Is there any foodservice meal more iconic than a burger and fries? To me, there is nothing like the experience of a big juicy burger, served fresh off the grill. Accompanied, of course, by a pile of hot crispy fries right from the fryer. That’s why a burger and fries was one of the first restaurant meals I enjoyed as soon as the first round of restaurant restrictions was lifted last spring. I’m not alone in my love of a good burger.

Burgers are the top center-of-the-plate food item in Canada, and always have been. Sure, fries are more popular, but that’s a side dish, and a topic for another blog. Today, it’s all about the burgers. According to the NPD Group/CREST® data, Canadian restaurants served over 750 million burgers during the 12 months ending November 2020. Burger serving volumes have grown for each of the past five years, despite the growing popularity of plant-based alternatives. As you might have expected, burger volumes are down from the prior year, by about -8% to be exact. During this same time, CREST reports that foodservice traffic (or visits) fell by -18%. If you’re doing the math in your head right now, you have just calculated that burgers actually got more popular since the start of the pandemic. How did this happen?

Since the start of the pandemic, many have reported the growing prominence of restaurant meal delivery, including me. The biggest beneficiaries of this booming trend, especially during the early days of the pandemic, were the quick service restaurants (QSR) that specialize in pizza and chicken. They were already well established with a delivery infrastructure, and the apps to support it. They were quickly able to accommodate the increased volume brought on by the restaurant shutdown. That is one of the reasons that pizza was the best performing food item this past year, declining by just -6%, and it remains the top menu item for delivery, outselling burgers by two to one. Just a year ago, pizza outsold burgers by a ratio of three to one. How is it that burgers have continued to grow in popularity despite the boom in pizza delivery? The QSR Burger operators were quick to capitalize on this delivery trend by increasing their availability on third-party restaurant apps. As a result, this restaurant channel was the fastest growing last year, collectively tripling their delivery visits.

The next factor contributing to the growing popularity of burgers is drive thru. While delivery has grown fastest, it still holds just a single digit share of total foodservice visits. Drive thru, on the other hand, has grown the most during the past year, and now represents about half of all visits. The QSR Burger operators have outperformed every other restaurant channel through the drive thru window, tripling their volume in just a year. And unlike delivery, there’s no app that will provide a quick fix for other restaurant channels to take advantage of this trend.

Over the years, the QSR Burger operators have been able to reinforce the popularity of their signature menu item through a well-established ritual of new product introductions and limited time offers (LTO). Product innovation contributed as much as one quarter of all burger growth in recent years, but this LTO activity has slowed during the past twelve months. Operators are struggling to keep their product development pipelines filled, due to limited access to their product testing facilities, restrictions in working with their supplier partners, and the inability to access consumer product testing panels. Combined with operator demands for streamlined kitchen operations during this time of physical distancing, it is likely that LTO activity will continue to look a little different in the short term. That supplier community will therefore need to come up with new ways to support their operator partners. They should prepare themselves for a reboot of tried-and-true LTOs from the past and minor variations on themes that operators can ‘build’ with their existing kitchen ingredients. I suggest suppliers should also be prepared for a flood of requests for new ideas as soon as restrictions are lifted. This is the time to have a long term focus.

The growing popularity of burgers this past year has led to a lift in the amount that consumers spend on burger-centered meals. An increase in the mix of large cheeseburgers is partly behind this cheque growth, but the main contributing factor is the growth in consumer demand for comfort and indulgence during this time. This up-spending is taking place across several menu categories, and represents an opportunity for operators and suppliers alike to upscale their products and grow their eater cheques to help offset some of the declines in volume.

The number one request I’ve received over the past twelve months is to forecast what the future of foodservice might look like. In this ever changing environment, I am reluctant to make any firm predictions, but here is one that you can count on. The popularity of burgers is going to continue for many, many years to come. Not even a global pandemic will change that.