This hasn’t been an easy year for all burger-joint operators—it’s tough to make a buck out there—but it has been great for burger lovers. So many great burgers and just 365 days to eat them all. And 2015 promises even better and ever more burgers. Here are some of the past year’s high- and lowlights:
BURGER OF THE YEAR
I know this sounds like one of those copouts when Time magazine makes “The Consumer” its Person of the Year, but 2014 truly saw the burger business turn over menu R&D to customers. It’s easier if you just tell us what you want to eat, it said to customers. McDonald’s “My Burger” promotion, conducted in several European countries, invited customers to dream up their own burgers, with the winners getting LTO stardom on the menu. Many independent burger joints run Facebook competitions, with customers submitting ideas for the next month’s special.
For example, at Luxe Burger Bar in Providence, R.I., Richard Cordeiro’s “The Portugese” was this year’s BYOB Contest. The build: Gold Label beef, fried egg, chorizo links, sliced fried potatoes, creamy goat cheese, caramelized onions and roasted peppers on a sesame bun. Heather Schmidt Wojtczak created the December burger of the month at Milwaukee Burger Co. in Eau Claire, Wis. Her “Burgers Hollandaise” starts with a third-pound patty that’s topped with an egg, bacon, tomato, green onions, red peppers and Hollandaise sauce on sourdough bread. Pretty good for amateurs!
I’m wary of the loose democratization that social media has spawned. There are no experts because everyone is an expert now. Letting customers function as chefs is part of this Twitterization of the culture, but it’s more benign than many other manifestations. If it truly builds a better relationship between a burger joint and its clientele, then it’s a good thing. And if it always results in big, flavorful burgers like The Portugee, then it’s a very good thing.
BURGER CHAIN OF THE YEAR
Jack in the Box
Jack in the Box could have won this honor just on the strength of the Bacon Insider burger it introduced in January. A “juicy beef patty with savory bacon piece mixed right in,” it was innovative during a year when every other chain just tried new variations on beef/cheese/bun. Many of the burgers from major chains were really good; none was truly new.
But Jack in the Box didn’t stop there. It began formally marketing its separate late-night menu, Munchie Meals, to which it added the year’s most out-there new major-chain item, the Chick-n-Tater Melt (a fried chicken patty, hash browns and bacon, topped with ranch sauce and three different cheeses on a buttery croissant).
And when McDonald’s, Burger King and other chains pulled back on new LTO introductions, fearing they’d overwhelm their kitchen staffs and confuse customers, Jack in the Box kept creating new limited-time wonders including the current Spicy Sriracha Burger; Meat Lovers and Grande Sausage Breakfast Burritos; Croissant Donuts; Spicy Chicken Club; Breakfast, Nacho and Bacon Ranch Monster Tacos; BBQ or Jalapeňo Ranch Ultimate Cheeseburgers; and Sourdough Breakfast Melts. Bravo, Jack in the Box.
INDEPENDENT BURGER RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR
Burger Revolution, Belleville, Ont.
It’s difficult to single out one burger joint, but Burger Revolution’s husband and wife co-owners Jeff and Rayling Camacho do a lot of things right:
- For starters, a great logo, and that counts;
- A solid list of 5-oz. signature burgers, including the Chévre Guevara (goat cheese, roasted red pepper, bacon, smoked-tomato jam);
- Slider Tuesdays when mini versions of any two signature or classic burgers are $11;
- The option to change your choice signature burger in a poutine for an additional $2.75 (small) or $4.75 (large);
- Great Burger of the Month specials, sometimes customer-suggested; usually customer named. December’s BOTM is The Whizard with a beef patty, roasted red peppers, caramelized onion, sautéed mushrooms, banana peppers and Cheez Whiz;
- House-made soups now to go with the burgers.
BURGER OF THE YEAR (INTERNATIONAL)
McDonald’s European Beef Breed Burgers
If Angus is the only cattle breed you know, you could have learned a lot about livestock by following the burger specials this year at McDonald’s in France, Spain and Italy. The chain took the local-sourcing trend quite literally by the horns and introduced burgers made with regional beef breeds, some not well known. France has had burgers made with Charolais, Normand, Limousin and Montbeliard beef as part of an ongoing “Les Viandes de Nos Regions” (Our Regional Meat) program. Spain has seen a Grand Extrem burger made with Extremeña beef. A McItaly burger made with Marchigiana beef is on the menu in Italy now. A burger with Italy’s own Chianina beef was menued earlier.
The program hasn’t received much attention here but it has been an interesting and clever piece of the chain’s global effort to tell customers where the food it serves comes from.
CONDIMENT OF THE YEAR
Last year’s cutting-edge condiment was Sriracha (a romance that continues), but in 2014 it seems a burger isn’t properly dressed without a schmear of aïoli. Often that’s nothing more than flavored mayo, though the real thing is a delicate blend of crushed garlic, egg yolk, lemon juice, mustard and good olive oil. When it’s done right, an aïoli can beautifully elevate the flavors of a burger, so let the trend continues.
BURGER AD OF THE YEAR
Burger King, Spain
You’re being shown a lovely apartment for rent in Madrid. Here’s the foyer. This is the bedroom and this is the bathroom. And here’s the living room…with your very own Burger King! That’s the setup for this Burger King commercial in Spain, promoting home delivery. The looks on prospective renters’ faces when they turn the corner and see the BK counter tucked in by the couch are worth seeing. Credit goes to agency La Despensa in Madrid.
- Runner-Up: McDonald’s Norway’s all-marionette tale about the warm relationship between the burger chain and farmers. We just don’t see enough puppets in advertising any more.
- Miss Congeniality: Three-unit Ohio chain The Rail’s 30-second TV spot deconstructing one of its burgers while explaining the all-Ohio origins of each component, right down to beef from the state’s Holmes County.
WORST BURGER OF THE YEAR
BLT Rotisserie Chicken Burger
Did Boston Market learn nothing about burgers during the seven years (2000-07) it was owned by McDonald’s? This summer it introduced something it called the BLT Rotisserie Chicken Burger. But it wasn’t a burger; it wasn’t even close. It was a pile of chicken chunks on a bun. Even worse, Boston Market had the nerve to charge $6.99 for this pseudo-burger.
- Runner-Up: Carl’s Jr.’s Masher burgers might have taken the top spot if they had moved out of test markets to the national menu. Picture a burger or chicken patty topped with mashed potatoes, brown truffle gravy and crispy onion strings. Just…no. The 900-calorie creations were tested at $4.49, which was at least less than Boston Market’s would-be burger.