The Burger Index

Is the price of burgers too damn high?

The Husk cheeseburger with potato wedges is a long-running staple on the Husk bar and brunch menus
The Husk cheeseburger with potato wedges is a long-running staple on the Husk bar and brunch menus (Jonathan Boncek)

By Robert F. Moss

It’s hardly news that food costs are a major challenge for restaurants today. Pandemic-era plant shutdowns and supply chain disruptions caused price spikes in everything from beef and pork to take-out containers. More than a year later, the kinks are still working their way out of the system. (Just ask any restaurateur who serves chicken wings.)

But as with many other things in the industry—staffing woes, rising rents, shifting consumer preferences—the pandemic really just intensified trends that were in motion long before anyone had ever heard the term Covid-19.

Take burgers, for instance. The most American of sandwiches has enjoyed something of a renaissance in the past decade, with chefs hand-grinding their own custom blends and piling everything from pimento cheese to fried green tomatoes on top of buttery brioche buns. The price of burgers has steadily increased along with their trendiness, and we feel it’s the perfect indicator for tracking the larger pricing trends in the market.

And so we’re proud to unveil the Southeastern Dispatch’s exclusive Burger Index, a leading indicator of restaurant menu pricing in Charleston and a handy tool for tracking trends into the future.

The Methodology

To create the index, we selected a basket of ten representative cheeseburgers for which pricing data was available going back to 2015. We tried to include a range of different types of establishments, from casual burger joints like Poe’s Tavern and Sesame to high end steakhouses like Oak and Hall’s. We tried to spread things around geographically, too, with representatives from the heart of the Peninsula, from over the rivers in Mount Pleasant and West Ashley, and even out on Sullivan’s Island.

The double patty Fiery's Ron's Burger at Home Team BBQ features American cheese and housemade bacon and pickles
The double patty Fiery's Ron's Burger at Home Team BBQ features American cheese and housemade bacon and pickles (Jonathan Boncek)

We scoured our files of old menus and scrolled through online website archives to dig up prices for as many years as we could going back to 2015. For restaurants with multiple options, we passed over the fancy topping variants and chose the burger closest to a regular cheeseburger. Because some menus include sides with burgers and others don’t, we tallied the cost of a burger and fries at each restaurant, adding in fries at the a la carte price if they weren’t included with the sandwich.

Why pick burgers for the pricing index instead of, say, tacos or banh mi? We dig deeper into burger methodology in a bonus segment for Dispatch Plus members.

Then we compiled the results in a big spreadsheet and monkeyed around with charts and graphs for hours.

And now to the numbers . . .

The Results

Current Average Burger Price: $14.52

Here is the slate of burgers that comprise our index basket, with the 2021 price for each:

The Trends

So how have these prices changed over time? We plotted out the average price of a burger and fries for each of the last six years, with the blue line representing the actual menu price at the time and the red line the price in real 2021 dollars.

The average price of a burger and fries topped $14 in 2021
The average price of a burger and fries topped $14 in 2021

In both raw and inflation-adjusted dollars, prices have steadily risen year over year. We crossed the ten dollar line in 2016—a significant psychological barrier, in our thinking—and the rate of increase has only accelerated since.

The rise in burger prices far outstrips inflation in general, even in a year when pandemic-related issues have boosted prices across the board. The current average burger price of $14.52 represents a 10% increase over the 2020 average of $13.20 and another 10% increase over the 2019 price of $12.57. (For comparison, from 2020 to 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the prices for “limited service” restaurant meals rose 6.9%, while prices for full service meals rose 4.9%.)

Would you pay $20 for a burger and fries? You might have to in just a few years. If prices keep rising at the current rate, we will cross over the threshold into twenty dollar territory by 2025.

The Analysis

Noting this steep increase in burger prices naturally raises the question of what is driving the trend. Is it the cost of beef? Is the country suffering from an unreported pickle shortage? Is it profiteering on the part of unscrupulous restaurant owners?

I sat down with Brooks Reitz, the co-owner of Little Jack’s Tavern, to chat about cheeseburger prices, and he had some interesting insights to share.

The Tavern Burger at Little Jack’s, which has won acclaim from burgermeisters near and far, has undergone perhaps the steepest price inflation of any of the entries in our index, more than doubling in price from a modest $7 in 2016 to $16 today (fries included.)

The Tavern Burger at Little Jack's is a bit pricier now than in 2016
The Tavern Burger at Little Jack's is a bit pricier now than in 2016 (Jonathan Boncek)

When it comes to pricing, there are multiple factors at play. ”There is first of all,” Reitz says, “just the layer of what are you paying for your food from your vendors, and in your budget what is your food cost that you’ve got to hit—plus your labor and everything else—and that’s going to determine what you charge.”

Reitz admits that, as a businessman, it’s not just about making a fixed margin. “We always ask ourselves what do we have to charge [to cover costs], and then we ask, OK, what is the market willing to pay?”

The overall restaurant experience makes a big difference on that front. Offering dedicated table service, a more upscale cocktail selection, a prime downtown location, a stylish decor: all these things add to a restaurant’s overhead, and most guests are willing to pay a few bucks more for that than they would for a similar burger at a strip-mall bar and grill out in the ‘burbs.

“You’ve got to charge for the vibe,” Reitz says, and then notes that there’s an additional factor at play at a restaurant like Little Jack’s.

“We sell 70% hamburgers,” he says. “If you’re charging 12 dollars for a hamburger and that’s 70% of what you sell . . . it’s a losing proposition.”

That dynamic, I think, explains in large part some of the recent burger pricing trends. The more burgers we insist on ordering, the more they are going to end up costing. The rent and the power bill are going to be the same, after all, whether customers are ordering prime rib and lobster or just scarfing down burgers.

“Your customers tell you what they want,” Reitz says. “And then you kind of have to say, well, if that’s what you want, we’ll give it to you, but we also have to charge what we have to charge.”

Dining tastes are trending more and more toward casual atmospheres and hefty comfort fare, and the crowds of AirBnBers flocking to Sunday brunch on their way out of town are just growing larger. We shouldn’t expect the demand for burgers to ebb any time soon, and it seems unlikely the price curve on the Burger Index will flatten out, either.

We’ll periodically check in in on our basket of burger prices as the upcoming months unfold and will keep you posted on how things are trending.

About the Author

Robert F. Moss

Robert F. Moss is the Contributing Barbecue Editor for Southern Living magazine, Restaurant Critic for the Post & Courier, and the author of numerous books on Southern food and drink, including The Lost Southern Chefs, Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, Southern Spirits: 400 Years of Drinking in the American South, and Barbecue Lovers: The Carolinas. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina.

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