"Will diners pay as much as $15 for a burger, fries and a shake?" The New York Times asked in December, 2008. In hindsight, the question seems so naive.
At the time, U.S. celebrity chef Bobby Flay had just opened a second location of Bobby's Burger Palace in New Jersey and was charging $7.50 for a certified Angus beef burger. But within two years, as burger- mania took hold across North America, Mr. Flay added three more patty shacks to his empire. And The Wall Street Journal reported in November that he plans to open five to seven more within the next year and a half.
Burger joints have proliferated across the U.S. and Canada, proving that diners are definitely willing to pay big bucks for a ground-beef patty in a bun. And we just can't seem to get enough.
In Toronto, BQM, which opened its first Burger Shoppe in 2007, now has three outlets and plans to open another in the city next year, while Craft Burger, which also has three locations, is aiming to open two more.
The Works Gourmet Burger Bistro has six restaurants in Ottawa and plans seven new ones next year, most of them in the Greater Toronto Area . And Vera's Burger Shack, which has 12 outlets in the Vancouver area and one in Ottawa, has three more B.C. restaurants under construction.Co-owner Gerald Tritt says he hopes to continue the company's expansion eastward, if it can find the right locations and franchisees.
Although it's debatable who actually invented the burger (Charles Nagreen who served fried ground meat between two slices of bread at a Wisconsin county fair in 1885 is among the contenders), what's certain is that the burger has been a culinary phenomenon ever since. It even experienced a recent surge in popularity due to the economy; the recession prompted diners to demand high-quality food at more affordable prices and to seek comfort in the familiar, down-home dish.
But with the recession now behind us, just how much burger can the market take? Is there a saturation point?
"I don't think so," says Garth Whyte, president of the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association. "Everyone likes burgers."
Burgers are a perennial favourite partly because they are extremely versatile, Mr. Whyte says. They can take on all kinds of toppings, from the basic lettuce and tomato to the more unusual, such as pineapple and peanut butter, to the ultra-fancy, such as foie gras and truffles.
Gourmet burgers, in particular, made it to the top five menu trends in the industry association's 2010 survey of Canadian chefs, handily beating gourmet pizza and fresh pasta.
"If you make a gourmet burger, there's a little more extra put into it, but you can maybe justify paying more," Whyte says, noting that restaurants can capitalize on a wider profit margin by building on the basics.
Ever since celebrated chef Daniel Boulud introduced his luxury $27 burger stuffed with braised short rib, foie gras and black truffle in 2001, a host of others have entered the bun fight, upping the ante with luxe fixings. (Mr. Boulud even topped himself two years later with a double truffle version of his DB Burger Royale, costing roughly $120.)
In 2008, Burger King in Britain created a nearly $200 burger made of Wagyu beef and piled high with white truffles, onion straws, lamb's lettuce and shallot-infused mayonnaise. That same year, New York's Wall Street Burger Shoppe added a $175 "Richard Nouveau Burger" to its menu composed of Kobe beef, foie gras, truffles and gold leaf.
Today, arguably the ultimate in burger decadence is the 777 Burger, found at Le Burger Brasserie in Las Vegas. Costing a staggering $777, it is composed of a Kobe beef patty topped with Maine lobster, caramelized onions, imported Brie cheese, crispy pancetta and 100-year-old balsamic vinegar. Contributing to the hefty price tag, it is served with a bottle of rosé Dom Pérignon champagne.
Large fast-food chains are also cashing in on the craze. This week, European burger chain Quick announced that it will launch a "Supreme Foie Gras" burger in France for a limited time this month. In spite of the typically expensive luxury topping, it will sell for only five euros, or less than $7.
Here in Canada, the real competition is about who can offer the most bang for your buck. Keeping roughly within the $7-to-$15 price range, premium-burger operations under expansion are finding ways to stand out among the competitionwith locally sourced beef, house-made condiments and strategic locations in affluent, urbanneighbourhoods.
For instance, The Burger's Priest in Toronto treats the burger as though it were an artisan craft, grinding fresh beef in-house every hour and a half. BQM emphasizes the customized atmospheres of each of its eateries, specifically tailored to their neighbourhoods.
Saeed Mohamed, founder and owner of BQM, compares the current burger market with that for pizza and coffee, where new specialty businesses are continually cropping up. "You would think, you know, there is no room for growth in pizza," he says. "But as long as you're doing something different and innovative, there's always an opportunity to keep ahead."