The veggie burger: ‘Is what’s for dinner’

9/12/11 – Cherryh Butler,

The days of slapping a frozen meatless patty into the microwave to please vegetarian customers are gone. The better burger trend has not only inspired restaurant owners to step up their games when it comes to beef, they’re also trying to outdo one another when it comes to hand-crafted meatless burgers.

If fact, the veggie burger’s menu presence is up 17 percent since 2008, with the biggest jump occurring between Q2 2010 and 2011, according to Kathy Hayden, a foodservice analyst for Mintel Menu Insights.

“Just as hand-formed, fresh?better burgers have given burgers a boost, better vegetarian burgers have been getting culinary attention lately, both from notable chefs and in some of the up-and-coming burger chains,” she said.

One of those chains is Smashburger, which is in the process of a nationwide rollout of its Black Bean Burger — made from black beans, crushed blue corn tortillas, bread crumbs, cilantro, cumin and other seasonings.

“We could not be happier with its initial performance, said Tom Ryan, founder and Chief Concept Officer. “To date, in the 28 markets where the Black Bean Burger is sold, its menu mix continues to grow.”

Smashburger’s Black Bean Burger.

Luna Grill, a six-chain California brand known for made-to-order Mediterranean cuisine, also boasts a hand-crafted meatless option. The third-pound vegan patty, made with soy beans, brown rice, red and green peppers, corn, carrots, oats and onions, is served on a gourmet hamburger bun and topped with hummus, lettuce, tomatoes, onions and pickles.

Although the veggie burger has only been on Luna’s menu for a few weeks, it already makes up about 40 percent of its total burger sales.

“And that number is steadily rising. This is impressive, given the fact that we just added veggie burgers to our menu, and shows just how popular they are,” said Maria Pourteymour, chief cuisine officer, Luna Grill.

Why now?

Although neither the owners of Smahsburger nor Luna Grill offered veggie burgers when they first opened, both have seen an increasing demand for meatless entrees from their customers.

According to a study commissioned by the Vegetarian Times, about 7.3 million people follow a vegetarian-based diet. About 1 million of those people are vegan, meaning that they avoid eating not only animals but animal products. Another 10 percent, about 22.8 million, said that they “largely follow a vegetarian-inclined diet.”

“We’ve found that consumers’ palates are looking for more menu variety,” Ryan said. “We felt this presented the opportunity to create the Black Bean Burger to provide a flavor experience that would satisfy vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike.”

Although meat eaters obviously still have the majority, finding a way to serve the growing number of veggie lovers is simply good business, Pourteymour said.

“The number of vegetarians in America continues to grow, not only for health reasons, ethical beliefs, animal rights or other reasons, and restaurants have to offer options for them,” she said. “Having a wide assortment of vegetarian and Vegan items on our menu is part of the Luna Grill identity. We are known for our nutritious, fast casual cuisine, and it was an obvious fit to our health-conscious menu.”

Roam Artisan Burgers in San Francisco has offered its house-made organic veggie burger made from quinoa, black beans, brown rice, dates and herbs and spices, since day one.

“Demand has been strong since we opened a year ago and has picked up even more in the past six months,” said owner Josh Spiegelmansaid.

Spiegelman attributes the fact that major chains are jumping on the veggie burger bandwagon after witnessing their popularity at independent or smaller chains.

“Customers also like variety; many of our regulars sometimes just want a change, and instead of meat opt for a veggie burger,” he said.