Wednesday, July 01, 2009

A second-generation of hamburger chains is spreading across the U.S.

Scott and Don Harris, brothers and business partners, have spent 25 years in the burger business as owners of Wendy’s franchises.

When they were looking a few years ago to become franchisees of a new concept, the Harris brothers were drawn again to burgers. Last year they opened a Roswell outlet for The Counter, a California-based burger chain, and they plan five more in metro Atlanta in the next five years.

You can always go back to the hamburger as this one basic element of American society,” Scott Harris said. “Give me a great hamburger and you’ll have a following.”
Decades after Ray Kroc started a fast-food empire with a franchising deal for McDonald’s, a second-generation of hamburger chains is spreading across the United States and metro Atlanta. They offer slightly pricier burgers, typically $5 to $10 for their mainstay items, and feature hand-made patties from fresh-ground beef.
In the past three years, Five Guys Burgers and Fries, based in Virginia, has put almost 30 restaurants in metro Atlanta. Cheeseburger Bobby’s, a Kennesaw-based chain started last year, has four outlets in the area. It expects to add two more this fall.

Canyons Burger Company, based in Atlanta, has opened two outlets since 2007. It expects to open six to 10 units in metro Atlanta in the next three years. California-based Fatburger and Florida-based Evos also have entered the Atlanta market.

Hamburger chains represent the largest and still one of the fastest-growing restaurant segments in the United States, according to Chicago market research firm Technomic.

Last year, sales at limited-service hamburger restaurants rose 4.1 percent to $64 billion, Technomic reported. Only the sandwich and bakery cafe categories grew faster.

Burger outlets are growing on two different fronts, said Darren Tristano, Technomic executive vice president.

The traditional chains — McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s — are broadening their menus with chicken sandwiches, beverages and breakfast fare, Tristano said. This has left an opening for a “better burger” category to emerge that focuses on a premium hamburger, he said.

The recession could slow down growth of the number of units for the new burger chains, Tristano said. Some customers might trade down temporarily to save money, he said.

But the long-term trends remain positive, Tristano said. “I don’t think it’s anywhere near a saturation point,” he said. “In fact, it’s probably five more years of good growth before you even begin to see it flatten.”

These new chains are not the first to take the burger up a notch. Fuddruckers, a Texas-based chain started in 1980, has eight metro Atlanta locations and still claims to have the “world’s greatest hamburger.”

Bob Stoll, co-founder of Cheeseburger Bobby’s with his brother Richard, said there is room in the market for new burger concepts as long as they’re well-run.

Cheeseburger Bobby’s tries to differentiate itself by using fresh ingredients and giving customers a topping bar that allows them to customize their own burger.

“I think people are willing to pay a little more for a quality burger,” Stoll said.
The Counter also allows for greater customization. Guests can choose from more than 50 different cheeses, toppings and sauces.

The traditional and new burger chains can both co-exist, said Scott and Don Harris, the Counter franchisees. They still own seven Wendy’s restaurants as well as six Panera Bread outlets.

The Counter offers a California-themed environment with bright beach colors and surfboards on the wall. Customers also can pair their burgers with beer and wine.

“I think it’s more about convenience when you go to Wendy’s,” Scott Harris said.

“This is more about experience.”

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