10 Better-Burger Chains Searing the Competition

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The better-burger movement

Gone are the days of the boring burger. It’s easy to find a classic cheeseburger on menus across the country, but these restaurants are transforming the American classic with elevated toppings and flavor combinations. From buttermilk-fried bacon to plant-based imitations, here are 10 emerging burger chains to keep an eye on.

Note: Data reflects figures at the end of fiscal 2018. 

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Bubba's 33
Bubba’s 33

Units: 21

Units added in 2018: 1

2018 Unit Growth: 5 percent

Total company sales in 2018: $80 million

Average-unit volume: $4 million

Average check: $18.00

Bubba’s 33 is a sports-themed brand created by Texas Roadhouse’s founder and CEO Kent Taylor in 2013. The brand’s expansion has been slow and steady so far, but as its sister chain ramps up growth into new markets it plans to follow. 

The made-from-scratch kitchen produces sports bar classics like hand-tossed pizza and wings, but its “big and bold” burgers are what stand out. Bacon fans will appreciate Bubba’s lineup of bacon burgers that not only use the breakfast meat as a topping, but it’s also ground into the beef patty for extra flavor.

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Umami Burger
Umami Burger

Units: 19

Units added in 2018: -2

2018 Unit Growth: -9.5 percent

Total company sales in 2018: $47.5 million

Average-unit volume: $2.4 million

Average check: $25.00

Known for its gourmet burgers—like the Sunnyside, which is topped with a fried egg and truffle-thyme compound butter—and indulgent sides (fries topped with truffle cheese fondue), Umami has garnered fans across the country.

Founded in 2009, Umami Burger is now set for its next phase of growth. Currently, the chain is located in California, New York, Illinois, and Nevada, and international restaurants in the Bahamas, Japan, and Mexico. It plans on opening 100 new locations over the next seven years.

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Units: 17

Units added in 2018: 2

2018 Unit Growth: 13.3 percent

Total company sales in 2018: $38 million

Average-unit volume: $2.4 million

Average check: $25.00

This Pennsylvania-based sports-themed chain boasts a menu of scratch-made appetizers and wings, but it's the no-antibiotic wagyu burgers that keep customers coming back for more. Along with a bleu cheese and bacon-topped burger, the offerings at Arooga’s also include the plant-based Impossible burger and the Donut Burger, which uses—as you might guess—glazed donuts for the bun. 

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Bad Daddy's Burger Bar
Bad Daddy's Burger Bar

Units: 35

Units added in 2018: 2

2018 Unit Growth: 6.1 percent

Total company sales in 2018: $70 million

Average-unit volume: $2.6 million

Average check: $18

There’s a fine line between being a fun and irreverent restaurant and being too much, but Bad Daddy’s stays on the right side of it. “It’s more about having a high-energy restaurant, and we like our employees to be very informal,” says Boyd Hoback, president and CEO of Good Times Restaurants, parent company of Bad Daddy’s.

The concept, he says, offers personal, welcoming, engaging service and is a “non-chain chain.” The irreverence comes through in the décor, which Hoback describes as garage grunge from the 1970s and ’80s. For example, the men’s restroom features posters of Farrah Fawcett, while the ladies’ shows Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke.

And while Bad Daddy’s takes its food seriously, featuring regional ingredients prepared in a scratch kitchen, it also offers a Bad Ass Burger and a Bad Ass Margarita. “We encourage customers to let their ‘badassness’ fly,” Hoback says. The concept, he adds, is upscale casual, with an average per-person check of $18.

Casual dining, he says, “is being commoditized around value and lacks a passion for food and hospitality.” But Bad Daddy’s is different. “We’re not trying to give guests the cheapest food; we pay a lot of attention to quality ingredients and try to have some recipes and taste profiles that are way out there,” Hoback says. “We bring cool to the suburbs.” 

—writes FSR contributor Amanda Baltazar

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Slater 50/50
Slater’s 50/50

Units: 11

Units added in 2018: 3

2018 Unit Growth: 37.5 percent

Total company sales in 2018: $30 million

Average-unit volume: $3.2 million

Average check: $21.00

The name says it all. Slater’s 50/50 refers to the 50/50 patty—made of 50 percent ground bacon and 50 percent ground beef—which SoCal native Scott Slater created in 2009. The menu involves an array of “slaterized” dishes including burgers, salads, and over-the-top milkshakes. For guests with more of an adventurous palate, the burger menu doesn’t disappoint. The P.B. & Jellousy Burger is topped with bacon, peanut butter, and strawberry jelly with the option to add a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top. 

Just shy of a dozen units, the SoCal-based brand opened three units last year and has already expanded as far afield as Dallas and Honolulu.

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Units: 47

Units added in 2018: 5

2018 Unit Growth: 11.9 percent

Total company sales in 2018: $105 million

Average-unit volume: $2.4 million

Average check: $25.00

Since Bareburger opened in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, New York, in 2009, its goals have remained the same: to serve clean, sustainable, organic (whenever possible), and locally sourced foods. And despite growing to 40 locations in seven states and three other countries, the company has stuck to its guns.

It’s also evolved and now serves exotic proteins (wild boar, ostrich, duck, and elk). It also eliminated some proteins to create a menu that’s 50 percent vegan, with some products from Beyond Meat, Impossible, and JUST. “We’ve always taken great pride in serving great food,” says CEO Euripides Pelekanos. “Whether you are vegan, vegetarian, kosher, or just plain hungry, we are eager to serve you.”

The concept plans to open 13 more locations by the end of the year. “We’re taking a regional approach,” he says. “We look for great operators to partner with.” —writes FSR contributor Amanda Baltazar

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P.J. Whelihan's
P.J. Whelihan’s

Units: 22

Units added in 2018: 2

2018 Unit Growth: 10 percent

Total company sales in 2018: $84 million

Average-unit volume: $4 million

Average check: $20.00

Since P.J. Whelihan’s Pub + Restaurant opened in 1983 it has served as a friendly neighborhood pub for sports fans and beer enthusiasts alike. The wings might be award winning, but the brand hasn’t neglected innovation throughout the rest of the menu. From a burger topped with Jack Daniels maple ketchup to a spicy breakfast burger topped with sriracha mayo, a fried egg, and bacon, the burger selection is full of flavor. 

The brand wasn’t quick to grow in the beginning—it took a decade to open the second location—but openings picked up after that. Today it operates 17 company-owned stores, one wing truck, and has five partnerships with arenas in the Northeast. 

“Growth has steadily accelerated, and [we’ve] been able to remain nimble enough to react to economic opportunities and challenges. We’re proud that we’ve never had to close a location,” CEO Jim Fris told FSR.

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110 Grill
110 Grill

Units: 14

Units added in 2018: 8

2018 Unit Growth: 133.3 percent

Total company sales in 2018: $40 million

Average-unit volume: $4 million

Average check: $30.00

Allergy-friendly restaurant 110 Grill opened in 2014. Since debuting the first location, chief operating officer Ryan Dion and business partner Robert Walker have steadily expanded the concept. Today, there are 22 locations in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York. Dion told FSR there are four more store openings yet to come in 2019. The brand plans on opening up to 10 restaurants in 2020. 

110 Grill’s menu varies slightly at each location. Director of Culinary Elliot Williams joined 110 Grill in November of 2016. Williams puts his own twist on American classics, including burgers. Take for example the Cure Burger, which is topped with bacon, a fried egg, caramelized shallot demi-glace, and smashed tater tots. 

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Units: 12

Units added in 2018:  2

2018 Unit Growth: 20 percent

Total company sales in 2018: $35 million

Average-unit volume: $3.2 million

Average check: $25.00

Real comfort food is the name of the game at Aubrey’s, which intermingles Southern staples with more refined, new American bites. A perfect example of this blend of cuisines is the Thunder Road Burger which is topped with homemade pimento cheese, tobacco onions, and sliced jalapeño.

With 13 locations across East Tennessee, Aubrey’s is a small chain, but is steadily growing. 

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Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant
Iron Hill Brewery and Restaurant

Units: 15

Units added in 2018: 3

2018 Unit Growth: 25 percent

Total company sales in 2018: $67.5 million

Average-unit volume: $5 million

Average check: $26.00

Iron Hill was founded in 1996 and began with just one location in Newark, Delaware. Since then, the company has been winning awards for its beers and is, it claims, the most award-winning brewery east of the Mississippi.

The company’s beer and food have always stood on their own, but work well together, and the menus offer specific pairings. They’re also paired irrevocably, in that chefs cook with the beer. An example of this comes in the form of the Drunk Monk Burger, which is topped with Wee Heavy Ale-caramelized onions, sauteed mushrooms, arugula, rosemary truffle aioli, and brie cheese.

Each Iron Hill location is heavily connected to the local community and donates money to both CureSearch for Children’s Cancer and to a local cause chosen by each individual restaurant. 

“While the commitment is financial, our connection to supporting and participating in the local community goes much deeper,” says CEO Kim Boerema. “We realize that the idea of community starts with how we treat our employees and goes well beyond our four walls.”

Over its 23 years, Iron Hill has expanded to 17 locations in four states: Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, and South Carolina. “We are looking at vibrant and growing communities in the Southeastern U.S.,” Boerema says. —writes FSR contributor Amanda Baltazar