Better Burger Wars: The Saga Continues

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McDonald's may have pulled the plug on its pricey Angus “better burger” concept, but the category of $5 quick-service burgers is as hot as ever. Better burgers are taking new shape (sometimes with pretzel buns!), and they’re popping up overseas and even in supermarkets.

When McDonald’s removed its one-third pound Angus burger from the menu in May, it may have seemed like a sign that $5 fast-food burger trend was fading. But while consumers rejected a McDonald’s burger selling for $4 or $5—unsurprising considering customers could get three or four other McDonald’s burgers for the same price—the premium burger isn’t going away. The battle for “better” burger supremacy that’s been waged over the last few years among fast-food and fast-casual chains alike hasn’t ended so much as it’s evolving and taking new form. In many ways, it’s actually expanding.

The first step in the post-McDonald’s Angus era took place before fans of the Golden Arches were done mourning the demise of the premium burger. Immediately after McDonald’s announced its Angus burger was no more, Andy Puzder, CEO of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, sent out a press release appealing to “fast food fans feeling mcburned” to try its 100% Black Angus Six Dollar Burger—for $1 off, thanks to a special coupon available for download. “Our bigger, better Black Angus burgers are not only the only Angus burgers available at any major fast food chain, but I can assure you that they are here to stay,” Puzder promised.

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Nation’s Restaurant News reported that while traditional fast-food players like Burger King, Wendy’s, and McDonald’s have lately been emphasizing their lower-cost items, chains with higher price points—including Carls’ Jr., Hardee’s, Smashburger, and Mooyah Burgers & Fries—have been pushing their own value messages, launching campaigns that highlight how much bang for the buck comes with their higher-quality foods.

The big, lower-priced fast-food players haven’t entirely given up on the better burger concept. Since consumers are reluctant to buy into the idea that a regular burger—even a big one—is actually worth $5 at a fast food joint, chains are using quirky and unusual burgers to get customers to bite at a higher price point. The hottest, most-hyped example of this is the new Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger from Wendy’s, available for around $4.69 nationwide by July 4.

Meanwhile, a few American better burger chains are taking the premium burger battle overseas. Bloomberg News noted that Five Guys and Shake Shack are squaring off in London—both opening in Covent Garden, on the same, very American day (July 4). Fast-casual burger chains such as Smashburger and Jake’s Wayback have also recently announced broad international expansions—the latter with plans to open in 28 countries in the Middle East and Africa.

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Another kind of better burger expansion is taking place closer to home—with premium burger brands popping up in American supermarkets. Bags of Whataburger-branded “Whatafries” have gone on sale at the HEB chain of grocery stores in Texas, a move that comes on the heels of Whataburger spicy mustard and ketchup being sold in store aisles. And in its first-ever licensing deal, Fatburger, a chain known on the West Coast, just started selling its frozen patties in Walmart. While a Fatburger with cheese in a restaurant runs a typical “better burger” price of around $5.50, a box of six frozen Fatburgers will sell for $7 or $8.