September 9, 2013
Burger Wars

West Hartford at epicenter of gourmet burger battle

Photo | CNN
Photo | CNN
Greater Hartford residents are demanding more gourmet style burgers like the ones shown to the left. West Hartford in particular has attracted several gourmet burger joints including Plan B Burger, Max Burger, and The Counter.
Doug Kelly, general manager, Max Burger
Al Gamble, owner, Plan B Burger

It's no secret that Americans love their burgers.

In fact, a new report indicates that a whopping 95 percent of consumers eat a burger at least once a month — if not more — with most admitting they crave burgers regularly.

While fast food joints like McDonalds and Burger King still serve as the stopping post for legions of burger fans, the trend in recent years has been growth of more upscale, trendy gourmet burger restaurants.

And it's a craze that Greater Hartford — West Hartford in particular — has experienced first hand, with new restaurants opening on a regular basis.

The latest market entrant: Boston-based b.good, which opened recently in the Shops at Somerset Square in Glastonbury, featuring a menu of locally grown produce and free-range meats. B.good is now searching for other locations in the region, including in West Hartford.

"The better burger sector continues to thrive in the overall burger category and that shows no signs of stopping," said Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic, a food service research and consulting firm. "As the burger category evolves, consumer demands are changing. Consumers expect something extra when dining out, and better burgers can really help deliver that as part of a solid value equation."

Like most sectors of the food industry, competition is fierce in the burger market with names like Five Guys, Jake's Wayback, The Counter, Whataburger, Shake Shack and In-N-Out popping up around every corner.

To survive, gourmet burger joints must offer a top notch product and superior service, especially if they are going to charge a price premium, said Doug Kelly, the general manager of Max Burger in West Hartford Center.

Max Burger opened in 2009 and has experienced an increase in business each year since, said Kelly, adding that he thinks there is more than enough business to go around in the wealthy suburb.

"Competition makes us strive to be better, definitely a good thing," he said. "We worry about what happens inside our four walls. I'm sure there is a perception that we have competition with other restaurants, but this is a fabricated rivalry. West Hartford Center provides ample opportunity for everyone to be successful. We try to focus on what we do, staying current, and not worrying what perceived competitors do."

Plan B Burger currently has five locations in Connecticut, including its original spot on Park Road in West Hartford that opened in 2006. A new Fairfield location is slated to open this fall, while a restaurant in Washington, D.C. is planned for next year.

Plan B owner Al Gamble agrees that a little competition is a good thing for business and that ultimately consumers are willing to pay a little more as long as they are truly getting a better quality burger that tastes great.

"We see consumers who are seeking a balance between quality, freshness, price and environment," Gamble says. "Our guests prefer a full-service, yet affordable restaurant as opposed to a quick service restaurant."

At the end of the day, Gamble says it's lifestyle that dictates someone's taste in burgers.

"A Big Mac is offered at a cheap price, but nobody talks about the flavor of the beef patty," he said. "At Plan B, we specialize in a very specific cut that produces a steak-like taste due to the 80/20 beef to fat marbling ratio. Before we grind, we also have a 21-day wet aging process."

Customers are also increasingly appreciating — even demanding — produce sourced from local farms, industry officials say. To that end, each one of Plan B's locations has unique offerings that are exclusive to them. From a strawberry farm in Glastonbury to a local beer in Springfield, Mass., fresh, local and organic are the qualities that educated consumers are appreciating these days, according to Gamble.

The Counter in West Hartford's Blue Back Square, which opened in 2008, has not only tapped into consumer's desire for higher quality products, but has gone a step further by offering diners a virtual laundry list of options on its build-your-own burger menu.

Owner Brett Long says the format has been a big hit with customers, offering up as many as 12 cheeses, 30 toppings, more than 20 sauces and six bun choices.

"I don't know of anyone that is selling our level of high-quality ingredients, our range of options at our competitive price-point, with the option to order beer, wine or mixed drinks," Long says. "It seems likely that customers will continue to demand additional specialized menus."

John Lahtinen is a freelance writer/editor based in Farmington. Follow him on Twitter @johnlahtinen or reach him at lahts@yahoo.com

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