Burger21, a Florida-based restaurant chain specializing in unique burger creations and milkshakes, opens its first N.J. location May 6 at Town Center in Voorhees. It's among the proliferation of fast casual dining options satisfying South Jersey consumers' cravings for a gourmet burger.

The better burger market encompasses not just beef but high quality chicken, turkey, seafood and veggie burger options. The segment continues to evolve and flourish even in a tough economy, while other restaurant categories' sales remain flat.

"This is the first of about a dozen New Jersey locations we have planned as franchisees of the Burger21 brand," said Charles Haney, president of ABL Restaurant Management. "Burgers are one of America's favorite foods. We partnered with Front Burner (Burger21's parent company) to expand into N.J. because we're already based here with a Melting Pot Restaurant in Atlantic City." Melting Pot is also a Front Burner brand.

Haney's Burger21 joins the fray of burger brands represented from Princeton to Glassboro and everywhere in between: Smashburger; Cheeburger, Cheeburger; Elevationburger; Zinburger; Bobby's Burger Palace; Five Guys and Jake's Wayback Burgers to name a few.

Burgers for a new generation

Key players in the fast-casual better burger sector of the restaurant world share certain characteristics. Service is limited. Customers order and pay the cashier and a server delivers meals to the table when ready. They cost less to visit than other casual dining options; typically offer fresher, better quality ingredients in protein, buns, toppings and side dishes; have an ambience more visually appealing and comfortable than fast-food burger stands; and offer flexibility to eat-in or carry-out meals.

As early as 2009, foodservice research and consulting firm Technomic reported that health-conscious consumers were seeking all natural, hormone-free, steroid-free and antibiotic-free meats when eating out. The firm also found that diners in the 18-34 age group wanted more variety including vegetarian burgers. Haney noted that less than half of Burger21's sandwiches include beef.

With the release of another report last August, Technomic Executive Vice President Darren Tristano said, "Better-burger concepts have a lot going for them. First, they have the benefit of a basic and beloved menu focus. Raising the quality of the protein, bun, toppings and sides has been a winning formula." Helping to raise the profile even further, a number of celebrity chefs including Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay and Gordon Ramsey have jumped on the burger bandwagon opening concept restaurants focusing on sandwiches featuring premium ingredients. "Plus the segment includes some of the rising stars of the industry overall. For example, Smashburger grew sales by more than 71 percent in 2011, and Five Guys Burgers and Fries increased sales by 24 percent," Tristano said.
Bonnie Riggs of trend tracker NPD Group reported in a 2010 statement that "sandwiches, burgers and wraps were the most resilient food category in this economic downturn...one of the few categories that has mass appeal. Sandwiches, burgers and wraps are accessible, customizable, affordable, portable, and can be dressed up, gourmet-style, or dressed down."

Burger21's décor is reminiscent of a retro-modern bistro or lounge. The dining room offers seating for 80 including a counter/bar area. An outdoor patio has seating for 50 more. "Along with burgers, shakes, fries and other sides, we'll also offer eight craft beers including locally brewed Flying Fish Farmhouse Summer Ale," Haney said. Wines by the glass and a Shake Bar will also be available. An on-line app will allow customers to order in advance for a designated pick-up time.