Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Consumer Reports Resolves Nothing

There was a point last year when it seemed like burger joints were going to take over the world. Just last year, 243,703* new burger restaurants opened in the Twin Cities. What should diners make of all the new options?

Consumer Reports has an incoherent answer, accompanied by a graph. Let's explore.

McDonald's burgers are certainly cheap and fast, but you still might wonder why billions have been consumed when you see the results of our recent survey of 28,000 online subscribers who rated burgers at 18 fast-food restaurants.

Answer. They are accessible and dirt cheap. Next question: Why do more car buyers choose the Ford Focus over a Lexus?

Among the standouts were In-N-Out Burger and Five Guys Burgers and Fries. The biggest loser: McDonald's.

Which is weird, cause, if you go to California, literally nobody has any idea that In-N-Out is better than McDonalds. Just go ask someone in line at an In-N-Out. They'll have plenty of time to tell you.

Why was this article written, much less featured on the Yahoo! Front Page?

In-N-Out Burger, which touts its fresh ground chuck, has 247 restaurants in California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. Five Guys had 640 restaurants in 42 states. And McDonald's? 14,000 restaurants.

Welcome to the world of economies of scale, Mr. Feignsurprise.

We sent a reporter (not a trained taster, but he has eaten his share of burgers) to make an informal comparison of the fare at Five Guys and McDonald's. Here's what he found.

Consumer Reports "sent" a reporter to taste two burgers, out of the 18 assessed? This magazine is one of the most expensive in existence. They can't afford to ask a reporter to taste 18 burgers? Hell, I'd do it for free if it would get me on Yahoo! Front Page.

Five Guys

The regular hamburger, two 3.3-ounce griddled patties, was served well done on a lightly browned sesame-seed bun.

Translation: Two pieces of beef jerky on a donut. For my readers who prefer their meat well done, stop preferring that. Ordering something well done is asking a chef to destroy your food.

At Five Guys, the destruction is compulsory. Ick.

You can order any of 15 free toppings (the usual, plus options such as grilled mushrooms and jalapeno peppers). Bacon and cheese cost extra.

Can anyone think of 13 "usual" toppings on a burger? I'll start with tomatoes, lettuce, mayo, mustard, ketchup, onion and pickles. That leaves six more. Mushrooms and peppers are out, as are bacon and cheese. I'm at a loss. Pineapple? Nice reporting.

The patties had a bit of searing along the edges, a chewy texture (the chopped meat was fairly coarse), and a beefy flavor. They reminded our reporter of minute steak.

I would hope a well done burger would have searing along the edges, lest we conclude it was boiled and freeze-dried. But yes, minute steak, go on.

The meat was juicy but left an oily taste in his mouth.

That's what she said.

The bun was soft and spongy.

Right. Here's what happened, coming from someone who actually knows how to taste things. They fried the hell out of some disc-like burger patties, presumably mashing them to create that sizzling sound, connoting "cooking", but also sending oil lurching everywhere. They immediately plopped the patties onto wonder bread. Hence: spongy.


The basic burger was one 3.5-ounce patty with pickle slices, bits of chopped raw onion, and a dab of ketchup and mustard, served on a lightly browned bun.

On other words, it was the same damn thing.

The meat tasted mild and more greasy than beefy.

What does this mean? Most of the flavor of beef comes from the fat (aka grease). If anything, McDonalds patties taste salty, on account of, um, the salt. But it's the same sorta-beefy malaise used at Five Guys, I assure you.

It was easier to bite through than the Five Guys patty and was uniformly round and brownish-gray.

As opposed to what? Oblong and cyan? It's a burger. Brownish-gray comes with the territory.

The major flavor came from the toppings. The bun was airy and bland. The Five Guys burger was bigger and beefier but costs about $5, compared with $1 for McDonald's.

Based on this description, then, you are paying a 400% premium for a product that is about 15% better.

(Five Guys sells a one-patty Little Hamburger for about $3.50.)

To which, why not taste that to establish a head-to-head comparison? That would make a lot more sense.

And the meat is made to order, not in advance, so we waited 5 to 10 minutes. Our reporter couldn't get his hands on an In-N-Out burger, but readers gave it high marks.

The reporter couldn't "get his hands on" a burger from In-N-Out? Why was he writing this piece? Why write anything at all? Consumer Reports is the most useless thing in existence.

Also, on the made to order thing... When you go to a quality restaurant, and order a relatively complicated dish, especially one requiring a sauce, do you honestly think they wait until the precise moment at which you order the dish to start cooking? Like, braised short ribs only take 15-25 minutes to cook?

In other words, who cares whether something is made to order?

We asked 28,000 readers who bought any burger on their last visit to the restaurants below: On a scale of 1 to 10, from least delicious burger you've ever had to most, how would you rate that burger's taste? Differences of fewer than 0.5 points aren't meaningful.

I don't know what's more depressing: The fact that every single burger below was rated as above average, or that the chart trumps any actual reporting.

Burger Comparison Chart

I am not a professional taster either, but I can report the following:

Culvers burgers are disgusting. They also take about 45 minutes to get to your table. They are called "butter burgers", which tricks customers into thinking they are prepared a certain way. And indeed they are... Charred beyond recognition, and then held under a heat lamp for 35 minutes. If that's made to order, I'll take assembly line any day.

If the goal of any burger is not to be gray, then Fuddruckers should be at the bottom. Their patties are as gray as they come.

If "differences of fewer than 0.5 points aren't meaningful", then the fact that White Castle rates within 1.3 points of both the top and the bottom of the list should tell you something.

Hardees is the same thing as Carls Jr. And yet, people like Hardee's burgers better. Lesson: Don't trust people.

And certainly don't trust Consumer Reports. If I have found one thing over the years, it is that there is no compelling reason to purchase that magazine. I'll put it this way. They approach cars the way they approach hamburgers. Enough said.

Please do not construe this post as a defense of McDonalds. I'll say this... They do ugly cheap. That's more than can be said for Culvers.


Anonymous Guy Incognito said...

The burgers are all the same. Consumer Reports should do an evaluation of kid's meal toys instead. Now that would be worthwhile reading.
I guarantee that Arby's would be at the bottom of that list. Holy crap do they have awful toys. They are always educational, and always made of paper. So, they're destroyed by the time you get home.

8:22 AM  

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