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Pleased to meat you: How Middle East’s burger brands are innovating a timeless classic

There’s more at play than what meets the eye for your favorite burger. The biggest brands in the Middle East give us an insight

Pleased to meat you: How Middle East’s burger brands are innovating a timeless classic
[Source photo: Venkat Reddy/Fast Company Middle East]

One cannot go wrong with a classic burger with grilled cheese, double topping, and crispy fries. But given the bustling food scene in the Middle East – you can witness several brands upping the ante to be the best burger in town. 

There’s a lot more at play than what seems like a simple burger bun and patty. Every detail, from the crunch of the lettuce to the size of the bun, is a determinant of success in this wildly competitive market. There may be many food options on the market, but the concept of a burger – essentially, a patty of minced meat served between bread – is ancient.

But burger remains relevant as the most popular cheat meal of all time. The bustling Middle East food space has a dearth of options for burgers; but industry players say mastering the perfect hamburger isn’t always complicated.

While brands like McDonald’s thrive on mass production, homegrown brands focus on curating quality items instead of making billions off cheaper sliders. Inflation and the mounting costs of living have made customers pickier than before. The F&B industry has taken note. They are now infusing innovation without compromising food quality to claim customer loyalty. The extent to which they go is a testament to the fierce competition for customers’ dollars and attention, all by making a better burger.

FANCY A BURGER IN THE MIDDLE OF A DESERT?

For instance, homegrown burger business Salt curated a pop-up and invested in the exteriors to build a Salt camp. 

It’s one thing to go the extra mile in the burger business, but retaining loyalty can involve a balance of strategy and experimentation with seasonal items — Salt did all of this with a fireplace and camel as props.

 

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A post shared by SALT CAMP (@findsaltcamp)

In partnership with the Museum of the Future, the colorful pop-up campsite that closed with the outset of summer featured a seating area around a fireplace and a camp menu curated to complement Salt’s popular wagyu burgers or chicken sliders. As for the exteriors, other than camels, there was a jeep, a live band to add to the nomadic “feel,” and a merchandise store – all overlooking the museum. 

This and the Salt Carnival in the UAE and Saudi Arabia are some of the innovative burger concepts in the Middle East that go beyond making the perfect burger to encompass an entire lived journey. But staying relevant can sometimes mean more than a location glamp-up.

KEEP IT CLASSIC 

Brand recall aside, the best burgers, no matter how innovative, must stay true to the essence. Steering true to the classic spirit of a burger means remaining unafraid of being the neatest-looking bun. Businesses employing this strategy of honing in a real, chunky, over-the-top burger feel are plenty. Ugly Burger claims to be the “uglier, juicier, tastier” burger that banks on being the most loaded, ugly burger ever. It reclaimed ugly by associating it with extra oozing taste, quality and flavor. Another popular is the hole-in-the-wall joint Jailbird, which perfected a burger with the most unlikely ingredients – sriracha glazed tenders, mac n cheese, jalapeños, and their special J.B sauce. 

Homegrown success Pickl has claimed its position as a cult favorite, giving fans more than just burgers to write home about. 

“Eating at Pickl is all about having fun. Customers are guaranteed a good time in a laid-back, casual environment with a fantastic playlist and incredible burgers,” says Steve Flawith, CEO & founder of Pickl.

 

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A post shared by Pickl. (@eatpickl)

While consumers’ demand constantly changes, their love for burgers never does, he says. “That’s why we’re confident that our classic menu items, such as our Nashville Chicken Sando or Double Cheeseburger, will always satisfy our guests. However, we like to offer our customers something different, so we have monthly specials, including our popular Katsu Sando and upcoming Sloppy Owen.” 

A SLICE OF RELEVANCE 

Beyond the burger kings, there is a space to add a unique flavor to the classic burger and the region’s top players aren’t holding back.

Take a look at Pickl’s social media, and you know their ice cream Sandos is more than an incentive to keep customers raving about more than just their specialty. Beyond the add-ons, a burger made with fresh produce stands out. 

When McDonald’s swapped frozen beef for fresh beef in most of its quarter-pound burgers in the US- the company sold 40 million more quarter-pound burgers in the first three months than it did in the same period the year before.

Flawith agrees wholeheartedly to creating a top-quality burger with fresh ingredients. “Pickl is all about high-quality ingredients and offering fresh, fast food. Our beef and chicken are hormones- and antibiotic-free. Our pickles, sauces, and spices are made in-house, fresh daily. This commitment to quality and consistency helps Pickl stand out from the crowd.”

The burger house was recognized by Time Out as the Best Burger in Dubai and Restaurant of the Year by Deliveroo. 

Flawith says that regardless of your preference for chicken or beef, Pickl has the burger for you, “in fact, we might even convince you to switch sides.” 

So what drives FOMO, another homegrown burger brand, to stay relevant despite the changes in demand other than amplifying the fear of missing out? “We just do what we like. One of the founders, who happens to be American, is used to real American burgers in terms of quality, so he always makes sure FOMO focuses on quality rather than quantity. That’s why we have a small menu,” says the FOMO team. 

 

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A post shared by FOMO (@fomoburgers)

What sticks the business together is its sauce. While adding a new item to the menu takes approximately a month of trials and tests, what took FOMO the most time to develop was the sauce that makes their burgers “addictive.” Instead of experimenting with chips and Cheetos, FOMO’s biggest strength, it claims, is in staying true to the essence of a perfected small menu.

There is no strict timeline for burger brand G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time) Burger on how long it takes to introduce new items on the menu. The process is always guided by the owner and head chef Sultan Kayed, who studies customer tastes and trends in detail before any new introduction. For instance, the Arigato burger was inspired by chef Kayed’s visit to Japan, who then translated his memories into the burger. 

The G.O.A.T Burger team says the chef introduces new and exciting flavors that “create momentum in the market and keep the customers coming back.” 

A DASH OF FRESHNESS

Staying true to the goal, and ignoring the competition, is another trick of the burger trade. “We do not try to compete with anyone. We serve burgers that FOMO owners wanted to eat but couldn’t find anywhere,” the FOMO team says. “People keep coming back because the food exceeds their expectations.” 

Echoing the same sentiment, chef Kayed says G.O.A.T burgers are “more than just an insta-worthy juicy burger.” Although, the stunning views of Burj Khalifa and Dubai Canal help.

PLUS ONE FOR LOCATION

Ingredients aside, there is a science behind a curated experience where location is key. Wrapped in a holographic box, FOMO burgers are well-positioned near attractive locations in the region. 

 

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A post shared by G.O.A.T (@g.o.a.t.ae)

“Our locations are artistic and subtle, and cozy sitting areas are important features in the dine-in experience,” says team FOMO. 

Even G.O.A.T Burger swears by its dine-in customer experience. “At G.O.A.T Burger, we make it our priority to design a great user experience. Since we launched during the summer of 2021, we figured we’d introduce the Park n Dine concept to enhance the dining experience. This allowed our clients to enjoy our burgers in private in the comfort of their car with the greatest views on Burj Khalifa and Dubai Canal,” says Kayed.

THE BEYOND BURGER LANDSCAPE

If meat isn’t your thing, you can still get on board. Although the Middle East still has a long way to go when expanding menus of vegetarian alternatives. The Impossible Foods debut at Expo 2020 Dubai was a nod to the region’s demand for plant-based items. Going beyond the Veggie Deluxe at McDonald’s and the paneer burger at Burger King, local eateries like Black Tap and Bite Me Burger have Impossible Foods’ options available. These have risen in popularity not because they are meatless but because they are marketed as healthier alternatives than meat-based regulars.

All in all, it comes down to trying the best burger. We asked these popular home-grown burger houses to suggest where to begin. 

Pickl: Try Chicken Sando. It is available in five heat levels from plain right up to Reaper, for which they make you sign a disclaimer form. Also, try a classic cheeseburger, but always go for a double. 

G.O.A.T Burger:  G.O.A.T Burger and Arigato are made with premium, fresh wagyu beef patties. Every bite of the Arigato takes you on a trip into the streets of Japan. From the aroma of the fresh brioche bun to the homemade sauce topped with tempura mushrooms.

FOMO: Double Fomo because it’s double the fun when you go for two patties. And the Fomo chicken is all you want from a chicken burger.

In this industry, the winner may not claim the spoils or the last french fry. The point is everything on the plate is a make or break. But for those playing to win big in the burger industry, competition goes beyond the physical realm. To leverage and extend its reach beyond the confines of a menu, Pickl has entered the metaverse. The reason? Brand recall or the innate need to be relevant. 

Experiment and innovations will go on, you can get as fancy as you like, but ultimately, it’s up to how you want your burger. “We’re constantly experimenting, trying out different combinations, and perfecting recipes in the kitchen. Our entire team is part of the tasting and feedback process, and it takes anywhere from a month to three months to fully develop a new menu item,” says Flawith.

Also, Watch what’s chef Kelvin’s favorite place to eat in Dubai? Find out, here.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rachel Clare McGrath Dawson is a Correspondent at Fast Company Middle East who writes on tech, design, and culture. More

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