'Better burger' chains beef up
Burger chains are the biggest business in the restaurant industry, pulling in $69 billion in sales each year. Nearly nine in 10 consumers say they grab burgers away from home at least once a month.
Half of that business goes to McDonald's -- the behemoth that in recent years has upgraded its sandwich offerings, followed quickly by other fast food giants such as Burger King, Wendy's and Carl's Jr.
But Six Dollar Burgers, Big Macs and Whoppers still leave many foodies uninspired, driving demand for chains that offer convenient, affordable burgers that are also thoughtfully made with high-quality ingredients.
Cue the horde of "better burgers," which have begun beefing up the industry with premium toppings, fresher meats, better service -- and often higher prices. Their fans are fiercely loyal, their detractors often vicious.
While the overall burger segment grew 3.7% last year, fast casual chains exploded 20.8%, according to a report from research group Technomic.
Here, a look at some of the top better burger brands, including Smashburger, In-N-Out and Five Guys.
Smashburger( Smashburger / July 12, 2012 )
As far as nationwide chains go, Denver-based Smashburger is on the smaller side, with fewer than 200 locations, including one in the Los Angeles area. But the company -- which is less than 5 years old -- was named by Forbes last year as the most promising company in America. The burgers start as cold meatballs, which are then smashed onto a buttered grill. The fast food comparisons mostly stop at the counter, where food is ordered. The chain has no drive-thrus and sends employees to deliver meals to tables along with beer and wine in frosted glasses. Menus are localized to reflect the surrounding region: The Thousand Oaks branch has a pan-Asian-inspired burger. Other options include a spinach and goat cheese burger, Caribbean salads, vegetarian entrees and Chicago dogs. An All-American burger goes for $4.99. Last year, Smashburger sales reached $115.7 million.