In the last year or so, an increasing number of restaurant operators have been experimenting with America’s favorite food, the burger, topping it with more — and often more indulgent — ingredients.
Recent notable offerings range from Shake Shack’s Angus beef burger topped with barbecue sauce, cheddar cheese and fried ale-marinated shallots to Walk-On’s Bistro and Bar’s burger topped with pulled barbecue chicken, spicy coleslaw, pepper Jack cheese and fried pickles.
At the same time, many restaurateurs are finding that the pairing of these increasingly innovative burgers with a complementary craft beer can often drive customer satisfaction as well as sales.
For operators interested in serving up their own over-the-top burger creations, food companies focused on culinary innovation, like McCain Foods, are delivering creative ingredients designed as burger toppers or complementary side dishes.
Topping it off
Part of the burger's appeal is its customizability. The burger patty is a blank canvas limited only by imagination. Below are some ideas operators might want to try on their own burgers:
- • Cover with crispy. Add crunch and flavor with IPA Beer Battered Onion Rings or a handful of Onion Tanglers.
- • Flavor with some umami. Topping a burger with mushrooms can add that craveable, often-elusive fifth taste.
- • Change up the sides. Try something different, such as flavorful and on-trend items like spicy pickle fries. Or, instead of topping the burger, top a fried side, such as Sea Salt and Black Pepper Seasoned Tots, with a unique sauce.
Brewing up more visits, sales
In addition to pairing exciting toppings and sides with burgers, many operators are finding that serving beer as a companion beverage presents another opportunity to grow visits and increase sales.
“The beverage menu is often overlooked by consumers in an effort to minimize their [check] size,” says Robert Carter, executive director at global market research firm The NPD Group. “As a result, operators are constantly seeking out innovative strategies to add value to the dining experience and to encourage higher-margin beverage sales.”
Based on its consumer research, NPD recommends the following strategies for operators:
- • Offer specials. When The NPD Group asked customers what typically triggers their alcoholic beverage choices, 20 percent of beer drinkers said, “special deals.” Make it easy and affordable for customers by offering a craft beer pairings menu, with limited-run beers at special prices.
- • Customized recommendations. NPD found that only three out of 10 beer customers automatically reach for their favorite brand when ordering a pint, leaving 70 percent to decide every time they visit. Rather than letting customers self-navigate complex craft beer menus, guide them with verbal server suggestions or pairings printed on menus.
Among restaurant operators taking that advice and enjoying success is Tokio Pub in Schaumburg, IL. The Japanese, Latin and American fusion concept has long offered unique burgers and beer. But the food and beverage team sought to generate greater awareness of its offerings, so in October they launched Burgers and Brews on Wednesdays.
“[It’s] about giving our guests a special way to enjoy some things that they might not have had before,” says Tokio Pub’s Bill Nevruz. "Some guests do order a second beer.”
Each week from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., Tokio Pub guests can choose from four different burgers and eight different beers, including recent offerings such as a Tokio’s Famous Ramen Burger — an Angus beef burger with soy molasses and green onion served between two ramen cakes — with a dry, crisp Japanese beer. A burger and brew is priced at $12.
So far, Nevruz says, the promotion has been growing each week.
Part of the strategy
At Brass Tap Craft Beer Bar, a Florida-based franchise, pairing beer with burgers has been part of the strategy from the start. The entire food menu — which includes such innovative items as a Korean BBQ burger topped with bacon, coleslaw and onion straws on a brioche bun, and filet mignon sliders with creamy goat cheese — is intentionally designed to be accompanied by beer.
“We don’t shy away from bold flavors, [or] saltiness,” says Matthew Stock, beer specialist for Family Sports Complexes, Brass Tap’s parent company. “That always attracts people to then order a second or even third beer.”
For operators interested in doing the same, the following offers a few tips for pairing beer with burgers:
- • Opposites attract. Add a little bit of acidity, like a citrusy American Wheat Ale, to balance out a beefy burger topped with umami-rich ingredients, such as shiitake mushrooms, truffles or aged cheese.
- • Complementary. Decadent burgers, with unique toppings — like a fried egg or perhaps Jalapeno Bottle Caps — pair well with hoppy Black IPA. The beer’s malts match the savory flavors and cut the richness of fried toppings.
- • Classic pairings. Pair a rich, meaty burger with a beer that is equally rich and can hold up to it, such as an American IPA.
“The variety of flavors is much wider [in beer] so it makes it much easier to pair beer with food,” says Stock.