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Designer Burgers Becoming the New Steak in Tough US Economy

Gourmet burgers gaining popularity as recession-weary consumers dial back on more expensive restaurant fare

Long a staple of the American fast food diet, the hamburger is getting a makeover as cash-strapped consumers turn to less expensive dining options. In Las Vegas, designer burgers are the latest rage, with top chefs adding their own flourishes to come up with a new twist on an American classic.

As American as apple pie - the old-fashioned hamburger is going through some design changes, thanks in part to the worst recession since the 1930s.

"I think with the economy the way it is now, honestly, I think there is more room for profit in a burger restaurant than there is in a steak house right now," said Greg Cook, head chef at the BLT Mirage in Las Vegas. "I think that the general public can always afford to have a burger."

And restaurants have been quick to capitalize.

At the Munch Bar at Caesar's Palace, owner Bryan Ogden says his cooks have turned a fast food sandwich into a fine dining experience.

"We're using certified black Angus beef. It's all organic, no hormones," he said. "We're going to the farmers' markets everyday, picking out the ingredients, the lettuces, washing them ourselves and doing all organic romaines and icebergs and the boutique lettuces like red leaf, making our jalapeno mayonnaise, spicy remoulades, little relishes, homemade relishes from scratch. Takes a lot of stuff that goes into this everyday and our guys start early in the morning prepping the ingredients fresh daily."

Chef Kerry Simon owns KGB: Kerry's Gourmet Burgers at Harrah's in Las Vegas He won a popular cooking competition on TV called Iron Chef and says his work on designing the perfect hamburger has helped to expand his business.

"I did 'Iron Chef' and it was a main ingredient on 'Iron Chef' so I did the ultimate hamburger and then I started fooling around with other different flavorings of meat and that kind of thing and my other restaurants and we've gotten awards for burgers in my other places so one thing led to another, Harrah's called me and asked me to do a burger bar," he said.

Las Vegas chefs serve up designer hamburgers
Las Vegas chefs serve up designer hamburgers

Gourmet burgers come in a variety of shapes and sizes. And instead of the usual salad toppings, consumers can choose from a selection that includes fried eggs, spicy guacamole - even truffles.

Food critic John Curtas says the plethora of choices is one of the more positive spinoffs from the tough economic climate.

"With the recession, everybody's dialed it back," he said. "A lot of restaurants here now have cafe menus, they now have early bird specials, they have small plate tapas menus in the front of the restaurant or at the bar that they didn't have five years ago. So that's where you've seen the burgeoning of the burgers and the pizzas and the small plates and the public is responding to that."

A recent survey by consumer consulting firm Technomic shows burgers have become more popular since the downturn. Ninety percent of those surveyed say they eat burgers at least once a month. More than a third say they like their hamburgers at least once a week. The ketchup is optional.