'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.
Five Guys Burgers and Fries( Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times / July 12, 2012 )
For a while, this Lorton, Va.-based chain was expanding so fast, it was opening five stores a week. Since launching in 1986, Five Guys has grown to more than 1,000 locations, largely on the strength of word of mouth. The company doesn't freeze any of its food, doesn't operate drive-thrus and is free of ostentation (all of its stores have the same red-and-white checkered interior). The food is bought at a counter, cooked in an open kitchen and picked up by the diner. The menu is simple: burgers, hot dogs, a few sandwiches and hand-cut fries. But with an option for unlimited toppings, which include jalapeno peppers, grilled mushrooms and hot sauce, customers can order burgers 250,000 ways. A standard hamburger costs $5.49 in Los Angeles; overall sales for the chain spiked 32.8% last year to $951 million, according to Technomic. The chain says its menu is free of trans fats. In 2010, however, the Xtreme Eating list from the Center for Science in the Public Interest said Five Guys' bacon cheeseburger, with at 920 calories, is equivalent to about two McDonald's Quarter-Pounders.