When Prince William and Kate Middleton walked down the aisle last year, burgers were probably not at the forefront of their minds. However, the couple’s nuptials were more closely tied to the burger market than they might have imagined.
For one thing, if you looked closely into the crowd of supporters, you would have found that many of them were wearing Burger King crowns. The fast food retailer ordered in an extra quarter of a million golden crowns to give out for free at its restaurants to “help communities get into the royal spirit”. For another, the celebrations and associated Bank Holiday helped drive a significant increase in burger sales, with a staggering 17,159 tonnes of burgers sold in eight weeks around Easter and the Royal Wedding, which is 15.3% more burgers sold then in the same period in 2010.
These spring sales gave a right royal boost to the burger market, although poor weather and the lack of a major sporting event in the summer meant that burger sales were looking fairly static year-on-year in the latter part of 2011.
Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) research and insight executive Matthew Southam explains: “Every time there is a Football World Cup, there tends to be a peak in burger sales. Although the peak in 2010 wasn’t as great as in 2006, because the weather wasn’t as good, it was still a peak. In 2011, there was no sporting event in the summer driving BBQs, so we didn’t see that uplift.”
By the end of the year, the market was actually behind 2010, with data from Kantar Worldpanel (52 w/e 22 January 2012) showing flat spend and a 3.4% decline in volumes on the year before.
Beef, which accounted for 84.1% of burger sales in the period, saw a 3.1% increase in value as a result of higher prices, but also lost volume. Pork and lamb burgers both saw sharp decreases in both volume and spend.
Southam attributes this drop-off to the meat price inflation experienced at the end of 2011, which had an impact on the whole meat market. “Red meat and poultry proteins have suffered over the last few months. I wouldn’t say it is limited to burgers,” he says.
Indeed, burgers seem to have suffered less then some other cuts. Richard Jones, BBQ and burgers buyer for Asda, reports that, despite high meat prices and the lack of a World Cup, the retailer had a “fantastic year” for burgers in 2011, delivering a 5.6% growth in value terms. He adds that Asda did not experience the drop-off seen across the board in lamb and pork burgers, with lamb burgers increasing their share by 2% to 25.9% of the retailer’s total burger sales.
“In the last year, our customers have been impacted by the economic recession, and their disposable incomes have been under pressure. This has led them to carefully choose how they spend their money,” he explains. “Our burgers offer them a great value meal for all of the family and we’ve seen them trade into other proteins than beef to add variety.”
Demand from the foodservice sector has also been strong. Chris Stanley, operations director at Bluefields Group — which bought the premium Ben Burger brand in January last year — reports that the company’s burger sales increased by 15-20% during 2011. John Healy, head of sales at foodservice supplier Paragon Quality Foods, says that sales increased by around 5-6%. “From our point of view, our sales have been very good,” he says.
He admits that meat price inflation affected the market to an extent, but adds: “What you might have found is that, instead of people eating a steak out, they were having a burger instead.”
Despite the economy, or perhaps because of it, the burger market has continued on its march towards premiumisation, a trend which emerged several years ago with the dawn of specialist burger chains, such as the Gourmet Burger Kitchen (GBK) and Byron.
Vanessa Lewis, technical sales director at burger processor Summit Foods, says: “We’ve seen many developments with burgers and meat-forming over the last three years — a lot of which is attributed to the changing attitudes consumers have shown towards buying and eating burgers.
“Up to five years ago, it was seen as a fast food item, reserved for low-quality cuts of meat. Now, however, attitudes have changed thanks to the premiumisation of burgers from high-end retailers and specific foodservice outlets, such as Gourmet Burger, and celebrity chefs including burger recipes on their TV shows and in cookery books.”
Stanley agrees that the rise of specialist burger restaurants and the popularity of gourmet burgers in gastro pubs has had a profound impact on the foodservice market. “People are realising that they can go and have a burger and it can be a very good meal. Gone are the days when it was just a burger from a burger stand on the side of the road; it is a totally different product and people are beginning to realise that,” he says.
Even when burgers are sold on the side of the road, they are increasingly a premium offering. In London, in particular, there has been an explosion of so-called ‘street food’ vendors selling gourmet burgers out of vans, with companies such as Lucky Chip and The Meat Wagon causing a sensation among food critics and the public alike with their affordable, premium burgers that take a new twist on the burger van concept.
With increasing competition in the gourmet burger market, pubs and restaurants are looking for something to distinguish their burger offering, says Stanley. “Bluefields has experienced a considerable increase in market demand for bespoke burgers. More and more companies are looking to distinguish themselves from the competition by offering something a little different.”
Examples of recently developed unique products include a square burger, produced for restaurant chain Union Square. “It is just the little edges that people want. Quite often they will have a chef that can make the burger they want, but if it is a chain of restaurants, then the burger will differ from unit to unit. If they come to us we can produce it in mass numbers, which gives them consistency throughout the brand,” Stanley explains.
Healy agrees that quality is key when it comes to the foodservice burger market. “The burgers we sell the least of are the economy-style burgers. There is certainly not much demand for them,” he says.
With this in mind, Paragon has brought in a new range of Excellence Gourmet burgers. “These are machine manufactured, but are like burgers you would make at home yourself. They have the texture and shape of a handmade product,” says Healy.
Paragon also has a steak burger and a range of provenance-style products. “For customers in pubs and restaurants, provenance is quite important, or at least it is a selling point,” he explains.
One challenge for pubs and restaurants has been to deliver quality products without increasing the prices of their burgers too much, especially in the wake of rising meat prices. Stanley says that, increasingly, foodservice operators are looking to reduce the size of their burgers, allowing them to improve profit margins while maintaining the same quality of product.
“We work hard to ensure the meat content of our burgers remains high to reduce shrinkage; this allows our clients to order a slightly smaller-size burger without impacting on their customers’ satisfaction,” he says.
The premiumisation of burgers in foodservice is reflected in the products on sale at supermarkets. Retail shelves are now bursting with premium burger products, such as the Jamie Oliver Keep It Simple Big Classic Burger, which is described as “a humble classic of fresh parsley, simple seasoning and lovely British beef”, Tesco Finest British Steak Beef Burgers with a sweet Tomato Relish, and Heston Blumenthal’s Lamb and Cucumber Burgers, which are currently on offer at Waitrose.
Within the general trend towards premiumisation, Jones says there have been some subtle shifts in consumer demands over the past year. “Customers have moved away from wanting exotic new flavours and ingredients and are now looking for simple good-quality burgers using traditional, classic flavours,” he says.
With this in mind, Asda is looking at keeping its burgers simple and using store cupboard ingredients and flavours. “Our recent NPD uses traditional wet marinades, which deliver natural flavours without enhancers,” Jones adds. Following consumer demand, Asda will be re-introducing its Extra Special Black and Blue burgers this year. “We will also be introducing a new range called Big Eat, which is made from a mixture of different prime cuts and delivers fantastic beef flavours and a succulent texture,” says Jones.
Lewis says retailers are following in the footsteps of foodservice by adding provenance credentials to their burger products. “For example, once reserved for ultra-premium meat products, now many manufacturers and producers (including Summit Foods) provide Red Tractor-approved meat, because consumers are more aware than ever as to where their food comes from,” she says. “By adding these credentials and assurances to products like burgers, the industry is changing the way the products are perceived — dispelling any negative images consumers once had.”
Premiumisation aside, several other noticeable trends have emerged in the burger market of late. One of these has been a move towards ‘sharing products’, inspired by the popularity of tapas and sharing platters. To meet this demand, Summit Foods launched a new range of mini-burgers at the beginning of the year.
“The Summit Foods Mini Beef Burger Sliders are a premium offering, made from 100% beef steak, served with a mini soft white semolina-topped bun, accompanied by sachets of tomato relish and mustard mayonnaise to add an extra touch of luxury,” Lewis explains.
“The product has proven to be very successful with retailers — as part of a range of party and snack food. It is also emerging through to foodservice to cater for those wanting to split the consumption and the cost of dishes while eating out.”
Another consumer trend that Summit has taken advantage of is the “big night in trend”, with consumers staying at home to entertain rather then going out for the evening. “Here, consumers are still looking for a ‘take-away’ option in their food choices, but with the added convenience of being readily available in their home, from their freezer,” says Lewis.
To cater for this market, Summit Foods has introduced a new range of frozen products under its own retail brand, Snacksters. “The Tasty Burgers range includes the Snacksters Chicken Burger — a fully cooked chicken burger coated with a golden crumb, served in a sesame seed bun. And our Snacksters Quarter Pounder with Cheese, a fully cooked beef burger, in a sesame-seeded bun, topped with a slice of cheese. All are reheated from frozen in minutes,” Lewis explains.
Stanley says that, in foodservice, the main emerging trend has been increasing demand for halal burgers. “The halal market is growing in the UK and therefore so is the market requirement for excellent-quality halal produce,” he says.
Looking to the future, Lewis says that things are looking good for the burger market. “Summit Foods has been producing burgers for the last 30 years, and I am excited to see how the burger develops and evolves over the next 30 years.”
However, she points out that innovation is needed to keep driving the market forwards. “The sector as a whole is crying out for innovation,” she explains.
“Years ago we saw the introduction of healthier meats, such as venison and ostrich, being billed as ‘healthy’ burgers. More recently we’ve witnessed the introduction of cheese in the centre of burgers. But, in my opinion, what the industry needs to do is to fully extend the burger’s usage beyond the summer barbecue months and make it a firm all-year-round favourite.”
Until then, 2012 has plenty of barbecue potential. “This year we have the European football championships, which is a major football tournament, so you expect the same sort of effect as with a World Cup,” says Southam.
“Straight after that is the Olympics, which is almost a slightly unknown quantity being held in this country — we don’t know if it will have more of an effect than when it is held somewhere else, but obviously the time zones will align with people wanting to combine watching the Olympics and possibly having barbecues.”
And, of course, the summer of 2012 will feature another extra Bank Holiday, this time to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. “Last year, the extra Bank Holiday for the Royal Wedding produced an uplift in burgers and, if we get some good weather for the Bank Holiday this year, I think we can expect an uplift that weekend,” says Southam. With any luck, royalty will once again give burgers the boost they need.