The intense competition among U.S. better burger restaurants has begun spreading North. Over the past few years, two major U.S. players in the fast-casual burger category—Five Guys Burgers and Fries and Fatburger—have crossed the border and set up shop. This is a natural progression for U.S. better burger chains, considering the low number of fast-casual chains currently operating in Canada. (Only 20 according to our 2012 Top 200 Canadian Chain Restaurant Report.)
Last year, Five Guys Burgers and Fries opened 21 Canadian locations and Fatburger opened four, resulting in unit growth of 300 percent and 25 percent, respectively, in Canada. For Five Guys, this aggressive growth rate is in line with its U.S. expansion strategy, an indication that it will likely keep this pace. Another leading U.S. fast-casual chain, Smashburger, recently opened its first two Canadian restaurants in Calgary. It has plans to open additional locations there, as well as in Edmonton, Vancouver and Toronto.
During the same time, Canadian better burger chains began strengthening expansion efforts in their home country. Hero Certified Burgers and South St. Burger Co. both expanded their restaurant counts by 20 percent, though still netting Canadian unit counts lower than Five Guys. Even smaller players, The Works Gourmet Burger Bistro and Union Burger, added several units each to their system last year, bringing their total counts to 11 and 7 units, respectively.
It’s not just fast-casual restaurants that are cooking up gourmet burgers in Canada. Traditional quick-service chains have also been retooling menus to include premium burgers. Examples of product launches by major Canadian quick-service players include:
- Burger King debuted the new Maple BBQ Whopper for a limited time, which features thick hardwood-smoked bacon, 100 percent real Canadian cheddar and maple barbecue sauce. (Marketwire 5/10/12)
- Harvey’s added another option to its premium line of Great Canadian Burgers. The Great Canadian Mushroom Melt features a flame-grilled Great Canadian beef patty, Swiss cheese, and sautéed button and portobello mushrooms on a bistro bun. (Company e-newsletter 4/19/12; Company website 4/19/12)
- McDonald’s rolled out the Angus Third Pounders burger line at participating Canadian locations early last year. The burgers, which are offered in three different varieties, each feature a third-pound 100 percent Canadian Angus beef patty seasoned with salt and pepper and served on bakery-style rolls. (Marketwire Online 4/12/11)
- Wendy’s added the Cheddar Baconator to its premium burger menu for a limited time at participating locations. It featured cheddar cheese, steakhouse sauce and thick-cut applewood-smoked bacon. (Company website 8/2/11)
The influx of better burger chains—both U.S. and Canadian-based—and the appearance of higher-quality burgers on quick-service menus is an indication that there is a strong appetite for this segment in Canada. In addition, the small share of sales and units that fast-casual chains represent within the Canadian restaurant landscape presents ample opportunity for new fast-casual burger chains to open and growing chains to expand, whether they are based in the U.S., Canada or elsewhere.