Premium burgers have taken the pub and fast food world by storm in the past decade. Could the era of posh fried chicken about to be upon us, asks David Burrows?
Research by Mintel in 2015 showed that 12% of 16 to 34 year-olds were seeking out “better burgers”. More than half (52%) said they’d be interested in giving posh burgers a try. “The gourmet burger trend continues seemingly unabated, adding value and interest to the burger market,” said Richard Ford, the firm’s analyst, at the time.
Even the market’s behemoth has been put on the back foot: last year McDonald’s announced that it would roll out table service and a cooked-to-order range in 400 outlets to fend off competition from these premium upstarts.
But in the past 18 months things have taken a turn for the worse for those in the business of selling posh beefburgers.
In July the Handmade Burger Company was placed into administration, whilst Byron is reportedly considering shutting four restaurants (in 2015, the chain was talking about opening 15 new stores a year).
Brexit, rising food and drink costs, an increase to the living wage and spiralling business rates have all piled on the pressure, but is there also a chance that consumers are looking for something new? Possibly.
“The previous robust growth in the burger bar market is expected to slow to 3.3% in 2016,” says Mintel foodservice analyst, Trish Caddy. It’ll gain momentum again but the “onus is on operators to continue to innovate through store and menu design”, she adds.
And this could see chicken come to the fore, as companies tap into consumer demand for healthier options when they’re eating out (the fact supermarket sales have just reached a tipping point with fresh poultry overtaking red meat, certainly augurs well).
In the past, poultry has a bad (w)rap in fast food circles. But premium poultry joints are popping up all over the place, particularly in London (where these hipster trends tend to start).
“There is a huge gap in the market for people looking for fast casual fried chicken which is fresher, healthier, tastier – and served up by happier people, in a welcoming, efficient and clean environment,” says Carl Clarke, one of founders of Chik’n restaurant in Baker Street. “There’s nothing like it on the high street right now.”
Indeed, The Sun reported how people queued overnight to receive one of the first 100 meals served up at Chik’n for free. “We are changing fried chicken for the good,” adds Clarke, who sources free-range birds from a farm in Castlemead, Somerset.
Will the idea take off? That remains to be seen, says Mintel’s Caddy. Indeed, whether the burger is chicken or beef, restaurants still have the wages, price inflation, rates and a sudden dip in consumer spending to deal with.
But poultry has some cards to play to entice diners willing to open their wallets. Take health. Beef’s reputation has been tarnished by last year’s decision by the World Health Organisation to classify red meat as “probably carcinogenic to humans”. Around one in two (46%) fast food diners would be interested in trying grilled chicken when they’re eating out as a “healthier option” (Mintel, July 2016).
Chicken also has a far-lower carbon footprint than beef, allowing it to appeal to increasing numbers of environmentally conscious consumers. But what about animal welfare?
Surveys commissioned by World Animal Protection show that 79% of Brits would not buy chicken from a fast-food chain if they knew it had suffered serious health problems as a result of living in a “cramped industrial farm”.
However, 78% never ask where their chicken comes from at fast-food outlets. Maybe they need to, says the organisation’s farm campaigner Ian Woodhurst. He sees the rise in demand for ‘posh chicken burgers’ to be part of a growing consumer trend towards healthier living and better food labelling.
Indeed, claims that we have already reached peak posh beefburger may be premature, but there are certainly opportunities for chicken to provide innovation and inspiration. Chicken is present in 15% of out-of-home meals, and with growth of 31% since 2009 it has outpaced beef (22%).
“Chicken is now the biggest protein in foodservice,” says Cyril Lavenant, foodservice director (UK) at market research firm the NPD Group, which compiled the figures. But the offer at the moment is “quite basic”, he adds, so outlets should definitely be looking at putting more premium chicken burgers on the menu.