Much of the so-called innovation in quick-service restaurants is all about adding low-fat, low-cal, low-everything (except price) items to the menu — except for the upstart Smashburger chain.
If you monitor the daily flow of news about the foodservice business, as we do here at our world headquarters, it’s readily apparent that many of the breathless stories circulating online are simply self-serving, chest-thumping bromides about how great some franchise’s expansion plans are going.
Or about their exciting new launch of — wait for it — multi-grain buns!
Or how some blogger managed to tip toe through the menuboard at a fast-food franchise and came away with some tasteless lunch selections that totaled less than 500 calories.
There’s one burger chain that hasn’t been getting a whole lot of press, even though it’s a bona fide news story — both for its culinary quality and for the unique way the chain’s signature burgers are prepared.
The chain is Smashburger, a relatively new franchise that is beginning to establish a significant footprint nationwide. Right now, the chain is centered in the urban markets of California, Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and Kansas, although plans are underway for a significant expansion on the East Coast. Surprisingly, Smashbuger already has locations in Canada, the U.K., the Middle East and in Central America, including locations in Costa Rica, Panama and El Salvador.
El Salvador? Who opens restaurants in El Salvador before expanding along the East and West Coasts of the United States?
That’s not the company’s only unusual aspect. The website is cleverly done — minimalist, but with strong visuals and entertaining graphics that tell the story of how and why the restaurants’ burgers are better.
Now to be sure, the chains’ positioning is big on touting its “all-natural Certified Angus beef,” along with several veggie burger options and gluten-free buns. But it’s the cooking method that gives the chain its name and, if you believe the marketing claims, the unique flavor of its grilled burgers.
First of all, unlike virtually every other quick-service restaurant, the process starts with fresh beef that’s not pre-formed into a machine-made patty, but instead is dropped onto a hot buttered grill as a loose round ball that is then “smashed” with a heavy metal plate into a distinctive oval shape.
(By the way, the chain promotes “fresh, pasture-fed, corn-finished Certified Angus beef,” which is a clever way to describe beef production in terms that are accurate yet likely to resonate favorably with consumers).
The smashing causes a crispy carmelization on the surface of the patty, which enhances flavor and mouthfeel, something not many people would ascribe to the typical fast-food hamburger.
Equally interesting are the varieties offered, along with the Classic Smashburger, of course (served on “laser-cut buns,” whatever the heck that means).
For example, how about a California special, the NorCal Burger, made with Brie cheese, applewood-smoked bacon, balsamic-marinated tomatoes, grilled onions, lettuce and mayo on a sourdough bun?
Or maybe the Truffle, Mushroom and Swiss Burger, a hearty concoction layered with truffle mayo, sautéed cremini mushrooms and aged Swiss cheese on a buttered egg bun? There’s also a Crispy Chicken Truffle, Mushroom and Swiss sandwich, but compared with 100% beef? Sorry — no sale.
Personally, I’d be tempted to order Smashburger’s Spicy Jalapeño Baja Burger, made with guacamole, pepper jack cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion and chipotle mayo on a spiced bun. Other chains have dabbled in “hot” flavors and spicy sandwiches, but usually just with sauce or condiments applied to the same-old beef patty.
And available for a limited time only.
Smashburger also offers an Avocado Ranch Black Bean Burger, but c’mon. Why order some mushy bean burger when you can have Certified Angus beef?
I guess enough customers go to a burger joint looking for vegetarian options to make it a viable menu item.
According to a company news release, the chain is planning hundreds of new stores in the next couple years (there’s already one in West Des Moines, Iowa and one in Omaha, Neb.). Given that there has been precious little in the way of innovation in the QSR category — most of the new product activity has consisted of extending menuboards with anything but meat- or dairy-based items — it’s heartening to see a franchise chain build its business on the backbone of serving tasty, high-quality hamburgers.
It’s as satisfying as anything from their menuboard.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.