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  • VOL 08, ISSUE 01 • WINTER 2020
Making a Burger a Meal

Making a Burger a Meal

53% of diners order a side dish on all or most restaurant visits, compared with 39% ordering an appetizer

The burger boom’s first phase came when chefs and consumers realized a burger could be more than a boring drive-in staple: It could be anything imaginable. The rise of craft beers shaped the boom’s second phase as burgers, beers and bourbons became a powerful triumvirate for the rising demographic that would be called Millennials.

I think we’re in a third stage of burgers’ 20-year ascendency. This evolutionary stop recognizes that burgers are best as part of a meal, where all elements are important. Quality burger, quality beverage…and quality sides beyond a basket of fries. Operators are beginning to give creative spins to side dishes, just as they have done with burgers, for two good reasons: Consumers will order interesting sides and will pay a fair price for them.

In many bars, sides are priced at upwards of half the price of a burger. That means alluring $6 and $7 sides — not just loaded fries but vegetable and fruit side dishes — can work on many menus. Researcher Technomic finds that 53% of diners order a side dish on all or most restaurant visits, compared with 39% ordering an appetizer.

Keep in mind, too, that most younger diners are more interested in and exploratory about vegetable dishes than were their parents. That is pushing vegetables and grains to the center of the plate. Consider that AL’s Place in San Francisco, named Best New Restaurant of 2015 by Bon Appétit, groups grilled trout, smoked brisket and hangar steak under “Sides” on its menu. New thinking.

Here are some useful examples of more thinking involving sides that are selling now on burger bar menus:

  • Have a grill? Grilled vegetables can pair wonderfully with burgers. Jeff Dichter, owner of top Montreal burger bar m:brgr, tells me that grilled asparagus and grilled mushrooms sold well as soon as they went on the menu, even priced at $7 and $8.75 respectively. Phil’s Icehouse in Austin, Texas, has had success with battered-and-fried green beans as a replacement for regular fries.

  • Victory Burger In Oakland, Calif., keeps the fryer busy with sides that include fries, beer-battered onion rings, sweet fried plantains, tempura pickled vegetables and a $7.75 Mixed Fry Basket with it all. There’s also a “Fries of the Week” special. Recent dishes have been Plantain & Yucca Chips; Yucca Frites with capers and chimichurri mayo; and a Winter Root Fry Up (carrots, fry-cut rutabaga and garnet yams mixed with hand-cut fries and topped with chipotle mayo and Parmesan).

  • Another Canadian burger bar, The Burg in Edmonton, Alberta, gives diners a choice of traditional or more “nouveau” sides with any burger order: fries, house-made potato chips, coleslaw, devilled eggs (two), or house-cured bacon bourbon beans. But for a $3.75 upcharge those options include yam fries, onion rings, mac ‘n’ cheese balls (four), house salad, Caesar salad or country-style tomato soup. All this is part of the reconsideration of burgers as parts of a complete meal.

  • Another burger joint that’s offering a wide variety of reasonably priced side options is Farmhaus Burger in Atlanta. “Haus-cut” Russet fries with sea salt and cracked pepper are $2.25, but go 50¢ more and there’s house feta dipping sauce with the fries. Other choices are sweet potato tots ($3.50) buttermilk onion rings ($3), red bean chili ($3) or fried pickles with buttermilk ranch ($3.50), all house-made.

  • House-made pickles rank among the top 20 hottest food trends for 2016, according to the National Restaurant Association’s annual “What’s Hot?” list. Chomp Kitchen & Drink in Warren, R.I., is another burger bar that’s pickling cukes for the deep-fried “Frickles” it offers with ranch sauce as a side. Chef Mario Batali offers a basket of “Fried & Not” pickles at his B&B Burger & Beer in Las Vegas. Luxe Burger Bar in Providence, R.I., is frying up Frickles, too.

  • But you don’t have be into pickling to take advantage of the trend. The healthy-eating Bareburger chain offers dill, spicy and sweet pickles on the side, along with a zippy wasabi carrot slaw. The healthful-eating trend is evident in the organic Brussels sprouts with roasted chestnut-and-bacon butter served at the Chalk Valley burger bar in Southampton, England. And Yeah! Burger in Atlanta last fall had as its Side of the Month an Organic Quinoa Bowl made with organic butternut squash, organic white quinoa, organic kale, and organic pumpkin seeds tossed with house-made organic sherry vinaigrette dressing.

  • For January 2016, Yeah! Burger’s special side was golden brown potato tots made with organic potatoes and organic Cheddar. Tots are hot with young diners and are a great place to start when you’re looking at upgrading sides. The Johnny Rockets chain recently added Smoky Cheddar Pulled Pork Tots to its menu, giving potato nuggets the loaded-fries treatment. Like so many others, that’s a side dish worth trying on the menu.
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