Monday, September 24, 2007

Appreciating small buns

One of the bigger things on chain menus this fall could be the tiny burger. Applebee’s is touting the mini sandwiches in its current commercials, and T.G.I. Friday’s is featuring a version on its high-profile new mix-and-match menu. They join such earlier adapters as Damon’s and Ruby Tuesday, which could cater Munchkin Land’s annual picnic with the three mini-based options it offers. The current array stretches from a turkey variation to the more traditional ground-beef variety.

But the phenomenon is hardly limited to the full-service sector, as Good Time Burgers can readily attest; the regional quick-service chain credited its tiny Bambino Burgers for a 13.8-percent comp sales leap during July and August. Back Yard Burgers, another regional brand, offers a 1/8-lb. Great Little Burger. Still another local player with ambitions, Five Guys Burgers, sees enough potential attraction within its Eastern stronghold to offer four permutations (with or without cheese, with or without bacon).

And, of course, the bite-sized burger remains the signature of White Castle, whose “slyders” (also spelled “sliders”) are still revered by hardcore fans as the one true mini. The chain claims to be the originator of the juicy little morsels, though plenty of other specialists point to years of spatula work with Lilliputian patties, from Krystal to occasional White Tower that refused to fade with the rest of that chain.

The roster will likely continue to grow as more chains grab for a product that could be the bouncing ball in a sing-along review of menu trends. Small indulgences, vis-à-vis spoon-sized desserts? Absolutely. Affordable luxury, a la high-art cocktails? It’s not a coincidence that many of the new burgers are made with Angus (or even kobe beef (or, in the case of Damon’s, a mix of the two meats), providing a luxe experience at a price below the pain level. Modular eating, where you build a meal from a little of this and a dab of that? What better element for a collection of shared items than a plate of two or three little burgers (or four or six, again in the case of Damon’s).

Plus, says well-known menu consultant Nancy Kruse, there's a built-in nostalgia factor for the large segment of the population that grew up on White Castle, Krystal or, in areas like Washington, D.C., White Tower or White Spot. Add in what is likely an attractive food cost, and a good margin, and you have a product that makes sound business sense, too, notes Kruse.

Of course, this isn’t the first time that small sandwiches have surged into a big thing for chains. When commodity spikes had the big brands searching for a way of offering greater value, Burger King tried a two-pack of minis called Burger Buddies. The product proved an operational nightmare, with the tiny patties slipping through the conveyor-like grillwork of the chain’s signature chain broilers.

KFC opted for 1-oz. chicken-patty sandwiches called Chicken Littles. If you Google the name, you’ll find a slew of blog reminiscences of the product, along with a petition imploring KFC to bring the product back. Clearly the item was a hit. But with a product that sold at about 39 cents, if memory serves me correctly, you couldn’t make any money unless you nailed the management contract for all of Munchkin Land’s feeding operations. It just wasn’t feasible.

Chains are far less bashful about how they price the current crop of minis. But are these products that are here to stay? Or are they today’s frozen yogurt?

Wait a minute—isn’t frozen yogurt making a comeback?


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