Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Hamburgers, Boutique Chains, and Enforced Scarcity

Americans love their burgers. Even vegetarians. Actually, the whole world loves meat (or something like it) between two slices of a bun, or bread (or something like it) and has for centuries. The sandwich wasn't really invented by The Earl of Sandwich so he could keep playing cards in the 1700's, that's just the name that stuck. Although the actual inventor of what we now know as the hamburger is up for dispute (Wikipedia not only has a “Hamburger” page, there's a “History of the Hamburger” page as well as a “History of the Hamburger in the United States” page), several people seemed to do the same thing at the same time: put a patty of ground beef between two slices of toast or stiff bread and sell it at fairs and carnivals in the late 1800's. Because a ground beef patty was at the time called “Hamburg steak,” it seems rather logical that the name became popular- probably at the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904- and stuck, no matter where the sandwich travelled. Calling it a “ground beef sandwich” just doesn't have the same ring to it.

The hamburger also gave rise to the franchise restaurant, which was really unheard of until White Castle started in the early 1920's. McDonald's took it to a different level after World War Two, and every chain restaurant that exists does so because of the success of the McDonald Brothers and Ray Kroc (although if it wasn't them, it would have been somebody else- the production-line America that homogenized America in the 1950's, from houses to automobiles to grocery stores, would have found its way to food eventually).
The very first drive-through at the very first In'N'Out

Recently, many smaller hamburger chains have flourished because of a backlash to places like McDonalds and Burger King and the rest of them. Over the past month, purely unintentionally, I've been to several of the “boutique hamburger chains” that continue to gain traction all over the country- HabitBurger, Super Duper Burger, SmashBurger, Five Guys Burgers and Fries, and the most famous of them all- In'N'Out Burger. Even though In'N'Out and McDonalds started in the same area (SoCal- San Bernadino and Baldwin Park, 45 miles away from each other according to Google Maps) and the same year, 1948 (when the McDonald brothers reorganized their 8-year-old successful restaurant to focus on quick-service burgers). But while the McDonald brothers went the franchise route, In'N'Out stayed privately held and stayed close to home (their first non-SoCal restaurant opened in 1992). Now, thanks to the big chain backlash, they're considered boutique even though they invented the drive-through window.

And once I'd gone to three of the above mentioned places, I thought about doing a “burger comparison.” And after I thought about it for five minutes, I realized that there's no reason to compare these places. That's because quality of the burger doesn't really matter in your visit- it's the ability to go somewhere that you usually can't get to. For instance, I used to live in a town with two Five Guys within minutes of each other. And I went to Five Guys maybe once every six months. Well, due to my ever-changing addresses, the nearest Five Guys is now an hour away. So when last Thursday I found myself within a couple of miles of Five Guys, I went there. And when on Saturday I found myself within a couple of miles of a different Five Guys, I went there. And really, I went for no other reason than I can't get to Five Guys as easily as I once could.

I wonder what Walter is saying?
We're all like this, and it's because of something I like to call “enforced scarcity,” one of my favorite phrases to discuss supply-and-demand. The selective expansion of any chain- not just a restaurant- isn't a problem any more, it's actually an unintentionally positive marketing ploy. Why do so many people covet Pliny the Elder beer from Russian River Brewing in Santa Rosa, California? It's because the way the beer is made the brewers don't want it in transit too long, even if it's shipped in a refrigerated car. Boom- they've created “enforced scarcity.” When do you most want a Starbucks coffee, which is available pretty much on every corner in every town you've ever been to? You want it when you're camping deep in the wilderness. Enforced scarcity. When do you want McDonalds? Probably when you're on the road in the middle of nowhere. When do you want an In'N'Out burger? When you're somewhere they're not available and you're watching The Big Lebowski for the 928th time. I have been to Vegas a few times with a good friend of mine who insists on dining not at Wolfgang Puck's or any of those five-star restaurants- he wants to go to Cheesecake Factory because there isn't one within 200 miles of where he lives. I now live 15 minutes from a Cheesecake Factory, and I know that if he ever comes to visit, we'll have to go there. I doubt I'll go there until then. But that's enforced scarcity for you.

So really, none of the boutique burger chains are better than the other, they're just either more accessible to you or they're not, and your desire to go to one of them is based on how close they are to you. That's the difference.

And with the kind of choices I now have, I can be choosy. That means of the five boutique chains I have nearby, SmashBurger is off the list. It's not like it was bad, their ground beef sandwich just wasn't on the same level as the other four. Now, if I was on a raft floating the ocean for weeks, I certainly wouldn't turn it down, but I'd probably have a real hankering for a Jumbo Jack instead. Enforced scarcity, indeed.