, four toppings and house-made sauce
“We buy all-natural chuck and grind it fresh, in-house, every morning, then patty it by hand,” says founding partner Jeff Weinstein. For his 1/3-pound standard burger, he starts with 7 ounces of beef that cooks down to exactly 5.3 ounces so “what we say we’re giving you is what you get.” Customers build their own burgers from a choice of several proteins, 10 cheeses, 26 toppings (such as honey-cured bacon and dried cranberries), 17 sauces (including roasted garlic aioli and ginger soy), and three buns. Signature fried pickle chips, sweet potato fries and onion strings are favorite go-alongs.
New York City
Item: Venison Burgers with Sweet-Sour Tomatoes and Horseradish Crème Fraiche
“You can use any cut of Cervena venison for this recipe, but I like the leg—it’s more affordable than the loin,” says chef-owner Brad Farmiere. Since venison is leaner than beef, Farmiere offers these suggestions to keep the burgers nice and moist: Use meat that’s coarsely ground, pack the ground venison loosely into patties and cook the burgers over a medium flame to medium doneness—no further. “I like serving the burgers on miso buns that we make at the restaurant, but you can use egg buns or any moist roll,” he adds.
Back Yard Burgers
Item: Charbroiled Texas Jack Burger
“Everyone talks about ‘quality’ but we stand by our word,” says Lattie Michael, founder and CEO of this fast-casual concept. Coarse-ground Black Angus beef goes into every 1/3-pound burger; Back Yard buys Cargill frozen patties for all its 180 locations. “I started with a grinder, patty machine and cooler,” recalls Michael, who began by flipping burgers in the back of his grocery store in Mississippi. “Once we franchised, we had to find a simpler way to do it.” To set this burger apart from the crowd, Back Yard tops it with pepper jack cheese, crispy onion and jalapeno straws and proprietary Miz Grazi Hot Stuff—a flavorful pepper sauce with a slight kick that’s purchased from a small Mississippi vendor.
Newport Beach, California
Item: American Kobe Slider Combo
“We contemplated doing a slider for a long time,” says Doug Cavanaugh, CEO and founder of the Ruby Restaurant Group, which operates 38 classic 1940s-style diners. “American Kobe beef proved very popular in tests, and it was a great way to upgrade our burger program.” Finding the perfect bun to partner with these premium mini-burgers was the next challenge. Cavanaugh chose King’s Hawaiian original sweet rolls for their size (about 2 inches in diameter), soft texture and durability. Plus, the flavor of the sweet roll and savory burger is a match made in heaven—improved only by a splash of chipotle sauce.
Item: Lamb Burger with aioli and watermelon pickle
“The lamb burger alternates with a bison burger on the ‘Kentucky Tapas’ section of my dinner menu,” reports chef-owner Kathy Cary. The ground lamb she uses is a blend of shoulder and leg with a fat content of 15 to 20 percent; some of the lamb is sourced locally but most comes from Jamison farm in Pennsylvania. Cary seasons the patties with garlic and fresh herbs and cooks them in a cast iron skillet. “Lamb burgers can be cooked on the medium-rare side with no food safety issues,” Cary says. The watermelon pickle on the side—made by 97-year-old Camille (a local culinary legend)—provides just the right crisp-tart contrast, she adds.
New York City
Item: Signature Veal Burger
“Choose the right cuts and you’ll end up with a veal burger that’s leaner than beef but just as juicy,” says Mark Lobel, owner and cookbook author. “Grinding the neck and shoulder meat together keeps the burger moist.” For his favorite veal burger, he inserts frozen garlic-herb butter into the center of the patty and seals the edges, so “the topping is inside.” After grilling, crisp bacon and lettuce leaves go on top.
The NPD Group, a market research company that collects consumer behavior data, polled 2000 Americans to learn about burger eating in casual restaurants. What they found is that people prefer bigger burgers and choose cheeseburgers over plain. When it comes to rolls, burger fans seem to be open to baguettes over traditional buns.
Trend-tracking firm FoodWatch partnered with NPD to share additional burger insights:
Mainstream flavor partners still in favor include Ranch, bacon and barbecue
Emerging flavors include orange, ginger, garlic and parsley
Those flavors gaining awareness are cilantro and Caesar
“New flavors and toppings are a great way to make a menu staple, like hamburgers, fresh and exciting,” comments Michele Schmal, VP foodservice for the NPD Group. “As casual dining operators explore new ways to grow, it’s good to remember that Americans love to try new twists on old favorites.”