If you thought Wendy's six-slice Baconator was over the top, be advised the restaurant industry's burgermeisters were only warming up.
Emboldened by celebrity chefs like Daniel Boulud and his $41 burger stuffed with short ribs, foie gras and truffles, and egged on by diet-busting TV romps like Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, restaurants across all price ranges have latched onto a burger craze too hot for even a recession to cool down.
Look around. Wendy's new 3/4-pound triple with cheese, packing 1,030 calories (560 of them from fat), has been countered by McDonald's 1/3-pound Angus burger that at $3.99 is the fast-food giant's most expensive burger ever. Last week Denny's unveiled a 6.5-ounce, five-cheese burger that fetches an un-Grand Slam price of $6.99 with fries and a drink. Even the top-tier steak houses are adding $10 to $20 prime burger bars and hand-molding patties from lamb sausage, black beans, crab or tuna with breading added for texture.
As a result, burger volume sales continue to grow 5 to 10 percent a year even as restaurant sales slump. Higher prices backing the bigger burger arms race have helped fast-food chains prosper through tough times. For the steak houses, it has offered a less expensive luxury to fill tables and relieve double-digit sales declines.
"Americans just cannot get enough burgers," said Russell Skall, executive chef for Fleming's Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar, a high-end chain that used a $10 to $20 prime burger lineup to build traffic among diners sticker-shocked by $40 prime steaks. During happy hour, Fleming's gourmet burger lineup is under $7.
At Capital Grille, a 10-ounce $16 sirloin burger has become the top-selling lunch item.
Last month, The Palm added three prime beef burgers. "For years we had only one sirloin burger, but with this funky economy we're taking it up a notch," said Mark Colbath, manager of the Palm in Tampa.
Burgers have been a part of American fare for decades. But restaurateurs pushed them into new flavor territory with toppings and sauces.
Toppings are getting creative: fried eggs, sun-dried tomatoes, prosciutto, Canadian bacon, apricots, apple compote and olives. Sauces like garlic aioli, ginger soy, dried cranberry and peanut unleash new flavors on grilled or broiled beef. It began about 10 years ago with sliders," said Darren Tristano, author of a new burger study for restaurant industry think tank Technomic Inc.
He decided this was no fad when he saw the Ritz-Carlton serving White Castle/Krystal-style miniburgers hand-pressed from filet mignon in 2002. Now chains are adding choices of meats, buns, quality cheeses and an endless variety of toppings.
They can be customized to any taste. They're portable enough to be eaten while driving, or stacked so high and messy so that no fast-food drive-through will copy them. They're an inexpensive luxury, a comfort food and a high-value meal that fills you up for not much money.
Tristano's research found a generational difference, too. Baby boomers and Gen Xers want the familiar burgers of their youth. The under-30 set is eager to try new tastes — so the sky's the limit.
Still, most consumers' burger preference is based on meat quality and taste with toppings and buns lagging well behind.
"The crucial part is getting the grind right," said restaurateur and chef Chris Ponte, of Cafe Ponte in Clearwater. Ponte has spent 10 months developing a menu for a new fast-casual burger chain that Melting Pot Restaurants Inc. plans to launch in 2010.
Some premium steak houses use prime sirloin, others prime chuck or blends of dry-aged USDA choice sirloin. Angus is popular not because it is lean, but because diners associate it with quality.
The sweet spot, several chefs and experts say, is 20 to 30 percent fat by weight. That provides a patty that's flavorful and juicy without being greasy.
After fact-finding pilgrimages to burger temples such as the Counter in Southern California (which has Tampa Bay targeted for a store) and celebrity chef burger parlors in Las Vegas and New York, Square One's meat options include ground buffalo, turkey, chicken, veggie and wagyu (U.S.-raised Kobe beef). Ahi tuna was dropped for lack of sales.
The make-your-own-burger bar is stocked with 11 cheeses, 10 sauces and five types of buns.
"Some customers build burgers that are almost obscene," he said.
It was a full-circle homecoming for Shumate, who got his food service start with a burger shop near the University of Oklahoma. He revived a campus favorite from those days on his Tampa menu: a "Theta Burger" topped with pickles, barbecue sauce and mayo.
"It's amazing how often somebody orders one and says, 'Wow! I haven't had a Theta Burger since college 40 years ago.' "
Mark Albright can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8252.