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What's driving the burger boom in India

The fast food item goes gourmet with truffles, homemade sauces and gold ‘varq’

Nino burgers. 
Nino burgers. 

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"Burgers are one of my favourite topics to talk about,” says restaurateur Zorawar Kalra. What’s not to like about a succulent patty sandwiched between a soft bun layered with sauces, veggies and cheese: the key ingredients of comfort food? Easy to prepare, the recipe can be standardised and replicated with little hassle—it’s tailor-made for cloud kitchens.

Combine the two—comfort and convenience—and it’s fairly easy to understand why burgers became a favourite during the pandemic. So much so that the ubiquitous burger has got a gourmet spin as existing fast food ventures find themselves competing with decadent offerings from new brands or chefs who are branching out into this space.

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According to UK-based Allied Market Research, the global fast food market, which includes burgers, pizzas and sandwiches, is estimated to reach close to 70 trillion by 2027, growing at a compound annual growth rate, or CAGR, of 4.6%. India too is seeing an upward curve.

Companies that offer value-for-money, like McDonald’s, Burger King and the Noida, Uttar Pradesh-based Wat-a-Burger, are continuing with aggressive expansion plans—Burger King launched an IPO in 2020. Last October, Wat-a-Burger introduced a low-cost burger for 29 for the price-sensitive consumer. Value-for-money, however, is no longer the only consideration. For, the premium space too is welcoming the new and exciting, such as the Avo Beet and Feta from Nino Burgers, a decadent truffle offering from Louie Burger—both available in Delhi and Mumbai—and charcoal-grilled portobello mushroom from the Mumbai-based cloud kitchen Speak Burgers.

“We saw a white space in the premium category when we launched Nino Burgers in December 2020,” says co-founder Nishant Jhaveri. Nino’s menu, with an average price of about 420, has a fine selection of about 14 burgers neatly categorised for vegetarians and non-vegetarians. Now available in 60-plus cities, they aim to please the discerning foodie who can tell a portobello from a shiitake.

This approach is similar to Kalra’s brand Louie Burger, which made headlines for garnishing with gold varq (foil) when it launched in September. “Even though naysayers pointed out that varq does nothing to the flavour, I want it for the pizzazz. It’s a luxury experience and you eat with your eyes first,” says the founder and managing director of Massive Restaurants Pvt. Ltd. After all, if biryani, mithai and korma can be decked with varq for an extravagant feel, why not an indulgent burger with a hefty price tag of 888?

Apart from the aesthetics, gourmet implies a focus on quality ingredients. The restaurateurs claim not to disappoint. Kalra uses Japanese mayo, which costs 1,600 a kilogram, black truffles from Italy, at 1 lakh a kilogram, and sources endive from farmers selected to grow it. It is this attention to detail which elevates the regular burger.

His learnings from running premium restaurants for a decade helped. “Coming from a fine-dining background, we are used to complex recipes. For us, creating burgers is actually fairly simple because it’s limited SKUs (stock-keeping units). If you focus closely, you can create a high-quality product,” he says. They spent about one-and-a-half years experimenting with burgers made for delivery.

Louie Grand Royale Burger 
Louie Grand Royale Burger 

To travel well, a burger undergoes several trials at all stages of the making process. Nino Burgers, for instance, has developed a system for consistent quality, optimising each step, such as cooking, packaging and last-mile logistics, for delivery. So, says Jhaveri, when they call people to try their burgers, they ensure the burgers have sat in the packaged boxes for at least 30 minutes. Moreover, these are moved around by staff to “simulate the delivery process”. To prevent the burgers from going soggy, they maintain an optimal bread to patty to sauce ratio, and ensure the packaging has ventilation.

It’s too early for concrete numbers perhaps but these back-end experiments have yielded high scores on delivery platforms such as Zomato and Swiggy. Earlier this month, their parent company, Nino Foods, raised 11.9 crore from Y Combinator, Soma Capital and Uncommon Capital, among others, for their expansion plans. The Mumbai-based brand launched its first cloud kitchen out of the city, in Delhi, this month.

Even chefs have joined the gourmet burger party. Early in the lockdown, chefs Prateek Sadhu of Masque and Hussain Shahzad of O Pedro in Mumbai introduced burgers as a survival strategy, returning to dine-ins and signature dishes when restrictions eased. “For chefs, burgers give a lot of scope for creativity—you can play with the buns, fillings, sauces and flavours,” says Vicky Ratnani, who started Speak Burgers in November. Every single item, from the buns, pattice and ketchup to sauces and chips, is made from scratch. He is planning to expand to other cities this year.

It is interesting to note that each brand has a dynamic vegetarian segment that doesn’t use mock meats. Of late, alternate meat, or plant-based pattice for burgers, has become all the rage globally; India, though, has a wide range of vegetarian options. “Mock meat burgers are not for vegetarians. They serve non-vegetarians who have gone off meat but sometimes crave the flavour and texture,” notes Ratnani, who believes this is a niche segment.

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There’s a cultural reason too. “Vegetarianism in India is driven by religious beliefs and it means staying away from anything meaty, whereas mock meat mimics the taste and texture of real chicken or mutton. There is still time—at least about 10 years—for alt meat burgers to take off in India,” explains Farman Beig, co-founder of Wat-a-Burger.

Two weeks ago, another brand, Woodside Burger Shop, launched in Mumbai. There certainly seems to be space for everyone. And Jhaveri of Nino Burgers is readying for what he believes will be the next phase: diet-specific categories like vegan and gluten-free.

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