Long Island is in the midst of a gourmet burger gold rush.
Restaurants with an emphasis on fresh, customized burgers and quick service are giving new life to an American favorite, and the pace of expansion has gained speed.
Some are outposts of chains. Lorton, Virginia-based Five Guys, which came to the Island in 2007, has opened 12 restaurants here since then. Long Island City-based Bareburger, which opened in Great Neck in 2013, set up shop in Port Washington last month and plans locations this summer in Plainview and Rockville Centre.
Smashburger, the Denver-based chain with four locations on Long Island, plans to expand to Lindenhurst in July. Shake Shack, the Manhattan-based darling of Wall Street -- its shares more than doubled on the first day of trading in January -- opened in Westbury in 2012 and plans a Melville location.
Others are locally grown businesses, including two that debuted last month: Local Burger Co. in Bay Shore and New York Burger Bar in Massapequa. LI Burger in Mount Sinai opened in September.
The Island now has burgers A to Z: From the longtime All American Hamburger Drive-In in Massapequa to the relative newcomer Zinburger Wine & Burger Bar in Huntington Station.
The rapid spread on the Island of upscale burgers -- which often sell for $4.50 or more, and can sell for as much as $10 -- mirrors a national trend. It has its roots in shifting consumer preferences, but also in an economy that fell hard in the recession that lasted from December 2007 to June 2009.
The newcomers fall into the "fast casual" niche of the restaurant industry, positioned between casual restaurants like Applebee's and Chili's and fast-food eateries like McDonald's and Burger King.
Their primary offerings are generally burgers with an array of toppings as well as homemade fries, in spartan settings with limited seating.
During the last recession and the difficult recovery, fast-casual hamburger places allowed price-conscious consumers dealing with wage stagnation to indulge in gourmet burgers while saving on the time and expense associated with sit-down restaurants, experts said.
"When the economy went down it actually helped fast-casuals quite a bit because people could go out to eat and spend less than in casual restaurants," said Alex Susskind, associate professor of food and beverage management in Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration.
A little indulgence at a discount comes in handy for many people. After inflation, Long Islanders now typically earn just 75 cents more per hour than they did before the recession, a Hofstra University study released Tuesday shows.
Focus on ingredients
Upscale burgers also cater to consumers' growing focus on food sourcing and ingredients. "Gourmet burger joints have been able to sweep in and fill a void in the marketplace because they allow us to indulge in the things we love but at the time to feel as if we are not violating our health goals," said Veronika Ilyuk, a Hofstra University assistant professor of marketing and international business.
Because the fast-casual burger restaurants are perceived as healthier eating places, Ilyuk said consumers could underestimate their calorie intake from the loaded burgers and side dishes.
"I honestly wouldn't be surprised if people are consuming more calories than they would otherwise but, ironically, feeling better about their caloric intake," she said.
In Nassau, the number of independently owned burger restaurants jumped to 27, from 14, between 2009 and 2014, said the NPD Group, a Port Washington-based market research firm. In Suffolk, the number climbed to 22 from nine.
"It's really customers wanting to get a better hamburger but they don't want to sit for an hour to have a hamburger," Susskind said.
Nationally, competition from trendier hamburger eateries has eaten into sales of fast-food restaurants such as Burger King, Wendy's and McDonald's, analysts say. The big chains have responded by expanding their menus to include healthier choices.
But bigger menus have backfired, said Bonnie Riggs, a Chicago-based restaurant industry analyst for the NPD Group. "They are supposed to be fast and quick and this has really slowed them down," she said. "They need to stick to who they are and their core strength."
Susskind emphasized that there will always be demand for fast-food restaurants, because they have a price point "that attracts a different customer and requires a slightly different operation model to do that."
Franchising is key
Another key to the growth of the gourmet restaurants, marketing experts said, is franchising, which has provided the capital that allowed regional chains to go national.
Five Guys, founded in 1986, was largely known in the Washington, D.C. area until it began franchising in 2003, Susskind said. (A visit by President Barack Obama in 2009 probably didn't hurt either.)
"So these fast-casual chains that have actually been around for a while are starting to get some traction," Susskind said.
Their success has prompted still others to enter the fray.
"It's such a me-too industry," said Riggs. "When you see there are growth opportunities, that is where you head."
The fast-casual category is one of the fastest-growing segments of the restaurant industry. The niche also includes non-burger restaurants such as Chipotle and Panera Bread, but is dominated by quick-service burger outlets, Riggs said.
Between 2005 and 2015, while national restaurant visits overall remained about flat or declined, fast-casuals' share of those visits quintupled to 5 percent, Riggs said.
"That is phenomenal growth over a decade," she said.
So many restaurants in general now offer burgers that in 2014 they trounced their nearest competitor, grilled chicken sandwiches. Burger servings totaled 9 billion last year, up 3 percent from the year before, Riggs said. By contrast, servings of grilled chicken sandwiches fell by 9 percent during the same period.
Burgers in 2014, Riggs said, "had a banner year."
In some ways, Long Island was way ahead of the fresh burger craze. All American Hamburger Drive-In, which opened in 1963, eschews frozen foods, as fast-casual restaurants do. But its limited toppings, rapid service and prices have more in common with fast-food restaurants. Its hamburgers start at $1.30.
"We have a following," said Rich Vultaggio, 31, a third-generation manager of the family-owned restaurant. "Places come and go. For the most part we do what we do, and we do it right."
Usually, the prices at local gourmet burger places are more expensive than fast-food restaurants but cheaper than sit-down eateries, experts said.
At Johnny's Burgers in Centereach, a basic Black Angus beef quarter-pound burger with free basic toppings like lettuce, tomato and onions, is $4.25.
At Local Burger in Bay Shore, a single hamburger patty starts at $4.99, with free basic toppings and extra for such things as bacon or an organic fried egg.
The Burger Spot in Garden City charges $6.50 for it basic six-ounce brioche-bun burger that comes with a choice of free basic toppings and extra for fancier add-ons like bacon, avocado, roasted peppers and feta cheese. One of its specialty burgers, the Parisian, which is topped with cheddar, bacon and egg and served with home-cut fries, is $10.
Meanwhile, at the McDonald's in Jericho, a basic single-patty burger with ketchup, pickles and onions is $1 and a double quarter pounder, the most expensive burger on the menu, is $5.79.
Customers who patronize the fast-causal burger establishments put a premium on fresh ingredients.
"Customers are willing to pay the price if it meets their practical needs and definition of value," Riggs said. "And their definition of value is not about the cheapest price. It's about how you deliver on their expectations."
Offering quality products
Despite the burgeoning number of burger chains, some local owners believe they can weather the competition because they offer quality products with a more personal touch.
At Johnny's Burgers, whose chrome chairs, Formica tables and mood music recall the 1950s, owner Pat O'Brien, 53, a former Wendy's manager, said a quality product and local ownership are key.
"Our burgers are fresh," said O'Brien, who bought the restaurant a year ago. "We build them the way you want them. We have a lot of loyal customers because we are a family-owned business."
At the Burger Spot, which was recently brimming with a lunch crowd, Dimitri Londos, 41, who has co-owned the restaurant since 2011 with his wife Ewa, also believes being local gives their business an edge.
"The fresh materials are more superior, and you can control that because you don't have a franchise board or other boards to answer to," he said. "So it gives you that flexibility."
Expansions in a trendy restaurant category always carry risks. About a decade ago, North-Carolina based Krispy Kreme Donuts had several locations on Long Island. Today it has none, after an ambitious expansion effort faltered, forcing the company to close many stores and many of its franchisees to file for bankruptcy.
"Krispy Kreme just expanded so rapidly that they couldn't handle the growth of such a large system," Riggs of NPD said.
But she said that there's still room for more players in the burger market. "Burger joints with the new concept that have come on the scene seem to meet a need in the marketplace," she said.
Susskind of Cornell said that weaker players will drop off, as in any trendy market, but a saturation point for the burger, a quintessential American food, isn't in the offing.
"Kids like it. Adults like it," Susskind said. "It's an American phenomenon, and when it's done right, well, people get excited about hamburgers."
With Joan Reminick