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Who’s advancing in the burger blitzkrieg?


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When Shake Shack opened its store at Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, lines snaked down the hallways. In the front booth above, FT staffers diligently do their hamburger homework.

Photos by Nicholas Upton and Beth Ewen

Beth: Our mission is to visit six burger joints in two days. Other than ruining our waistlines, what are we trying to accomplish?

Tom: The goal is seeing how much better these better burger places are, when you consider how the old guard of McDonald’s and Burger King are responding to new competition. Maybe we can deduce some clues into how these burger wars will shake out, because everyone agrees that not all of these places will survive.

Nick: The only limiting factors here are what better burger players we have in the Twin Cities, and just how many calories we’re willing to subject ourselves to, in the name of the mission.

Beth: Well, the latter is obviously unlimited.

Beth Ewen

Beth Ewen found her McD’s calorie-count- to-flavor ratio to be ‘sad.’

The Mac Attack

Beth: Here we are in McDonald’s, and one that was recently renovated from the looks of the bright and cheery interior. Laura, what is on your tray?

Laura: We ordered a Big Mac, a Quarter Pounder Deluxe, a Double Quarter Pounder and a regular Quarter Pounder.

Beth: That’s a lot of pounds for one tray. I’m not sensing any special limited time offers here.

Nick: McDonald’s is selling “artisan burgers” as a test, but just in Dallas right now.

Laura: Our food got here really fast, but at $25.82, that nearly breaks the bank.

Beth: Really? When was the last time you’ve been to a McDonald’s?

Laura: At least five years.

Tom: How is that possible. Do you pack PB&Js on road trips?

Laura: No, we just don’t eat.

Beth: Now I’m getting an idea of why you’re so slim. It tastes about how I remember it. Good or bad I don’t know but they’re consistent.

Tom: I’ll second the consistency, especially in appearance, but these patties look awfully dry and lifeless. I might have cried if mine didn’t have the sauce on it.

Laura: The ambiance is nice here, with signs talking about the recycled materials and different seating options.

Beth: What I always think is there’s 665 to 1,200 calories that I’ll never get rid of, and it tasted like nothing. I’m sad.

Smashburger

Smashburger offers delightful combinations with perfectly proportioned ingredients and sauces—like this burger with feta, spinach and cucumbers. The shoestring fries received a mixed review from our taste-testers, but the friendly staff was on everyone’s A list.

A smashing variety

Laura: Now we’re at Smashburger, and it already smells better, but I like the ambiance at McDonald’s better than here. It seems with the black-and-white photography they’re trying to be diner-type but then you have the red accents. Without any vestibules, the frigid winter air pours in every time a customer comes or goes. Slapped together is the thing I’d say.

Beth: But Laura, your burger looks gorgeous. What’s on there again?

Laura: It’s the Twin Cities, with grilled onions, melted cheddar, aged Swiss, lettuce and tomato and mayo on an onion bun.

Nick: Mine has cucumbers, spinach and feta.

Beth: You might have lost. It looks too healthy.

Nick: It’s definitely not too healthy. They have a nice sauce.

Tom: Man, this is good. I’m not crazy about these shoestring fries, though.

Laura: You can tell they season the meat on its own. Oh wow, it’s good. Everything was perfectly proportioned across the top, so I got a bite of the cheese, lettuce, tomato, and it’s juicy.

Tom: If there was one of these right next to an In-N-Out Burger and a Five Guys, I would come here every time. Somehow, they’ve come up with a variety of burgers that’s actually interesting. I’m impressed, and already too full.

Laura: Well done, Smashburger. After eating this I care less about the ambiance, because the food is so much better.

Laura Michaels

Discerning customer Laura Michaels tried the patty melt at Culver’s.

More maturity

Tom: We’re walking into a Culver’s, which I’m really excited about. This looks like a holiday-themed dialysis clinic!

Beth: The demographic is decidedly older here. We have to comment on the spectacularly low prices. Our total was $5 less than the McDonald’s.

Laura: It’s very farmer friendly, which fits with their ‘thank you farmers’ ad campaign they’ve been running.

Nick: I like the multiple seating areas. I bet they get a lot of sports teams coming in, and the Kiwanis meets here, the sign says.

Beth: Don’t you feel it’s nice that there are still places left for people over 35? Oooooh, look at the crinkle fries.

Laura: I hate the crinkle fries.

Beth: I think they’re toothsome.

Tom: Is that a positive attribute or negative? Hands down this is the best patty I’ve had today, but I miss the toppings we had at Smashburger.

Beth: I think the first bites are great, but then it breaks down because the butter flavor isn’t enough to carry it through.

Wayback Burgers

Wayback Burgers offered loosely packed and flavorful meat.

The way, way back

Nick: Wayback Burgers is a newer brand, and one I haven’t tried before.

Beth: Did you see their sign advertising the Triple Triple, with nine patties? The person at the counter said they’ve sold 700 Triple Triples since they’ve been open.

Tom: We purchased the Chipotle, the Philly and the Rodeo. Best french fries, hands down, with Parmesan.

Laura: Mmmmmm. I appreciate these fries. I like when they have the skin on. The price is 7 bucks each, which is pushing it for lunch. But they use really good cheese that actually gets more melty rather than harder as it gets cold.

Beth: Thoughts on the ambiance? I’m not digging the plasticized farmhouse vibe.

Nick: I like the throwback diner theme, and also the big windows. The meat in these burgers is really good, and I like how it’s not tightly packed. And the Chipotle is authentically spicy.

Laura: The Rodeo has a sharp, tangy sauce that sets it apart from everything else we’ve tried. And the mushrooms are delicious on the Philly. Nice differentiation from one burger to the next.

Tom: I like this place a lot. I’m going to score it very highly.

Tom Kaiser

Tom Kaiser contemplates his Burger King Whopper while rocking a knit cap and his BluBlockers—which came in handy on a subzero yet sunny Minnesota day.

King for a day

Beth: I like the varied seating areas in Burger King. It’s attractive. But the outside temperature is minus 6 degrees, and the inside temperature feels like 10 degrees.

Tom: We have air vents blowing the cold right on us. We need to move to a new place to get away from the draft.

Nick: So we have a Whopper, a Texas Whopper, which has jalapeños on it, the Extra Long Cheeseburger, and the Bacon King.

Tom: I don’t get the Extra Long Cheeseburger. Why would they do this?

Nick: I heard they had so many of these extra-cheap buns, because they also use it for the chicken sandwiches.

Beth: And what do you think?

Nick: It’s wrong. It’s an abomination.

Tom: I would say it’s deplorable.

Beth: It tastes like a hamburger sub sandwich.

Nick: Which no one ever asks for.

Laura: The Bacon King is really good. I would actually order the Bacon King, independent of being forced to eat it for this story—so much savory with the double patties of cheese and beef, all the bacon and mayo.

Nick: I did like the Texas one. I know it was just the jalapeños making the difference.

Burger Blitzkrieg

The final shake-up

Nick: The ambiance is gorgeous here at Shake Shack. Lots of real wood, cool lighting and blocky tables. I love the signage. It says the tables are handcrafted in New York.

Laura: I feel like they could have gone with real plants, rather than the fake stuff.

Beth: So we ordered the ShackStack, the SmokeShack and the ShackBurger. The ShackStack is a mushroom burger and a cheeseburger in one.

Laura: Could you imagine if you had a lisp and were trying to order here? When it opened, here in the Mall of America, I remember seeing there were lines around the corner. It seems to have died down a bit.

Tom: Hands down, this is the best beef we’ve had during the blitz.

Laura: I’m thoroughly enjoying my mushroom-topped burger.

Beth: Oh, I hate the sauce on the Stack.

Nick: I love it.

Tom: This smoky one is disgusting, with the smoked barbecue and cherry peppers. It’s a very unpleasant combination.

Beth: That’s the SmokeShack.

Laura: Oh. Uh-uh. Oh, that’s awful.

Tom: But the regular burger—the ShakeStack—that’s just magic. This is one of the best burgers I’ve had in ages.

Beth: Wow, this place is as polarizing as my Thanksgiving table last year. We better wrap this project up—before we start throwing punches.