My prediction for 2015 was for a Year of the Cheeseburger, meaning renewed popularity for classic, simple, top-quality burgers, and I think that has been one of this year’s most prominent narratives. OK, the forecast for more burger/coffee pairings may not have been prescient, but expectations that in-house pickling, breakfast burgers and non-meat burgers would be more important worked out well enough. My predictions for 2016 spring from a conviction that burger bars are evolving and maturing.
√ First, I’m expecting next year to be a Year of the “Bar” in Burger Bar. Burger/beer pairings are common and even brewery-sponsored events or dinners are gaining favor. But I’m expecting that burger bars with licenses will promote their alcoholic-beverage programs even more seriously.
That can take the form of Happy Hour promotions. Michael Symon’s B Spot burger bars offer sliders (six for $9.99) between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. It also means developing more bar foods for the menu. For example, Avenue in St. Petersburg, Fla., offers drink-friendly eats such as its “Butcher Board,” which includes Green Bench Surrealist IPA pickles, sriracha-pickled okra, ginger-pickled beets and assorted meat and cheese. If patrons come for a beer but not necessarily a burger, have options ready. Unexpected and offbeat are good attributes for bar foods: Blue Door Pub in St. Paul, Minn., serves Spam Bites (Spam, pickles and cream cheese in a crunch potato-chip and panko coating).
The Year of the Bar might even include more brewery/restaurateur partnerships like the recently opened Point Burger Bar in Milwaukee. Restaurateur Brian Ward struck a licensing deal with Stevens Point Brewery, brewer of Point Beer, to create the burger bar. Chicago’s Goose Island Brewery is on two brewpubs there (the brewpubs were not part of the sale of Goose Island Beer Co. to Anheuser-Busch). Why couldn’t more brewer/burger operator joint ventures happen across the country?
√ Earlier this month I predicted that spicy, spreadable Italian sausage ‘Nduja is the trendy burger ingredient/topping of the future., and I stand by that. Also rising in popularity is harissa, a North African-origin chili-pepper paste that makes a great topping or burger-sauce ingredient.
√ Another menu trend I expect will develop, from another corner of the Mediterranean, is a rise in Greek-influenced burgers. That could be lamb burgers, like the one offered by Atlanta’s Yeah! Burger earlier this year with a rosemary-garlic-seasoned lamb patty topped with goat cheese, arugula and house basil mayo. Lamb has come down in price, but beef burgers can go Greek, too. Missouri locations of the 5 Star Burgers chain recently featured a Mount Olympus Burger: an Angus beef patty with a cucumber-tomato-feta salad with Greek vinaigrette and kalamata olive tapenade on a butter-toasted spinach bun.
√ Retail Rules: Watch for more burger concepts to package and sell their signature items online, in-store or at retail. Whataburger, which has sold its Fancy Ketchup, Spicy Ketchup and Original Mustard at retail for two years, recently added Whataburger-branded Honey BBQ, Jalapeño Ranch, Sea Salt & Pepper Kettle-Cooked Potato Chips. Wichita, Kan.-based Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers sells its signature Fry Sauce online now. In the UK, Gourmet Burger Kitchen sells a branded line of condiments, including Harissa Mayo, BBQ Relish and Habanero Jam.
√ Finally, breakfast has been restaurants’ bright spot over the past few years; it’s the daypart showing the most growth in customer traffic. Not all burger joints are capable of serving breakfast daily, but all should be looking at doing weekend brunch if they are not. Chicago’s Rockit Burger Bar’s brunch menu has not only a Spicy Breakfast Burger but also a Waffle Chicken Tender Sandwich, Sausage & Egg Flatbread Pizza, a build-your-own Bloody Mary Bar and more. Expect more burger bars to join the fun and pick up the brunch business that awaits.