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Burger Sales Are Cooking

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Burgers may be recession-proof. Last year, sales at fast food and fast casual burger chains grew 4.1 percent to $64 billion, according to the “2009 Technomic Top 50 Limited-Service Hamburger Chains Restaurant Report” released this week. Fast feeders outpaced the limited-service industry, which grew 3.2 percent.

McDonald’s, whose sales increased 4.5 percent in 2008, was key in driving the growth of the entire category. Its $1 double cheeseburger battles with Burger King are cited as having helped to draw in consumers looking to save money during the recession.

But a focus on quality was also crucial to the burger bonanza. Examples include Five Guys Burgers & Fries and Smashburger, which touts fresh ingredients and quality meat.

“You can see with McDonald’s right now they have the ‘Appetite stimulus package,’ but then they’re also offering the higher-priced Angus burger,” said Sara Monnette, senior manager of consumer and market research for Technomic Information Services. “If you’re a mom going to McDonald’s for dinner and you want something affordable for your kids that they’re going to enjoy, but you want something a little more high quality for adults—this will fit all the needs of those in the dining party.”

Three-quarters of consumers ranked the quality of the meat as the first or second most important attribute. Value remains a significant part of the appeal of burgers, with 36 percent of consumers ranking it as the first or second most important factor. Toppings (42 percent) and bread (16 percent) were also key.

The report also found that half (49 percent) of consumers purchase burgers from fast-food restaurants at least every two to three weeks. Slightly more than a quarter (26 percent) visit fast food burger chains once a month. Twenty-one percent hit fast casual chains once a month.

At the same time, there has been an uptick in the percentage of consumers who eat burgers at home. Citing a desire for higher-quality products, 28 percent of consumers made their own burgers once a week, up from 25 percent in 2007.

Overall, the limited-service burger industry unit grew 0.7 percent, totaling 47,674 burger venues. Three chains accounted for the bulk of this unit growth: Sonic Drive-Ins (up 137 units), Five Guys Burgers & Fries (up 119 units) and Burger King (up 53 units).

“America is refocusing on burgers primarily driven by quality burger initiatives all over the country,” said Arjun Sen, president of Centennial, Colo.–based Restaurant Marketing Group.

Echoing recent research by IBM, Sen emphasized that while saving money is key for consumers, they are unwilling to compromise too much on the quality of the food. “People are not looking for just cheap, they are looking for value where the numerator and denominator both are taken into account," Sen said. "As things get competitive, the consumer does not forget that they want to be on the lookout for something better—and that is the trend that is coming in."