Veggie Burgers Get New Respect

Veggie burgers have long been seen as tasteless cardboard hockey pucks that serve only to keep the odd vegetarian from vetoing a group's restaurant choice.

However, a growing number of burger chains are giving their veggie burgers more attention, creating proprietary versions designed to tempt both plant eaters and carnivores alike.

The trend is being fueled by the movement of many Americans to a more plant-based diet. These "flexitarians," as they are sometimes called, may not have given up meat entirely but look for opportunities to eat well without it.

Many burger chain operators also see the offer of a better veggie burger as a point of differentiation in an increasingly crowded category.

When Mike Gilligan co-founded the now five-unit Burger Lounge concept in 2007, he wanted the grass-fed beef concept to have something for vegetarians.

"But we didn't want to have the [branded pre-made veggie burgers] that you could get elsewhere," he said. "We wanted to have our own."

So the culinary team there developed a veggie burger based on the ancient grain quinoa mixed with brown rice, chick peas, corn, mushrooms, onion and carrots and panko breadcrumbs with a little Monterey jack cheese.

The result, which is available for $7.95 — or $5.95 for a "baby," or smaller size burger — at the chain's five locations, has been a hit.

Gilligan said the burger represents about 5 percent of sales, which he feels is good, considering the San Diego-based chain's beef emphasis.

Burger Lounge also recently introduced a salmon burger as a non-meat option, he said.

The rapidly growing Smashburger concept, based in Denver, also is testing a new vegetarian Black Bean burger that is scheduled to roll out nationally later this summer.

The company describes it as a "handcrafted, made-from-scratch" black bean patty, which — like the concept's burgers — is smashed on the grill, seared and seasoned.

It will range in price from $4.99 to $5.99, depending on the market.

In Los Angeles, the five-unit Umami Burger features a $12 Earth Burger on the menu. The patty is made from mushrooms and edamame, white soy and truffle aioli with ricotta cheese, and cipollini onions. It is topped with butter lettuce and an oven-roasted tomato.

Arlington, Va.-based Elevation Burger, with 18 units, offers two meat-free burgers on the menu: Veggie No. 1 is vegetarian and Veggie No. 2 is vegan.

"Since we opened, we wanted to be sure our concept included options for vegetarians because they usually get treated like second-class citizens," said Hans Hess, Elevation Burger's chief executive and founder.

The chain recently changed its veggie burgers after the manufacturer of the first versions made some alterations.

The new-improved Veggie No. 1 includes three kinds of mushrooms, onions, brown rice, rolled oats, mozzarella and cheddar cheeses, bulgur, parsley and spices.

Version No. 2 includes organic ingredients, such as brown rice, corn, carrots, onions, green peppers, rolled oats, red bell peppers, soy protein and flavoring and spices.

Both are priced around $3.58.

James Stewart, Elevation Burger's creative fund and brand manager, said, "People are always really impressed to see that we have two options. We do take pride in our veggie burgers."

Other chains rely on branded, pre-made veggie burger patties, which also have a following.

Burger King, for example, one of the only national burger giants to offer a veggie burger option, uses a pre-made patty supplied by a major manufacturer.

Lake Forest, Calif.-based Johnny Rockets also has offered a branded veggie burger since 1994.

And the casual-dining Red Robin Gourmet Burgers in Greenwood Village, Colo., offers two branded, premade vegan and vegetarian options. The veggie burger patties can be substituted for beef or chicken in any of the chain's burger options.

In addition, the Wynn Resorts in Las Vegas will introduce a new veggie burger featuring a premade patty that includes a blend of soy, pea and wheat protein with the gains kamut and quinoa.

"It's much more like meat," the supplier said.

And the demand for veggie burgers is growing, he added. "We are finding a larger number of chains restaurants are starting to pay attention to the health trend."

— Lisa Jennings

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