Sunday, August 09, 2015

Bob's Burgers

"You can find your way across this country using burger joints the way a navigator uses stars....We have munched Bridge burgers in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge and Cable burgers hard by the Golden Gate, Dixie burgers in the sunny South and Yankee Doodle burgers in the North....” 
---Charles Kuralt.

Vegetarian?  Not me.

I’m an unapologetic carnivore. My idea of a truly fine meal is a prime rib, steak, chops or ribs.  In moderation, of course.

But if my meat intake was limited to one selection, it would be the burger, simply prepared and right off the grill. Open wide and let the juices run down your arms and drip off your elbows.

I am not alone. In Denver recently, a friend took me to a place call Bud’s, a dive hard by the railroad tracks on the outskirts of civilization. The menu: hamburgers or cheeseburgers, served with a bag of chips on a paper plate. Onions and pickles on the side. Ketchup and mustard on the table.

It’s cash only. And if you want fries or a salad or coq au vin, take a hike back to town.

The place is always packed, filled with families, cowboys, bikers, or people like me who think that for an hour or so, it doesn’t get much better than this: a truly tasty burger, a little country music on the jukebox, a cold beer and a total absence of pretention.

It is a perfect homage to the Great American Hamburger.

While we may claim the hamburger as our own, it may or may not be an American invention. There are more conflicting claims as to its origins then there are McDonald’s franchises. But it is shared and loved, like America itself, by people regardless of race, color, creed or national origin. Hot dogs be damned.

It has survived assaults by health Nazis and fierce competition from pizza, gyros, tacos, sushi, dim sum, shish kabobs and Swedish meatballs, brought to our shores for better or worse by waves of immigrants.

It also survived assembly line production by fast food franchises that sold convenience rather than quality. I ate at McDonald’s plenty of times, mostly when my kids were young. At no time did I ever walk out the door thinking, “Wow, was that a great meal.”

Of course, McDonald’s never promised great food. Only fast food. And it did it so well it became one of America’s greatest business success stories.

All of that appears to be changing. McDonald’s said last month that U.S. same-store sales dropped 2 percent in the second quarter, the seventh straight decline.

The company noted that a main reason for the tepid results was because "featured products and promotions did not achieve expected consumer response amid ongoing competitive activity."

Translation: The food is lousy and people are eating elsewhere.

Indeed, McDonald’s came in dead last in a new survey which measures how satisfied consumers are with fast food restaurants. 

CNN reported that owners of McDonald's restaurants around the world are grappling with shrinking sales, slumping traffic and stiff competition from more exciting rivals that are serving up appetizing menus.

It's gotten so bad that McDonald's franchisees are worried about the food they serve and more pessimistic about their future than at any time over the past dozen years, according to a new survey conducted by Janney Capital.

Among other concerns, McDonald's franchisees expressed deep frustration with the top brass at McDonald's headquarters and their inability to improve and simplify the chain's complex menu.

But the real reason is that, while we may think that as consumers we are manipulated by our culinary overlords, we are in fact the masters of our fate. We wanted something better and we’re getting it.

A number of chains have emerged that offer what McDonald’s and its ilk never did: high quality offerings cooked to order. Gone are the days of microwaved mystery meat stuffed in a Styrofoam box.

Interestingly enough, many of these new chains have emerged from Southern California which as usual is an incubator of new ideas. Unami Burger, The Counter and The Habit started here and are expanding throughout the country and beyond to places like Dublin and Dubai.

And, of course, there’s the venerable In-N-Out Burger which has achieved cult status but still isn’t available east of the Mississippi.

Unami is a sit-down, full service restaurant offering a dozen unique takes on the burger. The Counter claims to offer 300,000 potential burger combinations. The Habit won Consumer Reports' top spot for the best-tasting burger in the country, beating out competitors like In-N-Out Burger.

Now, if we could just get a decent pizza in this town.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com. Follow him on Twitter at @robertrector 1.

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