Regaining Control in 2016
It’s likely 2015 will be remembered as the Year of Customization. “Have it your way” has been the rallying cry not just for Burger King but for almost all burger concepts. The build-your-own (BYO) trend has been a strong marketing focal point in some ways, but is it diminishing what has been a key element of the burger boom: personality? At its best, customization gives consumers what they say they want. But specialty burger builds set burger concepts apart; the spread of BYO offers threatens commoditization.
Worse, if I can make a burger just how I like it at lots of different burger bars, why would I choose your BYO counter over another? Price is always the answer to that question, and that’s never good.
Several concepts, such as Fuddruckers and Roy Rogers, always have had extensive toppings bars. Diners have the opportunity to dress their burgers as they wish without requiring prep staff to do so. Customization is a key part of their brand personalities. But for many other operators, it has been an add-on – a concept adjustment.
What we’ve seen over the past few years is a tendency for restaurants to cede at least some menu development power to customers. Perhaps operators wore out trying to create new, bigger and better burger specials every week or month. One compromise has been “crowd-sourced” burger specials. Customers were invited to submit—in the restaurant or through social media—ideas for the next monthly special. The customer-built burger goes on the menu for a month or so, but the flagship burgers remain.
Milwaukee Burger Company in Eau Claire, Wis., was an early adopter of this tactic. A recent winner was Chris Zimmerman’s “Picnic Burger,” comprised of a one-third-pound beef patty topped with American cheese, sliced brats, creamy potato salad and potato chips. For five years, LUXE Burger Bar in Providence, R.I., has run a more formal Build Your Own Burger competition. Last year’s winner was Richard Cordeiro's "The Portuguee." The build: beef, fried egg, chorizo links, sliced fried potatoes, creamy goat cheese, caramelized onions and roasted peppers on a sesame bun. The winner was announced on a local TV show.
Suffering a drip, drip, drip leak of sales and customers, McDonald’s in 2015 embraced customization with a high-energy, high-budget hug. For its testing of the Create Your Taste (CYT) platform, the chain (and its franchisees) invested in high-tech kiosks where diners can choose just what they want on a burger. The old stand-bys—Big Macs, Quarter Pounders with Cheese, etc.—are still available to order from the counter, but the push is to move customers to kiosks. Average checks are higher there and order mix-ups are reduced.
A less ambitious version of CYT called “TasteCrafted” was briefly tested in the Northwest beginning in April 2015. It allowed fewer options and was simple enough to be used at the drive-thru. Still another version, called “Chef Crafted Flavors,” went on the menu boards at McDonald’s in San Diego in September 2015. This platform creates three separate “packages” of toppings—for example, maple-seasoned bacon, savory grilled onions, slightly sweet honey Dijon sauce, creamy white Cheddar and leaf lettuce—that the customer applies to one of three proteins (beef patty, Buttermilk Crispy Chicken, Artisan Grilled Chicken). A danger I see in all this is McDonald’s losing a single brand identity, becoming one thing (Big Macs, Quarter Pounders) to some consumers and something else (home of my CYT or “Chef Crafted” burger).
In 2011, I spoke with Arlene Johnston, concept development director for the then-young Burger 21 chain. I asked why it didn’t offer a build-your-own option. “The most important reason was to keep it simple for customers and not to overload the menu with too many options,” she said. “We wanted to create specific recipes that play off what people like most. So we have the Burger 101, with lettuce and tomato, and the Cheesy Burger and Bacon Cheesy. Those are our top three sellers. And with our ‘chef-inspired’ concept, we didn’t want to do customization that changed the flavor profiles we developed.”
Burger 21 still doesn’t have a BYO option; it’s sticking to its concept. Keep in mind The NPD Group’s finding that the vast majority (nearly 70%) of consumers don’t try new things on the menu. They order their favorites. Build-Your-Own can be a favorite, I suppose, but if so, won’t diners price-shop it?
The customization trend won’t fade quickly, but I think 2016 will see interest in ingredient quality eclipsing it. Top-notch beef, cheese and fresh toppings is the way most people want to have it.