Whether it’s a classic offering or a meat-alternative, customers demand fresh, quality burgers and sausages.
By Erin Del Conte, Senior Editor
This summer’s big barbecue trend sounds like something of an oxymoron: vegan barbecue. Nonetheless, as customers seek to up their protein intake while also keeping an eye on healthy eating, plant-based foods are finding their way onto grills and menus this summer.
Market research firm Mintel found omnivores looking to eat healthier on occasion are driving the vegan barbecue trend, buoyed by a surge in specialty vegan products—like black bean chipotle. Some 33% of U.S. consumers plan to buy more plant-based food products in the next year, according to Mintel.
NPD Group, a global information company, found that as consumers demand more protein in their diets, they’re increasingly looking to incorporate plant-based proteins. Some 60% of U.S. customers tell NPD Group they want more protein in their diets, and 14% (43 million customers) regularly use plant-based alternatives like veggie burgers and tofu, even though 86% of these customers don’t consider themselves to be vegan or vegetarian.
Warrenville, Ill.-based The PRIDE Stores, which operates 12 c-stores in the Chicagoland area, features two alternative meat options—a turkey burger and a veggie burger—at its Urban Counter restaurants, which are known for hand-pressed, made-to-order burgers.
“I think they do perceive that as healthier. And it is,” said Mario Spina, owner & CEO of The PRIDE Stores, of the alternative meat options.
Some patrons even opt for chopped veggie burger as the “meat” on top of a salad.
“People do get excited when they see a turkey burger or a veggie burger on the menu because there’s an option instead of just having a regular burger all the time,” Spina said.
While Urban Counter makes all of its regular burgers on-site, it purchases the veggie burgers instead of making them in house. Spina has noticed a lot of burger places adding black bean burgers lately to appeal to those seeking an alternative.
The numbers back up the trend. NPD found 19% growth in cases of alternative proteins shipped from broadline foodservice distributors to independent (one to two units) and micro-chain (three to 19 units) restaurant operators in the year ending March 2018, compared to same period a year ago. Beef alternatives are the main driver of the category’s growth and account for 44% of the plant-based products being shipped.
While burgers are the largest beef alternative category, ball products—like meatless meatballs—that are used as ingredients have surpassed burgers and all other plant-based protein products in terms of growth, according to NPD.
David Portalatin, industry advisor for NPD’s Food Sector, pointed out that the plant-based protein category has mainstreamed beyond people who choose a meatless diet. “Food manufacturers and operators have really improved the quality and taste of plant-based foods over the past several years and these foods are appealing to a variety of consumer segments for a variety of reasons.”
But obviously, not everyone is looking for a meat alternative. The majority of customers to The PRIDE Stores’ Urban Counter restaurants are there for something meaty. The biggest burger trend Spina is seeing is demand for a classic burger.
“It always seems that everything goes back to the beginning with every trend. There’s been a lot of really cool and new burgers out there and people trying a whole bunch of really creative things, and I think at the end of the day the people go back to what used to make a burger, what a basic burger used to be,” he said.
Customers want simple, quality ingredients, including bread with butter, pickles, lettuce, tomato, onions, house-made ‘secret’ sauces and fresh-made burger patties, he said. “I think everything is kind of cyclical and goes back to the basics. We’ve been seeing a lot of that. The classic burger we have seems to be our best seller.”
When The PRIDE Stores first introduced its Urban Counter restaurant, Spina said he wanted the food to stand on its own and compete with any burger establishment out there. “At first, people were shocked when we asked them how they wanted their burger cooked. They could not believe we were making them a hand-pressed, half-pound, cooked-to-order burger out of a gas station.”
Today, its burger business is booming. The c-store chain operates five Urban Counters with plans to add three more by the end of the year. It’s currently building two new convenience stores—one in Naperville, Ill., and one in Palatine, Ill., both of which are slated to include Urban Counters. “We also just purchased a station in West Chicago, Ill. that we are currently remodeling that will have an Urban Counter as well,” Spina said.
Last fall, Urban Counter introduced its first special burger, which it called its “Fall Burger.” “It was a house-made seasoned turkey patty topped with cranberry jelly, crispy fried onions, arugula, cheddar cheese on a brioche bun,” Spina said.
This summer, Urban Counter is introducing a summer special “Avocado Burger,” which offers a house-made, half-pound burger patty topped with roasted jalapeños, balsamic onions, Provolone cheese and avocado on a brioche bun.
Given customer enthusiasm, The PRIDE Stores is considering adding a limited-time-only burger for every season.
In addition to burgers, Urban Counter also offers sausages, including Italian sausage, Polish sausage and bratwurst, which are popular with customers.
“At our Saint Charles-based freestanding Urban Counter location, we’ve been carrying a larger menu because we’ve got the space there. We do a smoked Andouille sausage. It’s got caramelized onions, roasted mushrooms, a grain mustard and it’s on a French bread roll,” he said.
Urban Counter offers upscale bread carriers for burgers and brats. “We try to keep it minimized as much as we can because it’s easier to use. You don’t have to keep much inventory on bread, and the bread stays fresher,” Spina said. It offers a poppy-seed bun for hot dogs, and a French bread roll for the bratwurst and the smoked Andouille sausage. The burgers come on a brioche bun.
“It makes it a little more upscale than just a regular old bun,” he said. “Our burgers are big and juicy and they come with a lot of different toppings depending on what you get, so the brioche bun holds that in a little bit better than a standard bun would do. A standard bun would fall apart right away.”
LET’S BE FRANK
Des Moines, Iowa-based Yesway Convenience Stores offers an assortment of hot dogs and sausages on the roller grill, focused on delivering the best value via quality, freshness and price.
“We serve an all-beef hot dog and are looking to make sure that we are managing our offering to ensure that the hot dogs are available (in stock), fresh and great tasting,” said Jeff Keune, Yesway’s senior vice president of food service and innovation.
In addition to the all-beef hot dog, Yesway offers brats, pepperjack sausage, smoked sausage with cheddar and Polish Sausage.
Customers can dress their sausages with a set of condiments available in squeeze bottles or packets that are held cold. Condiments include ketchup, mustard, relish, mayo, spicy mustard, jalapeños, banana peppers, pickles and sauerkraut.
“We are currently exploring an expanded set that could include signature sauces / condiments to further elevate the offering and deliver great taste,” Keune said.
During the breakfast daypart, Yesway features a breakfast sausage biscuit as part of its value menu. “We also serve maple pancake sausage and blueberry pancake sausage roller grill items and both have done very well,” Keune said.
Yesway, which is a two-year-old company with numerous industry veterans among its ranks, is at the start of its foodservice development, having brought on Carlos Acevedos as its culinary innovation and research chef last October. The chain is currently looking into adding burgers to its menus.
“We have a number of burger ideas in development,” Keune said, including Day ‘N Night Bites burger products as part of its packaged commissary offering. “We have done burger promotions around these products and they have done well,” he noted.
Yeway currently operates 150 stores in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, South Dakota, Wyoming and Nebraska. The chain plans to acquire 500 convenience stores in the U.S. over the next several years. As acquisitions grow, the chain is noticing opportunities to expand its foodservice lineup.
“We are partnering in a number of locations with Orion Foods and other branded concepts,” Keune said. “In addition to partnerships we are building platforms of our own that might include burgers, but that is still something that is in its early stages of development.”