The burger business

BurgerYou’ll find one in just about every flavour, on just about every menu—but, asks Jonathan Seidler, is the burger bubble set to burst?

When it comes to burgers, Australia is in the midst of the longest extended honeymoon period known to man. Few would have predicted that our love affair with this killer cocktail of sugar, fat and salt would spread so far into the fabric of our eating habits. Like the waves of fads that came before it, the deep fried Americanisation of our sprawling suburbia was largely expected to peter out once the denizens of well-to-do suburbs discovered their next molecular flight of fancy or heart-stopping dessert.

To be sure, that’s happened (Nutella donut milkshake, anyone?) but for some strange reason, burgers appear to be going nowhere but upwards and outwards. Far from being confined to fast food fiefdom, these simple, one-hander meals have extended their tentacles from QSRs to fine dining, catered events to family restaurants, and they’ve captured the imagination of award-winning chefs, restaurateurs and managers alike.

So what is our fascination with serving burgers? Have we forgotten that, on balance, we are one of the fattest nations on Earth and that these little delights are a one-way ticket to heart disease? Perhaps it’s skipped our minds that breaking even on serving quality burgers is by no means assured; Chur Burger owner, Warren Turnbull, has gone on the record to say that the food costs of his burgers run between 30 to 40 per cent of his total costs. If you’re going to gear up to redefine the patty, pickles and bun, you’d better be hoping to sell them by the truckload, such as at Mary’s, which is famed for selling upwards of 10,000 greasy burgers a week between its Newtown and CBD outlets. It’s certainly a volume business.    

But there doesn’t appear to be one particular winning formula. The aforementioned Mary’s is popular for updating the Yankee fast food dream in a bar setting; sloppy, juicy burgers that customers will inhale before they drip all over their work clothes. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s reigning king Neil Perry’s Wagyu burger at Rockpool Bar & Grill, which continues to be a hot seller years after jumping the shark on the gourmet burger trend, and precipitated his move into the mainstream with The Burger Project, a takeaway venue in World Square, in the Sydney CBD.

Earlier this year, Perry even stood up to defend Victorian farmer David Blackmore, the man who supplies his beloved beef, claiming that if his property lost its farming permit, the burger would be off the menu. It’s all a lot of noise for the category item that’s been on the Hungry Jack’s menu for over sixty years.

Phil Wood, executive chef at Perry’s Rockpool, agrees that making high quality burgers is “not overly cheap. The margins are good, but they’re not amazing on a burger like [the Wagyu]. Especially because everything is made in house; nothing’s brought in.” Wood says scalable, dynamic models, like Rockpool’s spin-off The Burger Project or other businesses which straddle the line between high quality and QSR, have more potential for good margins. “I think The Burger Project is actually the second best performing business of all of ours in terms of profit. The way it’s designed is that it’s a product you can take to other spots, so once you have a few of them it’s easier.”

Sydney in particular has been exposed to an explosion of creativity around the humble burger. It’s the kind of innovation that begets adulation, which has seen lines around the corner for suave operators who change up their menus and limit their opening hours and seating. Turning an easy-to-eat item into an event takes a certain knack for marketing—just look at what Messina has done for your everyday gelato—but it’s also a lesson in how to get the basics right. There are ravenous websites and blogs devoted to the best burgers in each city. We’ve had it all, from vegetarian burgers to burgers without buns to dessert burgers, seafood burgers and burgers made
with beef better than you’d ever have in a regular steak.      

So do cutting-edge burger experiments make a difference? Jovan Curic, who runs Pub Life Kitchen in Ultimo and the spin-off BRGRS project, which pops up at venues around Sydney, believes the burgeoning success of custom burgers is that it’s the meal “people eat with their eyes.” Certainly, this helps explain the sell-out success of his Wednesday Burger Project that includes photo-worthy moments like a burger with chili jam donuts, cream cheese and a cinnamon glazed bun. “It looks good on Instagram,” he says. “If you put a regular burger next to one of our monstrosities, which one’s going to get you more excited?”

Though he’s an unashamed fan of the traditional Aussie burger (beetroot, pineapple, the works), Wood maintains that “simplicity is key”, which explains why the burgers that keep people coming back are actually the most simple. Despite his experiments, Curic agrees: “If you look at all the reigning kings in America, there’s nothing on their burgers but lettuce, tomato, pickle, beef. You have to get the classic balance right. When you find a burger that has too much shit on it, it generally means that the beef patty hasn’t got too much flavour.”     

Beef is not only a fundamental part of what makes a good burger, but it’s also fast becoming the most expensive. Curic says many operators aren’t aware of where their meat is coming from or how it is farmed. “In the last three months, beef has risen sevenfold,” he says. “Cuts of meat that [restaurateurs] generally make a burger from, like a chuck steak for instance, were $5 per kilo and are now almost $18. You can’t do cheap, cheap burgers. It’s just not sustainable.”

Curic, one of the only burger merchants who salt cures his beef, says operators are in for a rude shock when this shortage starts affecting their bottom line. “All our breeding cows that we’d normally save are being slaughtered and sent off to the States. We had a really low yield in birth rate and a slump in the Aussie dollar, and now Americans are paying $USD10 per kilo for mince meat, which is out of control.”

Unsurprisingly, given his boss’ strong relationship with local farmers, Wood is more about the bun. “The bun is probably the most important thing. It can’t fall apart, it can’t be too soft. It has to be perfect. For me, a burger is about 80 per cent bun to be honest.”

So is the burger bubble primed to pop? It depends who you ask. On a practical level, Curic thinks so. Between Australian rent and wage costs and increased export demand from the US, he isn’t confident many other operators will be around in five years. “It is definitely going to burst, and the ones who will still be around will be the guys who were doing it right at the beginning. A lot of the rest will go,” he says. “You sell 2000 burgers now, what happens when you only sell 500? It isn’t sustainable in that way.”

Wood, whose institution has just celebrated the tenth anniversary of its Wagyu burger, is more optimistic. “If someone asked me for advice about opening a burger place tomorrow, I’d say go for it,” he says. “Get the right location and you’ll probably kill it.” This emphasis on place is something that Curic agrees with. He says it’s why a joint like Mary’s will survive when others won’t, “because their bar is
great and it’s a great experience.” But ultimately, Wood says the fundamental make-up of a burger makes it the “complete meal” and that its parochial permanence indicates it has moved beyond fad status. “It’s kind of entered Thai food territory,” he jokes.

You’d best start frying those patties.

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