The future of gourmet burgers

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"McDonald's profit down 21%: fast food behemoth is struggling to remain relevant"
- Forbes, January 2015. Big news from the world's biggest purveyors of burgers; commentators are hinting that food trends and safety concerns are rocking the chain. Seems that consumers worldwide are becoming more aware of what they eat and turning to competitors who are offering less fast, more food.

Meanwhile, in Muscat, it seems that we are standing alone and bucking the global trend. For those of us who care about our burgers, it's been a rocky few months. First came the sudden closure of Elevation Burger at Muscat Grand Mall due to poor sales (which the ethical, eco-friendly burger chain's team seemed somewhat surprised by, given its popularity in nearby Gulf countries - when I asked one departing staff if they would consider re-opening, the disgusted answer came back, "Yeah: in a different country"). This sparked an online debate on quality vs price. Are we as customers unwilling to pay the extra necessary to get a burger with meaty provenance, whether it's organic or grass-fed or responsibly sourced, a burger that is undeniably better for you than those pumped out in the millions by the world-dominating chains? 

It certainly seemed so when Kiwi Cafe, a beloved local burger restaurant, upped and changed its patty format. If you're on Oman Restaurant Review, you'll probably have seen Kiwi's burgers lauded almost universally; it's been a firm favourite among foodies since its inception as a roadside shack in 2012, with more than 23,000 Facebook followers and a smart new location just outside Dolphin Village in Bausher increasing its exposure even more. A comment you'd often see, though, between the plaudits, was that the prices were too high. The answer would always come back that this is due to the high quality of the meat; but the complaints continued.

A couple of weeks ago, Kiwi lowered the base price of its burgers, and decreased the size of the patty - now, you would be able to get a cheaper (but smaller) burger, or if you still wanted a beast of a thing, you could pay the extra to double up. Price-wise, the idea was to include all sections of the market, says founder and partner of Kiwi Cafe, Saud Al Lamki. "We want Kiwi's to reach all four corners of the burger world, not just the niche. We guarantee the same quality and even better flavour than ever before." Saud concedes that it may be a challenge to get the die-hard following, many of whom see Kiwi Cafe as local treasure (it's a totally homegrown concept, 100% Omani owned), to change their ways. "With skinny patties, the options are endless. With thick patties, they're limited to two: single or double. Borrrrring! As a consumer, don't be backward-looking; have a double, triple or quadruple and look to the future."

Burger lover and food photographer Bader Al Lawati is looking back in anger, though. As Kiwi makes its crowd-pleasing transition, Bader was one of those who vocalised dismay at the new, smaller burgers, and as a long-time Kiwi fan, he was disappointed by the disparity between the juicy beauties shown on the cafe's social media, and the reality of the smaller burger. For Bader, this just wasn't worth the money; "Kiwi are doing awesome things but they're not really listening...especially when it comes to expectations vs delivery." (Over on the Kiwi Facebook page, they've published a promise to update the images to show the new stackables.)

Saud cites a number of non-financial reasons for the introduction of stackable sizes, from extra caramelisation to speed of service, and food hygiene - there's less risk of an undercooked middle with a slim patty. "One should note that the sandwich can be overburdened with the meaty flavour, but the melding of the flavours of onion, cheese, sauce and caramelised beef is on another level with skinny patties." (The man's a poet when it comes to his food.) 

Saud's got confidence that the market will catch up with Kiwi's dedication to quality, and is not satisfied at merely preaching to the converted; those who've been exposed to food standards and trends abroad, he says, likely already have an appreciation for Kiwi's accountability and ingredient provenance, but he and his partners won't rest until the entire market gets it. "Kiwi's goal is that the mass public understand that cheap eats are cheap because the standard of quality is much lower, and why real quality food comes at a price."

But do people care what's in their burgers? Lord I hope so. Some terrible things have happened to food in the last 60 years, and we should all care an awful lot more about what we eat - you all probably do what I do, and scroll quickly past those links on our Facebook feeds showing what really happens in chicken farms, or what, for that matter, goes into a harmless-seeming Fruit Gum. (Google at your own peril. I haven't dared.) 

I really hope that Kiwi manages to please everyone. With more casual eateries entering the market to instant popularity (see Buffalo Wings 'N' Rings, whose food is currently being praised to high heaven over on ORR), it's tough to have a concept that insists on quality but still has to bow to market price sensitivity. If price has been an issue for some market segments, and this slim stackable idea solves it, then it's a brilliant step to embrace the entire market  - and a much more positive one for burger lovers in Muscat than packing up and going home. 

I live a few minutes from Kiwi Cafe, and I'm a consumer that staff in most restaurants dread: I ask what's so special about your food, have your ingredients been frozen, where do they come from. And I have a strong loyalty to any eatery whose team can reply, this is the best stuff you can get - we know where it came from and what it's made of and we stand by it. I asked Saud what makes Kiwi burgers special, and here's what he said: "There is absolutely nothing special about Kiwi burgers. We just make our burgers how burgers are supposed to be made, and that is with care and quality and passion."

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