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Beefing up the brand

Does Angus label live up to its hype?


Back Yard Burgers wanted to set itself apart as a premium option in the cutthroat and burger-heavy fast food industry in 2001. So it changed cows.

The Mississippi-based chain started serving burgers made from Black Angus cattle. The results were substantial: A double-digit increase in burger sales, according to company founder Lattie Michael. “It tells you it’s a great product without actually having to say that it’s a great product,” Michael said. “You can say you have a quality burger, but you’re not really differentiating yourself. Black Angus differentiated it for us.”

Backyard Burgers isn’t so different anymore. These days, when a burger joint wants to sell a “premium” product it uses Angus beef. Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. did it with their Thickburgers in 2003. Burger King sells an Angus Steakburger. And now McDonald’s is getting into the act with news recently that it is test-marketing an Angus burger on the West Coast.

But are these burgers truly “premium” when it comes to taste? Not necessarily. While some say Angus is more tender and consistent than other types of beef, experts say the difference in most cuts is modest, and preparation may be a bigger factor in the burger’s taste.

Angus is a breed of cattle raised largely for beef production. It is the most popular breed of beef cattle in the U.S. That may increase the likelihood that the beef didn’t come from, say, dairy cattle that no longer produce milk. Otherwise, there are no guidelines distinguishing most Angus beef from anything else. “It’s just the cow,” said Mark Polzer, who heads the Food Services Division at Certified Angus Beef. “It just means it’s coming from an Angus-based animal.”

Angus is a breed of mostly black cattle that originated in Scotland. Its branding can be traced back to 1978, when the American Angus Association formed Certified Angus Beef, a non-profit formed to create a certification system that would increase premiums for ranchers who raise Angus cattle.

Roughly one out of every five cows identified as Angus by their mostly black bodies are labeled “Certified Angus Beef” based on a list of specifications, such as marbling or fat content. Ranchers receive 5 cents more per pound for a certified Angus than a non-certified one, said Polzer. The higher quality beef is usually used for cuts of steak in which tenderness is an important factor.

The beef being used in fast food premium burgers is not Certified Angus Beef. “It couldn’t happen,” Polzer said. “There wouldn’t be enough of it there.” Thus, the specifications about the quality of the non-certified Angus beef are no different from those governing other types of ground beef.

And some of it may not even be all Angus. In 2004 a Texas-based livestock genetics company called ViaGen tested cattle in slaughterhouses labeled as Angus. They found that as much as half the cows’ genetics heritage traced back to other breeds.

Beef companies have nonetheless discovered that giving cuts an Angus label can sell their products regardless of certification. “It’s a name that the customers and the general public associate with a higher quality of beef,” said Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president of Food Service Strategies for WD Partners, an Ohio-based retail design firm.

The more expensive Angus beef is showing up on more and more QSR restaurants' menus.

Fast food companies have discovered this, too. In 2003, struggling CKE Restaurants introduced premium Thickburgers in its Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. restaurants. They used Angus Beef. The next year, same-store sales increased 7 percent at Hardee’s and 7.7 percent at Carl’s. Burger King came out with its Angus Steakburger the next year.

Companies are jumping on the Angus bandwagon amid pressure to provide premium products in the face of growing competition from fast-casual restaurants. It also helps them keep fast food customers from jumping to competitors. “There’s very little loyalty in the sector,” said Bob Sandelman, president of the market research firm Sandelman & Associates. “And they’re very fickle.”

Any evidence that Angus beef boosts sales of a premium burger is circumstantial. The higher-priced burgers sell well, “but nobody has tried to do a premium burger that is not Angus,” Lombardi said. At Burger King, the Angus burger consistently represents about 5 percent of company sales, which lags well behind the Whopper, which represents 30 percent of sales.

Still, to Burger King, the Angus is an important product, one that targets a demographic of heavy users, which amount to 20 percent of the chain’s customers, but 50 percent of overall volume. These customers are more willing to pay more for a higher-quality burger. “It became apparent that there was a market for a premium steakburger,” said John Schaufelberger, vice president of product marketing and innovation. “It was expected of us.”

But does Angus taste better? Restaurateurs say it does, noting that the beef is more consistent and tender. “I think it’s better,” said Michael, of Backyard Burgers. “Not remarkably better. But it’s better.”

The modesty in taste differential makes preparation a bigger factor. At Burger King, the Angus Steakburger has a third-pound patty, which is larger than the quarter-pound Whopper. It is on a corn-dusted bun with steak sauce, mayonnaise, lettuce, tomatoes and onion and costs roughly $1 more.

The thicker patty stands out more in the Angus burger, which is seasoned with peppery steak seasoning and may play well to diners looking for a meatier taste in their burgers. Still, the quality of the meat itself is not noticeably different, and many find the Whopper’s unique overall taste more preferable. “We believe we’re satisfying every occasion,” Schaufelberger said.

Still, what happens if the use of Angus in fast food burgers becomes so common that it is blasé? After all, it’s already difficult to find non-Angus cuts of steak in some grocery stores, and the fickle dining public could one day begin yearning for something else.

How about Kobe Beef? That won’t likely happen in fast food anytime soon, but burgers made from American raised versions of the legendary Japanese beef are already appearing on the menus of some franchised chain restaurants.

California-based diner chain Ruby’s Diner has two burgers with Kobe beef, a regular Kobe burger that typically goes for $2 more than the company’s regular burger, and smaller Kobe Sliders that have become popular in the year the company has had them. “I’ve tried it,” said Sandelman, who considers himself a burger connoisseur. “And it does taste better.

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