If it seems as though the foodservice industry has been talking about better burgers for the better part of the new millennium, it’s because that’s true. And yet, consumers’ appetite for burgers continues to grow. In a recent Technomic poll, 95% of consumers said they eat burgers (including non-beef and non-meat varieties) at least once a month. That’s up from 91% two years ago and 82% just four years ago. 
Technomic’s 2013 “The Burger Consumer Trend Report” delves into burger trends at both the consumer and operator levels, and several key themes emerge. First, better-for-you burgers are on a roll. Non-beef and veggie patties are showing up on more menus, yes—but what’s most interesting is that several up-and-coming chains are building signature burgers around these, rather than just offering them as a substitute for a beef burger. 
The Taco Turkey burger at Culver City, Calif.-based The Counter features a 1/3-lb turkey patty, jalapeño Jack cheese, dried cranberries, a lettuce blend, green onions and spicy sour cream. Seven-unit Tampa, Fla.-based chain Burger 21 offers two veggie and two seafood burgers: black-bean and ahi tuna, as well as less-commonly found Greek and Spicy Thai Shrimp builds. 
Given that burgers are such a craveable food—49% of consumers in Technomic’s poll said a craving was a driver of their last away-from-home burger purchase—creating distinctive, non-beef signature burgers is a way to demonstrate that “craveable” and “more healthful” don’t have to be mutually exclusive. And, they may serve as veto-vote busters: Just under one quarter of consumers (23%) said it’s important for burger-serving restaurants to offer chicken, turkey or other non-beef meat options. The same percentage said so regarding vegan and gluten-free burgers.
At the other end of the spectrum, there’s undeniable interest in shamelessly indulgent burgers. The “wow” factor of a burger piled high with multiple proteins, fried toppings and other exclamation-worthy ingredients is particularly valuable in the social-media age: A picture—shared instantly with hundreds of a social-media user’s friends—can be worth a thousand words.
Witness fast-casual chain BurgerFi’s B.A.D. (Breakfast All Day) Burger, which tops an Angus beef patty with American cheese, maple syrup-drizzled bacon, a fried egg, hash browns, grilled diced onions and ketchup. And, The Cheesecake Factory tops one of its signature Glamburgers with fried macaroni-and-cheese balls plus Cheddar cheese sauce. 
For manufacturers, the extra-indulgent-burger trend translates into opportunity for new uses of popular ingredients, from mac-and-cheese and mozzarella sticks to pulled pork. Demonstrating how these craveable items can be repurposed as creative toppings can be a win-win for suppliers and their operator partners.
A standout, craveable burger likely would hold significant interest on a menu and can be a powerful driver of guest loyalty. One third of consumers, including 54% of those ages 25–34, said that if a restaurant offers a signature burger, they prefer to order that over any other type. And, two fifths (41%) said that for away-from-home burger occasions, they have a preferred restaurant. 
Better burgers continue to be growth vehicles for restaurants, and suppliers stand to benefit. With consumers’ burger appetites stronger than ever, signature builds can serve to satisfy one of operators’ biggest cravings: differentiation. 
Darren Tristano is executive vice president of Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based foodservice consultancy and research firm. For more information or to order 2013’s “The Burger Consumer Trend Report,” visit www.technomic.com.