Food service operators are elevating the classic burger with alternative proteins, premium buns and innovative toppings. The term “cheeseburger” on menus has decreased by 15% from 2012 to 2015, while such descriptors as “bacon burger” and “Southwest burger” have risen 85% and 34%, respectively, according to research from Chicago-based Mintel. Similarly, unspecified “cheese” as a burger topping has fallen 11%, while mozzarella has increased 29%, and pepper jack has grown 13%.

“While burgers are a favorite for many Americans, restaurants must work hard to make their burgers stand out,” said Caleb Bryant, food service analyst for Mintel. “Consumers are interested in new burger formulations, allowing restaurants to take chances with their menu. This gives restaurants the opportunity to branch out with multiple ingredient options and toppings to separate themselves from competitors, and can be accomplished by offering high quality buns and cheeses, as consumers are willing to pay more for premium ingredients for a food they love.”

Nearly half of consumers say they want more premium burger buns at restaurants, giving rise to such bread as pretzel (up 97% on menus between 2012 and 2015), Kaiser (93%) and brioche (59%).

Consumers also are seeking alternatives to the traditional beef burger, according to Mintel. Forty-six per cent of survey participants said they would like to see more chicken burgers on menus, while 42% expressed interest in more turkey burgers and 34% showed favor for more bison or buffalo options on menus. Driving interest in non-beef burger offerings are millennials, the majority (64%) of whom rate healthiness of menu items as the most important factor when choosing a restaurant.

Additionally, grass-fed beef burgers are gaining traction, with 79% of burger eaters agreeing grass-fed beef is higher quality than conventional beef.

“With its purported superior taste, healthfulness claims and ‘feel good’ connotations, burgers made with grass-fed beef are an especially important food service trend right now,” Mr. Bryant said. “Diners today are interested not only in food that is good for them; they also want food that makes them feel good. This is magnified for food that comes with a ‘story,’ as consumers increasingly want to know where their food was made and how it was prepared and produced. This presents an opportunity for restaurants to better compete with retail packaged beef, which often times does not provide such information to consumers.”

Three in five consumers want to know the origin of beef in their burgers, including 68% of millennials. Overall, 82% of consumers believe burgers are a good source of nutrition, and nearly as many said they would pay more for burgers made with premium ingredients.

“While the majority of Americans view burgers as a good source of nutrients, this is more indicative of health concerns being a non-factor as opposed to seeing burgers as a healthy choice,” Mr. Bryant said. “Further, we find that the decreasing consumption of beef is not affecting consumption of burgers, driven by Americans seeking more non-beef burger options.

“Non-beef burgers appeal to diners for a number of reasons. Beyond offering less fatty, more nutritious alternatives, non-beef burgers tend to have a ‘wow’ factor as they are new and different to many consumers. Having a line-up of non-beef burgers can help a restaurant’s menu stand out from other restaurants’ burger offerings.”

Last year, Burger King unveiled a flame-grilled chicken burger on a brioche bun, McDonald’s began testing chicken burgers in the Tampa Bay, Fla., area, and White Castle added three turkey sliders to its menu. Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s introduced its All-Natural Burger, with a grass-fed, free-range charbroiled beef patty with no added hormones, steroids or antibiotics.

In addition to adding non-beef options, restaurants are zeroing in on ingredient quality. Jack in the Box recently revamped its menu with the introduction of a buttered split-top bun, switching from an onion-mayonnaise sauce to real mayonnaise, tweaking its tomatoes and lettuce, and switching all but the Buttery Jack’s hamburger formula from seasoned patties to unseasoned 100% beef patties. Among its selection of upscale burgers, Red Robin Gourmet Burgers and Brews has introduced the Southern Charm Burger, made with a Black Angus patty glazed with brown sugar and topped with candied bacon, honey barbecue sauce, sharp cheddar and caramelized onions on a ciabatta bun.