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Burger cravings fuel latest restaurant trend

By Devra First
Globe Staff / July 5, 2012
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Boston is in the midst of a burger boom.

Burger joints are opening left and right. The past few years have brought 5 Napkin Burger to the Prudential Center, Boston Burger Company to Somerville’s Davis Square and the Fenway, Grass Fed to Jamaica Plain, jW’s Burger Bar to Scituate, Tasty Burger to the Fenway, and Wahlburgers to Hingham, not to mention Five Guys to 20-plus Massachusetts locations since it debuted here in 2008.

The so-called better burger segment is on the rise nationwide, and local appetites are growing in lockstep.

“It’s a craze. Everybody’s doing it, and I’m jumping on the bandwagon,” says chef Evan Deluty, who runs the popular South End Italian restaurant Stella and is eyeing several Boston locations for the burger bar he plans to open within the next year. “So many of these trends dive in and dive out. It was nouvelle cuisine in the ’80s and back to French in the ’90s, Italian in the late ’90s and early 2000s, and Mexican a few years ago. But who doesn’t love to go have a great burger for 8 or 9 bucks?”

More Five Guys are on the way, including in downtown Boston. Two new Tasty Burgers are scheduled to open, in South Boston this summer and Cambridge’s Harvard Square in the fall. The Legendary Restaurant Group, whose operations include Max & Dylans, Papagayo, and Scollay Square, will open Burger Dive this fall in the new Somerville complex Assembly Row. The group is already searching Boston for a second Burger Dive location. A branch of Bobby’s Burger Palace, from celebrity chef Bobby Flay, is coming to Burlington. And a dozen branches of Smashburger, a Denver-based chain, will arrive in Middlesex County over the next seven years.

Next year the ultimate modern burger joint comes to Chestnut Hill: the New York-born Shake Shack, legendary for its long lines.

Restaurateur Danny Meyer, who started Shake Shack and is responsible for acclaimed New York restaurants such as Gramercy Tavern, brought a fine-dining sensibility to burger slinging. Customers still order at a counter, but the beef is custom-blended, hormone-free, and ground daily; the burgers are cooked to order; and the frozen custard is made on site. The food costs more than it would at a place like McDonald’s or Burger King, but it’s not expensive, either. At the original Madison Square Park location, a ShackBurger with American cheese, lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise-based ShackSauce is $4.55.

“The experience mirrors fast food, but the experience is anything but fast food,” Meyer says. “If you go back to the genesis of going out to get a burger with friends, you think about a segment of ‘Happy Days’ where everybody was using a burger joint to show off their car and be with people.”

The “better burger” label refers to more-upscale, fast-casual restaurants serving sandwiches made from higher-quality ingredients, often with customizable or innovative toppings. At Grass Fed, one can add anything from cilantro-lime aioli to fried oysters to a burger; Boston Burger Company’s menu lists 24 variations of the sandwich, including the Mac Attack, with macaroni and cheese and bacon, and the King, with peanut butter, bacon, and fried bananas.(Of course, customizable and innovative burgers aren’t new — Harvard Square’s Mr. Bartley’s, which offers tricked-out burgers named for politicians and other personalities, has been open since 1960.)

The better burger segment accounts for only about $2.5 billion of the nearly $70 billion burger industry, which is dominated by large, quick-service chains like McDonald’s. But according to a recent report by Chicago food research firm Technomic, fast-casual burger sales grew 20.8 percent from 2010 to 2011, while the burger segment as a whole grew by just 3.7 percent.

It’s easy to see why the market is so appealing to restaurateurs: Eighty-nine percent of consumers say they eat burgers away from home once a month or more, and nearly half report doing so at least once a week.

“I was interested in serving quality food in a fast-food setting,” says Grass Fed owner Krista Kranyak, who also operates fine-dining restaurant Ten Tables, with branches in Jamaica Plain, Cambridge, and Provincetown. In the current economy, she says, customers are more cautious about eating at expensive restaurants. “People want to go out to dinner and not spend a ton of money. They want to have a couple glasses of wine and a couple burgers for under 30 bucks.”

Dave Dubois runs sit-down restaurants Franklin Cafe, Franklin Southie, and Citizen Public House & Oyster Bar. Two years ago he opened the first Tasty Burger, with the hope of putting “the best food on the plate for the best price,” he says. A side benefit: It turns out selling burgers is fun.

“At [Franklin] Cafe and Southie, we’re always so serious. It’s nice to not have to be so serious about it,” he says. “People just come up and say the nicest stuff all the time. Little kids get so happy when they’re in there.”

Of course, the draw of burgers is not merely economic. “Everybody likes it,” says Dubois. “It’s just such a satisfying sandwich. It always has been.”

With its emphasis on higher-quality beef, the new breed of burgers may also appeal to diners concerned about food safety. Books like Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation” have raised awareness about potential dangers associated with large-scale meat production, says Warren Belasco, a visiting professor of gastronomy at Boston University who has taught a course called “The Many Meanings of Meat.”

“There’s a certain fear of not only the toxic factors of chopped meat but also environmental questions and even animal-rights issues,” he says. “The feedlot and slaughterhouse are major sites of contamination. If you bypass them with the smaller-scale and the more local, the assumption might be it’s safer and better for everyone. Even the animals are happier. There’s a virtue factor.”

With so many burger joints now in the area, one might think entrepreneurs planning new ones would worry about market saturation. Not so, they say. People are always going to want more hamburgers.

“There are three Mexican restaurants in the Seaport right now,” says Chris Damian of the Legendary Restaurant Group — Temazcal, Rosa Mexicano, and his group’s Papagayo. “We’re all doing well.” He sees no reason the upcoming Burger Dive shouldn’t thrive among competition. “Everybody’s on this wagon,” he says, “but I think it’s the kind of thing that’s here to stay.”

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.

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