Peak Burger: Third Wave Craft Burgers and You

What is Third Wave?

Coffee culture has reached what is being referred to as “Third Wave” coffee. The basis is that three major waves of coffee consumption have occurred since the 90s, culminating in the small batch artisanal coffee shops that are no longer only found in hipster enclaves like Williamsburg. In fact these have become so popular that major chains are now gobbling them up.

In the first wave, home consumption was king. Folgers and Maxwell house were introduced and took the pre-work world by storm. Coffee wasn’t just for diners or Europeans any longer. Coffee was now “The Best Part of Waking Up”. Mr Coffee machines roamed the land and ground coffee began appearing in every supermarket.

In the second wave, massive coffee shops that portrayed themselves as more “refined” hit the scene including Starbucks and Seattle’s Best. These chains took the hipster barista credibility of West Coast coffee towns and made them easier for the mass market to enjoy. Now coffee drinkers could stop at the drive through instead of having to think ahead and stock their pantry and set their Mr. Coffee at home. Lattes and macchiatos took over from plain coffee and the world learned new words like venti and double-foam-with-a-half-whip.

In wave three, small batch stores opened in trendy neighborhoods and brought back the real hipster credibility. There was a bit more snobishness, but better quality from insane chrome and steel machines from a Jules Verne novel that took 20 minutes of preparation, but made a darn tasty latte. These stores quickly also became chains, though stayed fairly regional. Blue Bottle, Stumptown, Intelligentsia, and Grumpy are the best known. They were also the first to explore new retail channels like online subscriptions. Now customers would get either their drinks made by “coffee artists” in store, or could bring home fresh beans to make their own in science experiment equipment.

In what I would assert is wave at least 3.5, these small chains are now being bought up by the larger chains. Peet’s coffee is on a buying spree, acquiring Stumptown and Intelligentsia within a few months. It is a familiar trend, closely mirroring craft beer. A product that has wide appeal like coffee, beer, or burgers, gains popularity through common culture and hits a tipping point where a chain perfects the process by finding a common denominator to a degree where they take massive market share. See for example Starbucks or Budweiser. Then, due to perceived falling quality, or a desire for true individualism and quality in a market, independent makers begin gaining success. The large companies eventually see the threat and beginning targeting the smaller ones. Beer is also hitting this point with the mergers of SAB and Miller as well as the acquisitions of Lagunitas by Heineken, Goose Island and Elysian by Anheiser, and further back but more indicative of the trend, Ommegang by Duvel.

Burger Waves – Not Just a Heavy Metal Band

So what does all of this have to do with burgers? Open your eyes, we’re already in the thrid wave of burgers and are about to hit acquisition time. Wave one began with McDonalds, Burger King, and the Sprint of Burgers (ouch) Wendy’s rapid expansion across the country and into popular culture in the second half of the 20th century. What bigger companies exist in the world beyond these? They popularized the drive through and perfected the fast food concept, literally shaping Americans and American culture, and continuing to expand across the globe.

In the second wave, increased desire for quality and a less generic experience lead to the rise of smaller but very successful regional chains like Five Guys, In and Out, and most recently Shake Shack. Shake Shack arguable kicked off the thrid wave, but as it was a bit ahead of the curve, and has grown to global scale with locations in Dubai and Tokyo, it belongs to the second wave. The growth of these medium sized empires has been fairly aggressive with Five Guys expanding from the DC metro region across the entire East Coast and recently beyond in a decade. Shake Shack went from a literal shack in New York’s Madison Square Park to a global presence in a little more than half of that. In both cases, a focus on quality or at least perceived quality was approached through reliance on advertising the nature of sourcing; the town where the potatoes came from for Five Guys, and never selling beyond where a refrigerated truck could carry the Pat LaFrieda beef without freezing for Shake Shack.

I came to realize all of this while spending a typical Friday night re-watching Good Burger, the nearly straight to DVD movie staring Kenan and Kel based on an “All That” sketch. Now some have argued, myself included that Good Burger really kicked off the second wave. Five Guys began expanding in 1997, the year Good Burger was released. It is more than likely that Good Burger and the hijinks of the protagonists hit a nerve with popular culture and inspired a burger revolution in this country. The plot hinges around the struggle between small local burger joint Good Burger, home of the Good Burger and massive mega-food purveyor, MondoBurger. Sound familiar? In the late 90s, America and in turn the world began revolting against massive chains and fighting back with quality and “secret sauce” against the chemically impure Mondo Burgers.

Now, in the third wave which is just getting rolling, hyper-local burger joints are gaining critical accolade from food critics and the foodie Instagram community. These examples are a bit harder to pin down, but a quick scroll through the discover tab on Instagram will find them. In New York, Black Tap and the April Bloomfield Empire of Spotted Pig and the new Salvation Burger are prime examples. Both also rely on the same Pat LaFrieda beef as Shake Shack, though have their own “proprietary” blends. Black Tap has perfected the Instagram culture with its highly photogenic immense toddler-birthday-party colored milk shakes and juicy burgers. The Spotted Pig and Salvation Burger rely a bit more on the burgers themselves, though the dark wood ambiance of both are excellently accented with perfect direct lighting above tables, perfect for contrast in food pictures. Burger Joint employs a similar technique, though they are slightly less adept at it being born not in the Instagram timeframe, but in the bizarre “everything has to be a speakeasy in New York” crazy of circa 2012-2013. No one knows the exact time of this craze as all records of it were burned in the great suspenders purge of 2015.

If history is an indicator, look for several more craft burger joints to spring up in the major food cities in the next year. Those that are just becoming popular will expand into chains that reach beyond their immediate city. Around this time, the big players, afraid of these new upstarts will begin merging and buying up burgeoning empires. Don’t be surprised when McDonaldKing acquires Black Tap and rebrands it as McDonaldKing Reserve.

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