Hamburger Helper: Is 2009 the Year of the Burger?

In tough economic times, diners and restaurants are turning to burgers.

January 8, 2009, 2:43 PM

Jan. 8, 2009— -- With the real estate market reeling, car companies crumbling, and the economic outlook ominous, there is one delicious, juicy exception -- the burger.

The succulent, savory American staple has continued to thrive, and even grow in popularity during tough economic times.

"And it always will boom because the burger is omnipotent and irresistible," said Josh Ozersky, the national restaurant editor of and author of the blog "The Feedbag." "It can never be weakened. It can never be slowed down. It can never stop its ever-increasing growth and popularity. It's the most single powerful force in the food universe."

Apparently, Ozersky is not alone in his love affair with the burger. In this economy, he has received a lot of company.

"The hamburger is a way that people can experience everything that's great about eating beef," said Ozersky. "The flavor, the tenderness and everything, [is there] in a way that's affordable and in a way that also you know that doesn't make them feel so enervated."

To showcase the strength of the burger, "Nightline" accompanied Ozersky on a burger tour across Manhattan, starting at The Spotted Pig restaurant, where celebrity chef April Bloomfield whipped up two patties -- medium rare.

"If you come in here on any given night, 80 percent of the people are eating hamburgers," said Ozersky. "I believe that this is the only Michelin starred restaurant in history to get its star largely on the strength of its hamburgers."

Seven percent more restaurants are offering burgers than did two years ago with the biggest boom coming in fine dining establishments. For diners, it's good eating. For restaurants, it's simply good business.

"The other thing is that it's easy," said Ozersky. "You know, there's a big part of the restaurants is how laborious and complicated putting together some of these dishes are. [With] a hamburger, all you need is a flat top and a spatula."

It's no accident that McDonald's is one of only two stocks in the Dow Jones Industrial Average that went up last year.

It is the burger for which consumers across the country are casting aside the pomp, the fluffy and the garish garnishes for the ultimate comfort food.

"A hamburger is the most universal symbol of what it means to be an American," said Ozersky. "I don't care what anybody says. You know the citizenship test where they [ask about] George Washington? They should have them say what a hamburger is. Because if you were in Afghanistan or, you know, or Mordor or whatever, the hamburger is something that is infinitely more recognizable as a symbol of America than George Washington is."

All this is really a far cry from the nutritional and environmental outrage that seemed to be popping up the last few years about burger makers and their practices.

"Nobody cares about any of that," said Ozersky. "People love hamburgers and nobody cares about any of the social and environmental or health effects about them."

While that may not be true for everyone, it appears Americans can't imagine life without them.

Ozersky's next stop was the always-busy Shake Shack, one of the most popular burger joints in New York City. People line up around the block to eat there, and the Shack goes through 2,000 pounds of beef in a weekend. So, how is business?

"Incredible," said Randy Garruti, the head of Shake Shack operations. "[It's] growing every day... I think people are looking for a really good, high quality product at a fair price right now -- in a comfortable, fun setting -- and that's what we're providing.

Their special technique of using paint scrapers to flip the burgers cooks in all the scrumptious juices. And you get it for less than $5.

A Burger on Every Menu?

The fact that a lot of people are buying burgers runs counter to all the trends in the restaurant business, which is effectively flailing right now.

"Things are bad and they aren't going to get better for awhile," said Ozersky. "A lot of places are circling the bull now. A lot of traffic is down. People are not going out to eat in restaurants."

Ozersky says that a struggling restaurant would be smart to put a burger on their menu.

"They would be very well advised to use all of their arts and all their powers to creating a very, very good burger at a price that people can afford to pay," he said, "[That's] the thing about a burger. You can make a great burger and still have it be affordable."

Next, we headed to Pat LaFrieda Whole Sale Meats. It is one of the oldest and most respected meat suppliers in New York, selling to nearly 500 of New York's top restaurants. Their business has changed drastically over the last year.

They have an entire room devoted to making burgers.

"Our hamburger sales have tripled in the last year," said LaFrieda, "and like I said with the economy coming down almost every restaurant has a burger on their menu... 2009 will be all burgers. I tell you that right now."

LaFrieda says the high-end restaurants aren't selling nearly as much of his dry-aged steaks, the kind that sell for $40 or $50 per steak at a Steakhouse. So he decided to turn them into burgers.

"We wanted to still bring that dry-aged flavor to the table and to do it at a third of the price from what a steak would cost [so] we made the Black Label blend. That's just how it developed."

'Burger Bling'

At about a third of the cost, in theory, you can have your $40 dry aged steak for just $12. To prove this, we ended the day at City Burger, located near New York's Time Square. They serve the Black Label burger made from Pat Lefrieda's special dry-aged meat mix.

"I mean this is like burger bling," said Ozersky. "This is a kind of status symbol, conspicuous consumption... You're only spending $12. A pizza costs more than that. But its like, I spent $12 on a hamburger and you know what? It's worth every penny. It's a bargain at $12! It is like a steak! I mean you could go to a lot of steakhouses and not have this kind of a redolent mineral funk."

Ozersky is not the only one passionate about the burger. They bring out the America in Americans.

And if the recession is going to be lengthy, at least it will taste good.