It’s a hunger that shows no signs of abating. The UK burger market was worth £2.94bn in 2013, according to Mintel data, growing to £3.04bn in 2014, and this year it is expected to reach £3.08bn and nearly £3.3bn by 2019.
McDonald’s has always been about the experience, not the product
But while consumers are eating more premium and upscale burgers, from the likes of Meat Liquor and Five Guys, they are eating fewer Big Macs according to McDonald’s most recent annual results.
The group saw profits fall 15% to $4.7bn last year, with same-store sales falling for the first time in a dozen years, although admittedly the chain has performed better in the UK than in other markets. According to the McDonald's press office, UK stores serve 3.5m customers a day.
"I think there’s some correlation between what’s happening in the wider market and what’s happening at the top end," says Jim Prior, chief executive of The Partners, Lambie-Nairn and WPP's brand consultancy and design network The B to D Partnership.
"It’s almost like the wine market when the industry only had Jacob’s Creek and then consumers suddenly discovered Chateau Lafite.
"McDonald’s has always been about the experience, not the product. Now the industry has shifted to be very much about the product and at the same time offer an experience very distinctive from that of McDonald’s."
History of tastes
The notion that Brits - historically derided by their closest neighbours, the French, for their unsophisticated palates - have become more discerning in their tastes is part of a cultural shift, according to Mark Roalfe, co-founder of ad agency Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R.
"You only have to turn on the television to witness how home-cooking and baking has risen in popularity," he says. "Maybe not since the 1970s, a period that also saw economic constraints, have we seen the idea of home cooking and in interest in the provenance of our food become so important."
But a keener interest in food is not the only factor that has led to less philistine consumption habits, Roalfe adds.
"Combine this with a series of food scares and meat scandals and you can see why those brands that position themselves as more wholesome or artisan than those from the mass-market are doing well," he says.
The surge in enthusiasm for the burger almost belies the fact that it has been a staple for decades, but it is Roalfe's point about 'artisan' foods with greater provenance that resonates with Gavin Lucas, AKA Burgerac.
"The burger has been a bestseller on pub menus for 15 or 20 years," says Lucas. "However, it’s never been more on-trend and the pub burger has become the focus of a new enthusiasm."
Lucas left a career in journalism to pursue his passion - the quest for the perfect burger. As well as his Burgerac blog, he launched an app called Burgerapp, which tells those on the hunt for a meal where the best nearby burgers are served, and is running a pop-up called Burgerac’s Burgershack in Marylebone’s The Royal Oak pub.
While Lucas's modest outlet, alongside an array of vans, pop-ups and smaller chains, is sating the appetites for high-end burgers, it is not just the premium end of the market that is booming. One of the relative newcomers to serving burgers on these shores is American burger chain Five Guys, which arrived in the UK two years ago, opening an outlet in Covent Garden.
Today it has nearly 30 UK locations, including four in Scotland, 10 in London and four in the north, employing more than 1,000 staff.
Meanwhile, the reigning king of the burger, McDonald’s has 1,200 locations and employs around 97,000 staff.
But, according to Prior, whereas 20 or 30 years ago, McDonald’s offered an experience that was enticingly unique, today, "unless you’re five years old, it’s not a particularly compelling or distinctive place to have a birthday party".
"They were the pioneers of fast food in this country," he says, "offering a fast, fun and engaging experience with a product that was simple to consume.
"McDonald’s have done a good job over recent years in improving the quality of their product and reassuring people as well. They have to keep doing that, but they need to add in some additional layers."
For Lucas, there is a characteristic of the McDonald’s burger that is both a virtue and a failing - its homogeneity.
A sacrifice for science
McDonald's saw profits fall 15% to $4.7bn last year, with same-store sales falling for the first time in a dozen years
He admires McDonald’s for "taking a product that’s not easy to replicate, with which there’s massive room for variation", and turning it into an exact science. But, in order to create a product that tastes the same in any restaurant in any market in any part of the world, meant that something had to be sacrificed, and for Lucas, that something is pretty sacred.
"The truth is that there is something about beef that does something to man that’s inexplicable, but unequivocal," he says. "You can’t argue with a tasty piece of beef.
"McDonald’s use prime English beef for burgers but you don’t go to McDonald’s for amazing beef. For me the cardinal sin of burger-making is to disrespect the beef."
It’s hard to gauge just how much the blandness of McDonald’s burgers has contributed to the faded lustre of the Golden Arches.
As stated before, the group saw profits fall 15% to $4.7bn last year, with same-store sales falling for the first time in a dozen years, although admittedly the chain has performed better in the UK than in other markets.
Meanwhile, Five Guys continues to grow in the US, with ambitious expansion plans this side of the Atlantic - its partnership with Carphone Warehouse founder and entrepreneur Sir Charles Dunstone speaks volumes about the prospects for continuing growth.
McDonald’s is no doubt watching closely.
"It will be keeping an eye on the rise of rivals," Roalfe says. "In particular the smaller chains such as Five Guys where the in-store experience (whether accurate or not) is very much of buying an artisan meal that has just been prepared from scratch and before your eyes, and I’m sure it will react accordingly."
Make it a (not quite so) large
McDonald’s recently appointed chief executive - Brit Steve Easterbrook - has been candid about the challenges the brand faces. He recently appointed Silvia Lagnado as executive vice-president, global chief marketing officer, saying Lagnado would help the troubled group "build a more modern, progressive burger company".
"Whether McDonald’s is in a downward spiral, I’m not so sure," says Roalfe. "One of its strengths is its ability to reinvent itself and reposition itself in accordance with market trends – its been through it before and emerged successful on the other side."
WPP’s Prior gives greater emphasis to McDonald’s need for reinvention. "If I were Steve Easterbook I’d be looking at what McDonald’s stands for as a brand," he says.
"Then rebuild everything. They need to un-Mac the world. The ‘Mac’ prefix has become synonymous with commodity. De-commoditise and re-establish from a distinctive point-of-view what the brand stands for."