Why Healthier Burger Chains Might Eventually Kill McDonald's

The Apple Pan is a classic lunch counter on the west side of L. A., serving hot, fresh-beef burgers wrapped in wax paper and slapped on the counter with zero pretense.

I was 25 when I first visited, in 1993, and until that point in my life, my burger experiences had been limited to forgettable fast-food offerings from the drive through lanes of McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s.

But the Apple Pan’s juicy beef patty topped with hickory sauce, Tillamook cheddar, sliced pickles, creamy mayo, and a fat hunk of cold iceberg shifted my burger palate completely.

That burger was so good that, after I ate it, I was offended that the big chains seemed to make a mockery of everything a great burger could be. (My indignation eventually led to a career writing books about burgers and making a documentary about them, which of course required me to eat lots and lots of burgers, so—not to brag—I’m kind of an expert.)

Smashburger, a restaurant chain that opened its first location in 2007, offers a throwback to that counter-style diner burger. The company borrows the technique of taking a ball of hand-shaped fresh meat with a high fat content—75 percent meat, 25 percent fat (by comparison, fast-food burgers tend to be 90/10)—and “smashing” it into a patty on a sizzling-hot griddle.

Andrew Hetherington

This process creates a deeply caramelized, almost crunchy exterior, while the interior remains a pleasing pink (heresy for fast-food-chain patties), if that’s your preference.

What’s new are the plush booths, the open floor plan, and a menu stocked with ingredients you’d expect to find at a fancy restaurant. You can top your burger with avocado, spinach, cremini mushrooms, and truffle mayo.

Beyond that, you’ll find turkey burgers, black-bean burgers, and salads that are actually worth ordering. Yes, you can have fried onion rings with your burger, but you can also swap in sweet-potato fries, a side salad, or even crispy Brussels sprouts. Many locations sell local craft beer. A typical McDonald’s this is not.

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Tom Ryan, a former McDonald’s director and the CEO and founder of Smashburger, now owns 348 of these restaurants across the globe, and he isn’t the only guy placing bets on the rising tide of diners who demand more from their burgers.

Shake Shack, Five Guys, BurgerFi, the Habit Burger Grill, Zinburger, Elevation Burger, Freddy’s, and Bareburger are just a few of the so-called better-burger chains vying to become the Chipotle of burgers.

When he started his company, Ryan says, in order to stand out, Smashburger had to unlock nostalgia for the pre-commoditized burger. “One way to do that was to separate ourselves from burgers’ bad past.”

Taking a bite out of Smashburger’s signature Classic Smash—the char from the griddle, the quick crispness of the pickles, the pillowy softness of the egg bun— brings me right back to burgers’ good past. It’s virtually nothing like a Quarter Pounder or a Whopper and almost entirely like the kind I devoured at the Apple Pan.

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The difference between bad and good, between the types of burgers you settle for and the types you deserve, is what’s fueling the rise of the better-burger upstarts seeking to topple the Golden Arches and unseat the King.

It’s a beef war, folks, and with American men eating more burgers outside the home than any other food, the victors will have an effect on everything from your wallet and your waistline to what you think of when you say four magic words: “Who wants a burger?”

The Birth of the Better Burger Chain

The average American eats 52.9 pounds of beef a year (the equivalent of 211.6 quarter-pound burgers), and for most of the past century, the majority of us didn’t think all that much about where that beef originated or what else was in our burgers.

Then came Fast Food Nation, the 2001 book from investigative journalist Eric Schlosser that exposed the dirty business of fast-food burgers and forced many Americans to think about the true cost of inexpensive, on-the-go meals.

The old guard responded by highlighting price over quality. In 2002, McDonald’s debuted the Dollar Menu. By tagging double cheeseburgers at only $1, the chain made money but may have damaged its reputation with a younger, more ingredient-conscious generation.

Burger King and Wendy’s followed suit with their own value menus and further expanded into world markets. “The consumer presumed that the quality of the beef had suffered at such a low price point,” says Dave Palmer, a managing director at RBC Capital Markets who covers restaurant trends. “It opened the door for high-quality burger concepts.” Like Five Guys.

Around the same time that the Golden Arches started selling burgers for a buck, Five Guys CEO Jerry Murrell began franchising his D. C.-based burger restaurants in the District, Virginia, and Maryland.

Murrell made the proclamation that unlike the big-league burger chains, Five Guys would sell burgers made only with high-quality beef.

If you’ve ever had the displeasure of tasting one of those preformed, from-the- freezer-aisle burger patties, you’ll know what sub-zero temperatures can do to beef. The texture more resembles that of the chicken in a chicken sandwich, requiring a dedicated chew, instead of being pleasantly tender. And the taste is devoid of that soul-satisfying savoriness, replaced by a metallic tinge that’s often eliminated only by a hard-cooked char.

“The fast-food model is failing the American consumer.”

Murrell knows the benefits of fresh beef, even if he is the type of 73-year-old guy you can never really get a straight answer out of. If you’re at his 37,000-square-foot corporate headquarters in Virginia and ask him about, say, what beef blends he purchases, he’ll point you to an imposing red door. The sign on it reads test kitchen—AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.

Five Guys now has close to 1,600 restaurants in rural strip malls and big-city skyscrapers and everywhere in between. Murrell owns roughly half of the better-burger category and is hardly suffering by offering a menu focused largely on burgers, hot dogs, and fries.

You won’t find Brussels sprouts or sweet potatoes at a Five Guys anytime soon, and Murrell seems okay with that. Ask him about salads and he’ll tell you this: “Salads are dangerous.”

Grated carrot is a choking hazard?

Romaine might have E. coli?

He just smiles.

Back when Five Guys started its expansion (along with the equivalent West Coast pioneer, In-N-Out Burger), I remember stumbling into a group of blitzed college students in D. C. one night. I asked them why they had chosen Five Guys over the less expensive McDonald’s nearby. “This is a much better burger,” one told me, “and it’s fresh beef!” If wasted college kids were willing to pay a little more for a higher-quality meal, fast-food establishments might be in trouble.

“Price is not the differentiator anymore; quality and customer experience are,” says David Portalatin, a food-industry analyst at the NPD Group. The average cost of a cheeseburger at Five Guys is around six bucks. (A Big Mac is about $4.)

But burger prices at other fast-casual chains can run upward of $8. And consumers are prepared to pay, Portalatin argues, because they now want to eat food that fits their lifestyle.

“The definition of what’s healthy has gone tribal,” Portalatin says, explaining that today’s burger consumers like to self-select what they believe is good for them. “There’s the carb tribe, the sustainability tribe, the protein tribe—but the common thread is a path to purity.”

Burger Chains Go Healthy(ish)

Five Guys may have fired the opening salvo, but the better-burger chains’ next aim is to harness the power of that purity. Their strategies: source better ingredients, develop inclusionary menus featuring proteins beyond beef and chicken, and cater to a hungry public with changing tastes.

No company is doing more on the purity front than Shake Shack. The burger spot opened in 2001 as a nondescript stand in Manhattan’s Madison Square Park. Fueled by public fervor, Shake Shack expanded its menu in 2004 and soon after began franchising its concept: serve burgers made with the same care and consideration as four-star food.

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Shake Shack was, after all, the brainchild of New York City fine-dining restaurateur Danny Meyer. Last year, Shake Shack opened its Wonkaesque offshoot, the Innovation Kitchen, in New York’s West Village. The space features a typical industrial kitchen abutting a sleek dining room with wood-topped tables and vibrant foliage.

Patrons can sample potential menu items and limited-edition burgers, some from Michelin-starred chefs. Daniel Humm, chef of the vaunted Eleven Madison Park, built a Humm Burger (adorned with Gruyere, truffle mayo, and shaved black truffle). Fergus Henderson, of the nose-to-tail restaurant St. John in London, crafted the Eel Burger (exactly what you think).

Admittedly, these chef-driven burgers are more for the press than they are for the public, but the Innovation Kitchen does experiment with new menu items (a veggie burger, for one) designed for wide release.

Mark Rosati, head of the Innovation Kitchen, is also Shake Shack’s culinary director. Bright-eyed, scruffy, and looking more like a Silicon Valley entrepreneur than a chef, Rosati helms a team whose goal is to deploy the same strategies usedby high-end restaurants to source supreme ingredients. That means no GMOs, antibiotics, or growth hormones. “We go organic where we can,” he says.

In the coming years, Shake Shack plans to work with farmers and ranchers to further enhance its food. Recently in Seattle and Palo Alto, California, Rosati’s team contracted with cattle ranchers outside the cities to deliver a grass-fed burger to local customers.

If Shake Shack can follow Five Guys’ lead and infiltrate malls across America, then stopping for an organic, antibiotic-free, grass-fed burger while you run errands might not sound so strange. Same goes for the non-beef-based burgers that are redefining what a “burger” even is.

Around the country, at 100-odd BurgerFis and 200-plus FatBurgers, diners can order plant-based “meat” patties. The Habit Burger Grill, based in California, sells an addictive ahi tuna fillet burger.

“The burger category is gigantic,” says Russ Bendel, CEO of the Habit BurgerGrill. “The entire market, domestically alone, generates more than $100 billion annually.” That said, “if you really dissect the category, only about $5 billion of that revenue is coming from better burgers.” But that will change, he argues.

“The fast-food model is failing the American consumer. People’s palates are going to continue to evolve.” So, yeah, Shake Shack’s 195 locations are nothing compared with McDonald’s 14,000-plus, but Shake Shack reported a growth rate of 31.2 percent in 2017. The same year, McDonald’s saw a 0.93 percent increase in locations opened worldwide. Who’s got the momentum?

But Really, Does Any of This Matter?

At Elevation Burger, founded in 2005 and now expanding beyond its 27 U. S. locations, healthfulness looms large. “With 100 percent organic, grass-fed, free-range beef burgers and fresh fries cooked in heart-healthy olive oil, we’ve elevated the typical burger-joint standards so you can maintain yours,” boasts the company’s website.

Yet for all this talk of organic and otherwise higher-quality ingredients, I began to wonder if replacing a Big Mac habit with a health-conscious-burger habit could change the way you look and feel.

“Sure, a higher-quality burger is better than a lower-quality burger,” says Men’s Health nutrition advisor Chris Mohr, Ph.D., R.D., who, yes, enjoys eating burgers, fast-casual and otherwise. He cites marginally higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids in grass-fed meat and, in the case of BurgerFi and Shake Shack, no antibiotics. “But it isn’t quite the same as packing a quality lunch for the office.”

A burger is still a burger, after all, not a kale salad with grilled chicken breast. Mohr recommends having only one burger—preferably a high-quality one—once a week.

The main reason: If you’re eating burgers more frequently, you might be crowding out other sources of protein that provide you with different nutrients. Too many burgers often means too few servings of heart-healthy, omega-3-loaded salmon or fiber-rich chili.

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The new burger chains feed this diet diversification. And what about those alternatives to beef burgers popping up at fast-casual joints? Well, while younger consumers do order plant-based meat burgers and chicken sandwiches, they’re doing so only occasionally, according to Portalatin.

In addition, his research suggests that consumers will fork over more for local and artisanal products made by a 100-year-old bakery down the street, even if they’re less healthy.

Lesson: It’s important to discern how much marketing bull comes with your burger. That’s why it’s best to look at the company’s nutrition information, not just its menu language, Mohr says. But better-burger spots do deliver on one key point, says Portalatin: menu diversity.

Consumers now want to know what they’re eating, where it comes from, and whether it aligns with their diet. Maybe you’ll spring for the new lettuce-wrapped, double-beef-patty, egg-and-bacon-topped KetoFi burger at BurgerFi, if that’s your thing. Likely it’s not. But you don’t see Burger King offering keto options.

That variety is what makes the new burger chains more welcoming to potential consumers, Portalatin says, while delivering on satisfaction. If you’re eating, say, a Paleo Burger (two burger patties, guacamole, tomato, and bacon wrapped in lettuce, delivering 505 calories) from Elevation Burger and you’re relishing the flavor guilt-free, well, that’s burger bliss.

How the Burger War Will Be Won

For the past three years—even though McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s have dominated sales—Americans have named Five Guys and In-N-Out their favorite burger chains, according to recent Harris polls.

Despite shifting tastes, not much has changed on the menus of the three big chains. Last year, McDonald’s advertised a single menu item made with “fresh” (never frozen) beef, but that raised the question: What are the rest of its burgers made with?

For a corporate burger chain, changing anything is difficult and innovation comes slowly. “They’re struggling for the first time and addressing their relevance among next-generation customers,” Ryan says, “but they can’t get out of their own way.”

While McDonald’s and Wendy’s squabble via Twitter about whose beef tastes better, the new-school chains are actually out searching for the best-tasting beef and developing bold new menu items.

“The future you can count on is people putting a higher aesthetic value on food,” Ryan says, before adding, “but just doing it with food is not enough. It’s the experience that the next generation of burger lovers are looking for.”

Yes, Ryan has a business stake in all this, but he’s only reflecting what’s worked in the past—before the commoditization and subsequent degradation of America’s favorite food.

I know what I’m looking for: a great burger that I can find anywhere. If it’s made from organic ingredients that also might be a little bit nutritious for me, all the better. I’m looking for the experience of that burger from the Apple Pan, without having to travel to the Apple Pan.

We’re getting closer. I can taste it.

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