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Posted on Thu, Jun 10, 2010 : 6:02 a.m.

Burgers: Today's hot trend promises more restaurant growth in Ann Arbor and U.S.

By Paula Gardner


Krazy Jim's Blimpy Burger cook Ray Jeppesen fries up a bunch of new burgers in the background after plopping down one of Blimpy's specialties, "The Bullet," in the foreground during Wednesday's lunch hour.

Lon Horwedel |

Frozen yogurt had its day. So did the coffee shop.

Now it’s time to make room for the once-simple hamburger - dressed up with special meat blends and sometimes exotic toppings - in what may seem like every storefront in Ann Arbor.

Two burger restaurants just announced deals to open in the South State and East Liberty streets area in coming months. They follow still more deals struck in 2009, signaling the rising local effects of a growing U.S. restaurant niche.

“It’s the latest hot phenomenon,” said Max Goldman, a commercial real estate broker at Ludwig & Seeley in Farmington Hills.

Burgers are a $100 billion national industry, and national experts say there’s room to grow the “gourmet” or “better burger” part of the sector.

That means the two most recent deals announced for downtown - Five Guys Burgers and @burger - likely won’t be the last.

The burger craze “does seem to be a big thing going on,” said Matt Berke of the Beale Group, the agent who represented Five Guys in the store’s deal for the South State Street store. “Not just in Michigan, but nationally, as well.”

Real estate sources in the area say several chains are actively seeking space, some trying for proximity to the University of Michigan campus.

Burger chains that haven’t landed in Ann Arbor - yet :

  • SONIC, the 3,500-store drive-in chain based in Oklahoma City.
  • Cheeburger Cheeburger, based in Fort Myers, Fla., with 2 locations in Michigan
  • FATBURGER, The 90-store, California-based chain that announced in January that it would open 58 new stores in the Middle East.
  • IN-N-OUT, a 240-store chain mostly in California.
  • Culver’s, known for its frozen custard also touts its Butterburger as a signature dish.

Among those, FATBURGER reportedly is “desperately looking near campus,” according to one local agent, while SmashBurger, Sonic and Culver’s also have reportedly reached varying stages of deal-making in this market.

The newer chains seeking to enter the market aren’t the only ones expanding: Red Robin Gourmet Burgers just opened its second local restaurant a few miles to the west from its original Washtenaw County location on Carpenter Road.

Even Ann Arbor’s stalwarts of higher-end dining, Mainstreet Ventures, recently moved into the burger realm, opening EO Burgers (“EO” stands for “extraordinary”) in suburban Dayton, Ohio.

“It’s really just a question of how many one area or one city can support,” Goldman said. “There certainly are enough of them going around.”

The reason, said Andy Deloney of the Michigan Restaurant Association, seems to be driven by a few factors.

One is the economy.

“When the economy is as bad as it is right now … successful operators are finding ways to address the consumer’s demand for value,” Deloney said.

Many burger-centered meals can cost $10 or less with a drink and side.

“People still like going out to eat but don’t want to spend $20 or more on a meal,” said Scotty Sisco, chef and manager at Great Plains Burger Co.


Topping choices let customers customize their burgers at Krazy Jim's and other burger specialty restaurants.

Lon Horwedel | Ann

That’s one reason the fast-casual dining segment has grown. The top 100 restaurants in the sector grew 10 percent in 2009, while overall restaurant sales dropped 2.5 percent.

It’s the customization available on a burger, allowing a customer to create a unique taste that drives the market trend, Deloney said, thanks in part to televised cooking shows.

“People love hamburgers, and they’re willing to try new things on them,” he said.

On the business side, “Burger-exclusive places run these little factories,” said Newcombe Clark , a commercial real estate agent at Jones Lang Lasalle in Ann Arbor.

“It’s a low-maintenance, high-margin business.”

Deloney said burger restaurants can operate with a lot of common ingredients, allowing them to drive better deals with suppliers and control waste.

A high-volume burger business also creates demand for beef. That’s good for Knight’s Market, an Ann Arbor-based supplier, which is gaining customers.

Knight’s now supplies about 40 local restaurants, said owner Sherry Bedolla.

What about nutrition?

Calories don’t seem to count to burger-lovers, at least those who buy into the “bigger is better” menus.

A 10-ounce burger made of lean meat will have 600 calories just in the meat, estimated Pat Lynch, registered dietitian at the University of Michigan Health Center.

“That’s not the bun, that’s not the sauce, that’s not the cheese,” she said.

Large burgers laden with toppings could reach 1,500 calories.

And the fat grams from just the meat could be 30-50 grams, compared to the 60-70 grams the average healthy person should eat in a day.

Health-focused burger-lovers need to limit their toppings: Bacon doesn’t help, but lettuce, tomato or olives will add flavor without calories.

Lynch suggests watching what you pair with a burger, too: “The fries are in many ways worse than the burger.”

Ask a burger master what makes their sandwich special, and a similar theme emerges: It’s the fresh ground beef, perhaps a special mix. The meat isn’t frozen. It’s also cooked to order.

And the toppings turn the basic into a customized masterpiece for the buyer. Some places have about a dozen, others many more. Either way, the number of toppings - as common as tomato, as rare as a fried egg - yield an exponential number of possible combinations.

Then there’s the pairings: Milkshakes, beer, fries or onion rings seem to be the most common.

But the best-loved local burger joints themselves also seem to cultivate a personality that keeps customers coming back.

Sidetrack in Ypsilanti is one example.

“We’ve been doing this for 30 years,” said owner Linda French. She describes her signature sandwich that enjoys a nationwide reputation as “craft” burgers.

“There’s always a market for a good, all-American burger,” she said.

Krazy Jim’s Blimpy Burger, located in Ann Arbor since 1953, is another example of a longstanding burger place.

Current owner Rich Magner says he’s served generations of fans who savor the food, stand in line at the restaurant on South Division Street and tolerate the sometimes-rude staff because it all feeds into the “Blimpys” experience.

Recent burger additions to the area:

  • @burger, the Big Boy chain’s concept that’s coming in July to East Liberty Street.
  • Five Guys Burgers, which will open by fall in the former Shaman Drum space on South State.
  • Great Plains Burger Co., a locally owned chain prototype based on Plymouth Road.
  • Red Robin opened its second restaurant in the area this spring when it took over the former Bennigan’s near Briarwood Mall.
  • Famous Burger on Plymouth Road.
  • Quickie Burger on State near Packard.
  • Packard Pub on Packard near State.
  • Bagger Dave’s in the Colonnade.

“You get a burger right off the grill and sit down and eat right away,” he said, noting that diners get to watch its creation along the way. “That’s a big part of it.”

Magner will go through 600 pounds of meat - formed into 5,000 patties - per week. His bacon sales are up - that topping is getting more popular - and so are his overall sales.

“Last year I had my best year,” he said, thanks in part to a 2008 appearance on the Food Network.

And while considering the wave of new burger joints coming into Ann Arbor, Magner says, “I just hope it doesn’t change things for (us) here.”

“As long as the new burger places have something that sets them apart a little bit, then that’s OK,” Magner said.

So what is the saturation point for burger restaurants in Ann Arbor?

Real estate experts won’t speculate. They see the operators as among the few potential tenants able to sign top-of-market deals. Five Guys, for example, will move into a building where the asking rental rate was $40 per square foot, among the highest rates near campus.

“In today’s economy (the burger restaurants) really seem to be one of the tenants that can still thrive and do well,” Berke said.

Deloney says the market will dictate how many survive over time. Restaurateurs who predict what seems like endless demand for a burger could fall victim to changing customer palates.

Population density and diet trends also will play a role, Clark said.

Longtime burger restaurants may feel the least threatened by the newer outlets.

“I don’t know if there can be too many,” said Magner. “I know I eat my share.”

Paula Gardner is Business News Director of Contact her at 734-623-2586 or by email. Sign up for the weekly Business Review newsletter, distributed every Thursday, here.



Fri, Jun 11, 2010 : 9:41 a.m.

Here is a little snippett from MSNBC on the growth of the upscale burger market.


Fri, Jun 11, 2010 : 8:42 a.m.

Casey's Tavern has great burgers and fries. Choose three toppings. My heart-stopping favorite is cheese, bacon and guacamole. It's close to the U of M Med Center and a lot of hospital staff go there, so help is at hand should that burger finish off your arteries.


Thu, Jun 10, 2010 : 9:41 p.m.

seldon: "... They'll go to a great burger place like Casey's, and then hit an Indian place for vegetarian dishes the next night...." Good point. Yes, it's a lot easier for folks to go 'both ways' in their preferred food choices than in their political views (though some politicians really try). I shouldn't have implied that they don't do that. And some burger meat can come from organic family farms which also provide gourmet veggies. In my earlier comment I was, in part, thinking in terms of food harvest grown more-or-less sustainably (with limited chemical inputs) on local/regional farms versus animals raised for their red meat on large factory farms, which is simply an unsustainable (and brutal) means of agriculture. In terms of impact on the environment, these can be seen as opposites. Longfellow: "... Oh, and the healthiest diet, much to the Doctors chagrin, is the Adkins diet...." Many of the claims behind the Atkins diet have been debunked. For one such rebuke, download this pdf from the Center for Science in the Public Interest: As for carbs, whole grains consumed in moderation break down in the body much more slowly than white flour products. While diabetics still need to carefully watch their intake, non-diabetics (sans food allergies) will be fine.

Julie Martin

Thu, Jun 10, 2010 : 9:08 p.m.

Beefy double cheeseburger and a Boston Cooler @ Halo Burger! Yum!


Thu, Jun 10, 2010 : 7:59 p.m.

Now that Michigan bars have gone smoke free I might step foot into Stivers in Chelsea, gotta say it's always looked like a dive. Sorry, but true. As for cheap, hip, young independent new chefs opening new establishments, take a look at Portland, OR or NYC for inspiration. What is City of A2 policy on Food Carts?Besides the previous fights between hot dog vendors for specific corners.


Thu, Jun 10, 2010 : 7:26 p.m.

If you like Blimpy you need to try Halo Burger in Flint. It rivals Blimpy in history and flavor so I'd rate them even among peers but they have a different philosophy on fries which are both noteworthy. Halo also make malts/shakes and nothing but NOTHING beats Blimpys onion rings. I like the Food Network special where Guy Fieri is chowing down on different Blimpy burgers and Rich is.. drinking a bottled water. Dude.

Bill Wilson

Thu, Jun 10, 2010 : 6:48 p.m.

One of the first things you're taught when you're diagnosed with diabetes is to forget everything you've been taught about nutrition: it's all wrong. Some veggies are fine: asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, etc. The leafy veggies. Things like carrots, tomatoes, peas are fast acting carbohydrates: sugar. Think fruit is okay? Guess again. It's all carbs. Do you like bread? Guess what: carbs. Now, you hear people claim that whole grains are fine, and as long as you have no more than 50 grams of carbs a day (about 1 slice of most breads), it is fine. Exceed this, and you're overworking your pancreas, and doing it over decades will place you in a group that 65% of the population end up in: blood sugars that are 100 and over. Do people need a balanced diet? Simple answer: no. You need protein. Are carbs healthy? Absolutely not: they all break down into sugar, which requires the body to generate an antedote: insulin. Simple rule: if something you eat requires an antedote, it's probably something you need to stay away from. A burger a day is not a problem: go for the low fat ground beef. You see it in the stores, the 93% ground beef. Better yet, eat fish. We're on a planet that's around 90% water... we were put here to eat fish. Oh, and the healthiest diet, much to the Doctors chagrin, is the Adkins diet. Me? I don't mind vegetarians. But as opposed to say, a hunter, I don't find them to be that savy. How much intelligence does it take to sneak up on a leaf?


Thu, Jun 10, 2010 : 5:44 p.m.

Although it looks very tasty, that, my friends, is not a picture of the Bullet.

Matt Bradish

Thu, Jun 10, 2010 : 3:06 p.m.

This trend is disturbing. The town is already a giant restaurant. Most of the chain joints that come to this town are disappointing hacks I wouldn't give my money to. Most of the chains mentioned in this article are either a step below or above a TGIChilliBees. Why bother going out to dinner for mediocre food? I can stay home and do that for 1/3 the cost. We have plenty of good places to get a great burger with an honest, unpackaged, market-tested atmosphere: the Old Town, Casey's & Sidetracks to name just a few. I agree with some of the other posters, that this is what drives up real estate in this town to our detriment. Having chains harvest cash from Ann Arbor to send back to some Wall Street black hole is not going to help the local economy. Are they going to buy bread from Zingermann's or meat from Knight's? Probably not, they'll likely have national deals with some other supplier like GFS or Sysco. Remember Salsa Rita's? Have you ever had the displeasure of eating at Culver's for heaven's sake? This trend only serves the landlords and the chains, while it turns Ann Arbor into Anytown, U.S.A, destroying what makes Ann Arbor a destination in the first place. Can you see the forest for the trees? Do we really want this? Vote no with your wallet and let'em pay $35.00 a square foot for nothing. We need a full service grocery store & hardware store, not more out of town chains to line rich men's pockets.


Thu, Jun 10, 2010 : 12:56 p.m.

@Speechless: you seem to be implying that the contrary trends in food are necessarily followed by different groups of people, like the political trends. I disagree. There are a growing number of people who are interested in high-quality food, regardless of style, and like to mix it up. They'll go to a great burger place like Casey's, and then hit an Indian place for vegetarian dishes the next night. What they may not do is go to chain restaurants or places where everything came off a Sysco truck.

Atticus F.

Thu, Jun 10, 2010 : 12:51 p.m.

Blimpy's: triple with bacon, blue cheese, and olives on an onion roll...I'm a bit of a salt freak.


Thu, Jun 10, 2010 : 12:21 p.m.

Add another vote for Roy's Squeeze In and the Full House, two really good burgers and you don't have to drive >35 min to get to them!


Thu, Jun 10, 2010 : 12:05 p.m.

"... vegetarians and vegans are still a definite minority in Ann Arbor." Clearly, vegetarians remain a minority. However, they're far more common today than during the '70s or '80s. Nutritional science has notably advanced since then, too: even into the 1970s, some mainstream food columnists wondered if meatless diets would lead to death by malnutrition. Further, an often-ignored trend is the vast increase in people who choose to eat meat (especially red meat) only occasionally during the week. The growing numbers of burger joints on the streets might disguise this larger dietary trend. Go backward about 50 years in time, and most everyone ate some form of meat (or fish) once or twice every day.


Thu, Jun 10, 2010 : 11:51 a.m.

"... I am also surprised at the increased level of bovine consumption within the area; it seems out of character for A2...." The growth of higher-brow burger joints in A2 makes perfect sense in context of growing social divergence in general. While many people have become more aware of the relationship between nutrition, diet, agriculture, environment and health, there's an opposite tendency going on, a vibrant one which thrives in open defiance of this. There's a parallel here with politics, where over time more people head off to the farther reaches of the left or the right, slowly eating away at centrist politics. Similarly, both gourmet beef burgers and veggie burgers showcase the gradual decline in middlebrow American tastes. So, with (relatively) less interest today in the 'cuisine' of a Denny's or a Burger King, these kinds of places have slowly given way to food trends heading in opposite directions. On one side, there's burgeoning interest in lower-fat, veggie-oriented and international foods. On the other end, we have an ever-growing and enthusiastic celebration of hot, dripping — but exceptionally well-flavored — red meat. They're contrary trends which mirror one another like matter and anti-matter, and just maybe one could not exist in our culture without the other.


Thu, Jun 10, 2010 : 11:43 a.m.

@russell, at least Metzger's came your way. It is the only place around I know of to get some good schnitzel and spatzen.


Thu, Jun 10, 2010 : 11:32 a.m.

I would love to see some good restaurants on the West end of Jackson rd at Baker rd. That area is a great location next to I-94. Also close for Dexter and Chelsea residents to frequent. I love downtown A2 but the parking and the Expensive restaurants I can't afford on a regular basis. So please all you restaurant owners consider this area.


Thu, Jun 10, 2010 : 11:09 a.m.

a fried egg on a burger is far from rare! even better when its over medium and the yolk oozes all over the meat :) MEAT, is yummy!


Thu, Jun 10, 2010 : 10:46 a.m.

Miller's in Dearborn...mmmmmmmm....


Thu, Jun 10, 2010 : 10:29 a.m.

More burger places? Sounds like a good time to invest in angioplasty equipment.


Thu, Jun 10, 2010 : 10:28 a.m.

really enjoy Krazy Jims burgers and the only "franchise " burger I'll eat is Flint's Halo burger olives YUMMMM!!


Thu, Jun 10, 2010 : 10:25 a.m.

You can get a really great burger (2 sizes available) at Stiver's Bar and Grill near chelsea, and reasonably priced as well.

Jay Allen

Thu, Jun 10, 2010 : 10:08 a.m.

andyypsilanti is spot on. Like Blimpy Burger, head over to Ypsilanti or Milan. Back before old man Roy passed on, the "Full House" in Ypsilanti on Ecorse and "Roy's" in Milan on Wabash are burger joints Roy himself started. The portions are much larger than Blimpy but these greasy joints do not have the charisma that Blimpy does. Want a great burger and want something different w/o driving to Detroit, Ypsi and Milan have 2 of the best. To the the A^2 types that are chiming in and making the burger stuff a bust, I have one question, why? Rents are what they are. Would you rather see eye sores of empty buildings or businesses trying to make out area better? Not all of us are (or will ever be) vegetarian and quite frankly I am sick to DEATH of this "PC" crap that our society has become. Many of you act like you could not have grown up in the 60's and 70's where respect was earned. Get over yourselves and let the businesses have a chance.


Thu, Jun 10, 2010 : 9:36 a.m.

Eat Breakfast at the Bomber in Ypsi and you can skip lunch.


Thu, Jun 10, 2010 : 9:26 a.m.

Oh good, more chain restaurants in A2. In a couple more years, the whole town will be owned by the U and a couple corporations. I'll take a Big Squeeze with Cheese from Roy's over any of these any day, thanks.

Ming Bucibei

Thu, Jun 10, 2010 : 9:18 a.m.

Some of the best bugers i have had were at The Topper a small family run burger shop at the cornor of division and liberity (in a former white castle bldg) (it was eminent domained long ago & now a "park"-with a street people problem);-( Ming Bucibei

Paula Gardner

Thu, Jun 10, 2010 : 9:11 a.m.

A caller just reminded me that there's a Culver's in Belleville at 11001 Belleville Road. While I really like Culver's (but hate the name "ButterBurger").... previous road construction near that exit has kept me from going there. Next time I'm on 94 and the path seems clear, I"m trying that one! There's been some discussion in Scio Township about establishing a Culver's near the Quality 16 Theater. The building site is approved by planning, but no permits - or announcement of a tenant - have been pulled at last check.


Thu, Jun 10, 2010 : 9:06 a.m.

I've said it before and i will say it again, the Piedmontese burger at Red Coat Tavern in Royal Oak on Woodward is the best burger in SE Michigan. Blimpy's is by far the hamburger joint that ranks number one in the area. A triple with bleu cheese, green olives, mushrooms, tomato, brown mustard and mayonaise sounds good right about now.

Paula Gardner

Thu, Jun 10, 2010 : 8:48 a.m.

PersonX, Many people are watching the rental rates, especially near campus and especially because of how the food tenants can drastically change the makeup of the block. But I do think it's important to note that while the rents on Main Street or State Street or East Liberty are high, there are other places in the area that may be suitable for a startup chef's dreams. Top of the list could be Ypsilanti, which seems to truly welcome the indie startup. Lower-market rent won't overcome undercapitalization issues, but there are at least some options out there once you step away from the "gold coast" of campus/downtown.


Thu, Jun 10, 2010 : 8:31 a.m.

I'm glad there are some great burger places in Ann Arbor. What makes A2 so wonderful is there there are both great meat and vegan options. It really shouldn't be one or the other. I firmly believe in eating for your blood type and that about half the population thrives on animal proteins (beef for type O, vegan for type A). My only caveat for meat is that the beef is at least organic or come from sustainably fed grass fed cattle. I can do without the wheat though, so wrap my burger in some lettuce or something....yummm

David Briegel

Thu, Jun 10, 2010 : 8:24 a.m.

Casey's and Jolly Pumpkin make great burgers also! Support local!


Thu, Jun 10, 2010 : 8:14 a.m.

The Sidetrack in Ypsi and Krazy Jim's in Ann Arbor. Chains are okay, but I like to support the local places.


Thu, Jun 10, 2010 : 8 a.m.

This story tells it all--the greed that drives rents sky-high makes it impossible for good young chefs to start nice innovative restaurants. So we are left with general restaurant mediocrity in a time when everywhere else you look there is great culinary development. We have heated discussions of chain burgers... Add to this a glop of pseudo-reviewers who know nothing about food (and nothing about writing), and Ann Arbor, otherwise a great place, remains a culinary desert. There are people in our town who can cook and would love to open a nice restaurant, but most of them have to move elsewhere to realize their dreams.


Thu, Jun 10, 2010 : 7:51 a.m.

Angela Smith: you can (and some local places do) use organic beef, etc. in a burger. David: despite their visibility, vegetarians and vegans are still a definite minority in Ann Arbor.

Top Cat

Thu, Jun 10, 2010 : 7:15 a.m.

The best burger in SE Michigan is from Casey's Pub on Michigan Avenue in Corktown near old Tiger Stadium. They cook it right in front of you and you can delightfully wash it down with a pint of Harp. It is worth the drive. We don't need more stinkin' wannabees.


Thu, Jun 10, 2010 : 7:14 a.m.

I have to agree with previous posts thus far, Krazy Jim's is THE A2 burger joint. Having said that, I am also surprised at the increased level of bovine consumption within the area; it seems out of character for A2? The coffee wars of the 90s were one thing, but consuming meat is another thing entirely.

Angela Smith

Thu, Jun 10, 2010 : 6:56 a.m.

This is really surprising to me! I feel the push to go organic and really question where your food is coming from is in contradiction to this new trend, and would expect Ann Arborites to be less supportive of the burger. That being said, even at eight in the morning, that Blimpy Burger photo looks delicious!

dading dont delete me bro

Thu, Jun 10, 2010 : 5:52 a.m.

first! (post on this story) krazy jim's is mmmmmmmmmm............. i need to stop there on my lunch hour...i'm WAY over do for a cholesterol injection.