Charting the rise and rise of the hamburger

Charting the rise and rise of the hamburger

There’s more to the humble hamburger than bread and patties. Bill Chemero uncovers the secret of success for a great American icon

Nobody can pinpoint the exact date the hamburger was invented, which may be fitting. Hamburgers are timeless. They seem to have been around forever, and they probably will be. It’s easy to imagine that someday when Earthlings are colonizing other planets, people will be doing their best to make sure they bring the hamburger with them. Seriously, mark my words: someday, some American burger brand is going to be fighting to be the first hamburger restaurant on the Space Station, Moon or Mars.

So, what’s the appeal? And why has the love for hamburgers increased, rather than faded, over the years? The easy answer – hamburgers are delicious and convenient to eat on the run – almost sounds too easy. You almost have to come up with something bigger, such as that the hamburger is an American icon and a symbol of freedom and all that is right in the world. But in many ways, it is just what I said. They taste good, and they’re easily portable. In fact, that turns out to be very important to the hamburger, both in its history and probably its future.

The invention of the hamburger

If you like your food history with dates attached, it is believed that the first hamburger was created in 1895. Now, many sources pinpoint the starting date as the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, and, indeed, it was a happening place. Supposedly, that year, the hamburger, the hot dog, peanut butter, iced tea, the club sandwich, cotton candy and the ice cream cone all debuted at the fair. If that’s true, somebody get me a time machine. I want to go back there and visit for a day.

But the Library of Congress credits Louis Lassen as having invented the hamburger in 1895, though some sources place it happening in 1900. One story goes that Lassen had a diner called Louis’ Lunch, and a businessman darted inside and asked if he could get something made quickly and eaten easily, while he was walking. Lassen is said to have put some grilled ground steak between two slices of toast. Another story is that Lassen didn’t like to waste food, understandably, and he wound up with excess beef and ended up sticking it in between two slices of bread, and customers liked it, and for a while, Lassen’s diner was the only hamburger restaurant in the world.

That said, nobody knows for sure what happened, and some people have pointed out that it seems likely that some unknown person in the 1800s may have had the idea to slap some meat between bread. Still, Lassen may have been the one to get the concept going viral, as we would say today. As for how it got its name, it’s said that the meat for the first hamburgers came from Hamburg, Germany. Apparently, that grilled ground steak Lassen served up was from a Hamburg cow.

The hamburger today

There are approximately 50,000 burger restaurants in the United States, according to various figures out on the internet. You could make the argument that that sounds too high, or too low. The National Restaurant Association estimates that there are over 1 million restaurants in the United States, and so 50,000 may well be burger restaurants.

But what is a burger restaurant? Some restaurants specialize in burgers – but plenty of restaurants offer a little bit of everything, including burgers. If you’re an Italian restaurant, but you have burgers, do you count that as a burger restaurant? Probably not. What about a hospital cafeteria that sells burgers? Also, probably not. Still, my point is – even places that aren’t considered burger restaurants often sell burgers. They’re sold just about everywhere that people eat. It is believed that Americans eat 14 billion burgers a year.

Burgers haven’t always been popular, however. In 1906, when Upton Sinclair’s best-selling novel, The Jungle, came out, it exposed the unsanitary practices going on in the meat packing industry, and, well, for a while, hamburgers weren’t thought of very highly. So, when you had restaurants later, like White Castle, coming on the scene in 1921, a big message was – we’re clean and responsible with preparing our meat. That’s why the buildings were white (you associate the color white, like white sheets and a hospital, with cleanliness), and the customers could see their burger meat being ground through a window (the unspoken message was: We’re transparent, and see, everything’s fine).

Later, as the public again became comfortable eating meat, advertising started focusing on the fact that you could get burgers on the cheap. That was arguably a big part of McDonald’s early success. In the early 1960s, one of the restaurant’s ad slogans marveled of their hamburgers, “Real good… and still only 15₵.”

Over the years, there have often been themes revolving around burger ads. Wendy’s struck a chord when it had its, “Where’s the beef” ads, arguing that the quality of your hamburger matters immensely. In a lot of ways, that’s how fast-casual burger franchises, and many fast-casual restaurants in general, came to be. It was a backlash against fast food outlets offering cheap, but not very nutritious, foods.

And I’d like to think that the restaurant franchise I help run, Wayback Burgers, has come full circle. Along with stressing the excellence of our beef, our advertising often makes the point that when you come here, you’re getting a taste of the way burgers used to be made, before the industry got lazy, a time when quality mattered and when people really cared about the time and attention they lavished on preparing food. But whatever the ads’ themes, the message has always been that any time is a good time to eat a hamburger.

Variety is the spice of life

But why is the hamburger so popular? After all, a lot of people enjoy eating hot dogs, but there are very few hot dog chains (and while we do sell hot dogs at Wayback Burgers, we never considered calling ourselves Wayback Hotdogs). Or think about something like a club sandwich (which we do not sell). It’s very tasty, at least in my opinion, and done right, a club sandwich has a lot of good, varied meats. But there are not club sandwich joints, the way you have burger joints. I can’t think of any club sandwich chain. You tend to not go to a baseball stadium concession stand and order a club sandwich.

My theory is that not only is the burger tasty and easy to eat – the burger may be greasy, but the buns are not, making it easy to hold with one hand – it’s very flexible. Few burgers taste exactly alike for starters, due to the different ways one can grill and the varied types of meat, and thanks to the magic of toppings, a restaurant can really differentiate itself. Over the years, we have seen cheeseburgers, bacon burgers, mushroom burgers, and burgers slathered with onions or avocado – or all of the above.
A couple of years ago, the website Mental Floss made a list of some of the weirdest toppings to ever land on a burger, and they included Ramen noodles, fried bananas and peanut butter, cranberry sauce and more. You can even find recipes for doughnut burgers – a hamburger in between glazed doughnuts. And while some burger purists may not like it, plant-based burgers are becoming more popular than ever.

Not that you couldn’t make a club sandwich using doughnuts. I guess you could, but the burger starts off as something easy to hold while you’re, say, driving, and it’s tasty, and you can build out the burger from there. I can’t imagine successfully eating a club sandwich while driving. Of course, you could argue that hot dogs are versatile, too, and yet, hot dog franchises haven’t caught on the way burger franchises have. The public may just like what the public likes.

Make it an experience

Because you can do so much with these delectable delights, that has helped each hamburger restaurant brand differentiate itself. Frankly, it’s becoming harder to do in recent years. Even burger chains that used to be associated with, say, frozen beef, like McDonald’s, are starting to embrace the idea of offering fresh beef. Quality has become very important to consumers, so while a burger chain can and should brag about their quality, it may not distinguish you much from many competitors. But because of the variety that a burger can provide, many chains have, at least, had a lot of success in offering up limited time offers. If you come up with an unusual but delicious looking burger, you’re going to stand out from everyone else and attract new guests – at least for a while.

If there’s a recipe for a successful hamburger in fast casual, I think you’d want to include choosing your image and getting it right as well as an uplifting décor, colors, uniforms and a logo. There are many different approaches to the look of a restaurant, but you definitely don’t want to offer a sense of drab or sameness. You want to be inviting. Again, I think that’s why fast-casual restaurants are thriving. They’re inviting people in, to sit, relax, have a bite to eat, and not eat food that has been rushed out and warmed up for hours under a heat lamp.

You also want to think about how you’re going to serve your burger. You want it to be in a convenient package that keeps the food hot, but it needs to be eco-friendly. In short, you offer food, even down to the package, that people can feel good about consuming.

And, of course, you want to think about promotional ideas, novelties and special offers. For instance, every year, Wayback Burgers celebrates National Burger Month in May and Free Shake Day in June with free giveaways and discounts. We often offer limited time orders with fun and sometimes bizarre milkshake flavors; we’re still pretty proud of our milkshake that had Peruvian chocolate cricket powder in it, and our beef jerky milkshake. Burgers are fun, and a restaurant’s promotions should reflect that.

But good management is extremely important as well. You can have great name recognition, and people can enjoy or even love your burgers, but if the company isn’t well run, there’s no guarantee you’ll last. Just think about Burger Chef, for those who remember the once restaurant giant that was the second largest burger chain, next to McDonald’s, in the early 1970s. By the early 1980s, it had faded away, with the remaining restaurants being sold to Hardee’s, which is still around. Restaurants need to be managed well. It’s just as important as getting the food right. You can’t make and serve great food if you can’t make enough money to stay open.

And that’s important to think about if you’re thinking of starting your own burger restaurant or considering buying a burger franchise. You want to align yourself with a brand that’s growing and not one that’s stagnating.

Opening that first hamburger franchise

I’m often asked how you know if you’re ready to buy a franchise. From the discussions I’ve had with numerous people, who end up buying and those who don’t – you just know. You’ve generally been working in the restaurant business for a while, and you’ve seen how other people make decisions, and you think to yourself, “I wouldn’t do it that way,” or, “If I ever go into business, I will do it that way.”

It’s kind of like being hungry for a burger – you start to become famished for the idea of owning your own business. But, of course, you need to have more than industry experience. You hopefully have money in the bank or such great credit with that experience that a lender has no trouble lending you the money for your franchise. The estimated investment for a Wayback Burgers franchise is often between $350,000 and $400,000, which you’re going to need for everything from renovating the interior of a location to filling your brick and mortar establishment with grills, refrigeration, dishwashers and other restaurant equipment. You may find a property that’s in a perfect location, but it isn’t built out for food service. That could run anywhere from $50,000 on the low end to, more likely, somewhere in the neighborhood of $250,000. Then there’s the dining room, where you’ll be buying tables and chairs and booths and soda fountains.

Every time you think to yourself, “OK, it can’t get any more expensive,” it does.  However, when it comes to launching your very own fast casual burger restaurant, Wayback Burgers helps you keep it as affordable as possible (we’ve developed a slimmer, more efficient in-store design for this very purpose).

Most new owners tend to be professionals looking for a second or third act, who want to be their own boss as well as set themselves for a business that can one day fund their retirement. But you want to ease into the franchise world after conducting effective due diligence. Start reading about franchising. You will, if you get serious and to the point where you think you’ll buy a franchise, want a franchise attorney to help you make sense of all the legal forms that come with a franchise.

And I think restaurant owners need to be prepared not to do this on the cheap. Your employees, for instance, if you want to get good ones – and keep the good ones – you need to pay as much as the market will bear. And stay up on the news: as you likely know, the minimum wage, in many states, is changing, and frankly, for most positions, if not all, you probably will have to pay over the minimum wage. Even in casual fast food, it’s often hard to compete if you’re paying a federally or state-mandated minimum wage. But, look, the good news is that if you’re getting into the burger business, you have a product that really is an American icon, beloved around the world and maybe, someday, the universe.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

William Chemero is Executive Vice President at Wayback Burgers, a restaurant chain based out of Cheshire, Connecticut. Wayback began franchising nine years ago and currently has 142 units in operation with over 400 more contracted to open.

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