'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.
In-N-Out Burger( Susan Goldman / Bloomberg News. / July 12, 2012 )
This Southern California staple inspires intense, almost-cultish loyalty, which last year compelled one company to offer to ship In-N-Out burgers to the East Coast for more than $50 a pop. A basic hamburger costs about $2. The Irvine-based chain has been around since 1948, making it one of the original purveyors of better burgers. The restaurants have several famous features, including the drive-thru lines that often wrap around the block. Its red and yellow aesthetic is often the target of copycats, including one recently in China. Its official menu is simple, but fans have long speculated about secret offerings, such as the Animal Style dressing and the so-called "100 x 100" monstrosity with a hundred meat patties squeezed between a single set of buns. Because the company is family-owned and intensely private, not much is known about the company's financials, though QSR magazine estimated in 2010 that In-N-Out pulled in $472.5 million in sales. It has long been a regional chain, only venturing beyond California in 1992. In-N-Out still has fewer than 300 restaurants scattered across the Southwest.