Fast Food Fight: The Battle for ‘Better Burger’ Supremacy

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Is $6 too much for a fast food burger? Judging by how many quickly-served, higher-quality burgers are hitting the market lately selling for $5, $6, and up—strictly for the sandwich, not a whole meal—diners seem to be game for paying more for better, bigger burgers.

This is a big week for big burgers. Wendy’s is introducing its new Dave’s Hot ‘N Juicy burgers, a reinvention of the chain’s burgers that’s been in the works since early 2009, and which will sell, depending on size, for $3.49 to $5.79 in most locations. At the high end of the price spectrum, Wendy’s patrons get a whopping three-quarters of a pound of beef. Carl’s Jr. and sister chain Hardee’s, meanwhile, are launching their new steakhouse burgers, which will sell in a half-pound “Six Dollar Thickburger” version.

Going big isn’t foreign territory for these chains. A couple years back, the trio above, as well as McDonald's, Burger King, Jack in the Box, and others all began rolling out monster burgers with upwards of one-third pound beef (and 900+ calories) for $4 and up.

Now, though, the burger battles are being fought by combatants other than the usual suspects you’re accustomed to spotting alongside the highway.

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Earlier this year, the food industry research firm Technomic announced that the “better burger”—the specialty of newer, rising-star chains such as Smashburger and Five Guys—was arguably the country’s hottest menu item trend. Carl’s Jr.’s new steakhouse burger, in particular, takes its cue from pricier restaurants, not the usual fast food players.

Five Guys, often touted as the fastest-growing chain in the U.S., will have opened 200 new locations by the end of 2011. Over the next two years, it expects to open 600 more restaurants, for a total of 1,400 nationwide. Smashburger, which also lays claim as the “nation’s fastest growing ‘better burger’ concept,” has also been expanding rapidly, with a few new locations opening as far away as the Middle East.

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In-N-Out, meanwhile, which most would say is the original better burger chain, can boast that it’s the best fast food chain period. Consumer Reports rated it tops for taste and value of all 53 restaurant chains evaluated, followed in the burger category by Five Guys and Burgerville, a Pacific Northwest chain featuring exclusively vegetarian-fed, hormone-free, antibiotic-free beef.

The “better burger” battle is going beyond burger specialists as well. Five Guys and other “fast-casual” restaurants are trying to woo customers away from the likes of Chili’s and Ruby Tuesday, at least as much as they are attempting to appeal to diners who are looking for grub of a higher quality than McDonald’s or Burger King.

So long as those diners are willing to pay a bit higher price, that is. Five Guys just flat doesn’t do discounts or coupons, and a regular hamburger generally starts over $5, while the bacon cheeseburger goes for around $7. A large order of fries will run about $5 too.

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As for the old-school burger competitors, they’re currently doing discounts on their newest burgers: Right now there’s a $1 off coupon for any Carl’s Jr. steakhouse burger combo, and Wendy’s is offering a free burger when you buy fries and a drink, now through October 19.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.