Commercial chain concepts like Five Guys have made the fresh, hand-pressed patty the go-to choice for customers seeking a premium burger, and American Dining Creations (ADC) has noticed. The Syracuse, N.Y.-based contract foodservice company recently committed to converting all its grills at its higher education accounts—in residential dining as well as retail locations—to the hand-pressed and seasoned alternative from the frozen preformed product it had used to date.
“Students want it fresh,” offers Nick Salvagni, higher education marketing director for ADC. “’Fresh’ is such a buzzword in higher ed right now, and the perception is resoundingly ‘fresh’ from this program.”
The process of converting accounts to the new hand-pressed burger model began in the first half of this school year, with ADC’s higher education corporate chef visiting each location to conduct training and evaluate equipment needs. Five have been fully converted and went live in January, with another 10 slated to join them by the end of the spring semester.
The fresh-pressed burger program grew out of one of ADC’s semi-annual culinary tours where “we’ll pick a location that seems to be on trend with our target demographic and we’ll send a corporate team out there to see what people are doing, what’s different, what’s unique, what works well,” explains Salvagni.
This latest tour took the team to New York City, where they observed popular burger, as well as pizza and pasta spots.
“We saw the process of some of these higher end places that do a lot of [burger] volume in New York, and doing it with a labor model not much different than we were doing,” Salvagni recalls.
As it turns out, labor wasn’t as big an issue as at first feared.
“Some of our cooks did worry because they’ve been doing 200 to 300 burgers at lunch, but the reality is that you’re adding only one step,” Salvagni says. “So the increase in labor is not as significant as we thought on our end. Yes, you do have to have the right system, especially in residential, and there certainly are hurdles, but we are pleasantly surprised at how well we’re able to transition this program.”
Pleasant surprises also came in other areas.
“Ironically, switching to a fresh-packed burger actually shows some cost savings on the food end,” Salvagni says. “So while equipment [costs] will go up, if done properly, we can do it [at a food cost] at or below what it costs to serve the frozen pucks, which was a little bit surprising to us.”
Plus, the quality is higher.
“We’re now buying bulk fresh ground,” Salvagni says, “and it’s a higher grade. The frozen pucks end up being [around] a 75/25 blend, but they also have the meat glue and all kinds of binders. [What we’re buying now] is a fresh 80/20, which is the same as you’d buy for your cookout at your [backyard] barbecue.”
Salvagni says it’s too early to draw any definitive conclusions about the program’s impact on sales, though some indication are that counts have been drifting up as word has filtered through the campuses where the program has been launched. Were the program to serve the same amount of burgers as it traditionally had, that would mean 120,000 frozen burgers replaced with fresh pressed ones in a single semester, Salvagni tabulates.
But that’s down the line, when the concept is fully deployed.
“Right now it’s more of a soft opening,” Salvagni explains. “We’ll be doing a full launch after we’re sure that everyone’s trained properly [and that] there are no inherent flaws we’ve overlooked.”
He points to the middle of March for the full launch, and then next fall, the program will become part of ADC’s Malt and Main branded grill concept.
“People are shocked that we’re willing to do this,” Salvagni concludes, “and I think the secondary shock is that pricing is staying the same” because of the food cost savings, he adds.
He cites the Five Guys chain as the operative model of what to expect.
“That is the style you’d experience if you walked into one of our grills,” he says, “because what you’ll see is someone grabbing a fresh 5-ounce ball [of ground meat] and pressing it onto the flattop, searing it on both sides, seasoning it with our fresh house seasoning and then serving it. [The goal is] to align with what patrons are used to in street retail—those craveable burgers cooked fresh to bun.”