Is BK's $190 Burger Worthy of a King?

London Store Offers Customers VIP Dining Experience to Change Perceptions of Chain's Quality

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LONDON (AdAge.com) -- The world's most-expensive burger -- at $190 a pop -- is not to be found in an exclusive Manhattan restaurant, but in a tiny branch of Burger King in West London.
The $190 Burger from Burger King is available only on Thursdays at a single location in West London.
The $190 Burger from Burger King is available only on Thursdays at a single location in West London. Credit: Gareth Davies

Yes, Burger King. Determined to show the world that it takes meat quality seriously, the fast-food chain is marketing a limited-edition gastronomic glory available once a week, Thursdays only, in this single location. All proceeds go to a local children's charity.

"The idea is to change perceptions by pushing the envelope to raise awareness of our ambitions," said Mark Dowding, Burger King's head of product and innovation for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. "We have emphasized the quality to create noise and interest in the market."

Flurry of publicity
Enough noise, in fact to draw a flurry of publicity in the U.K., stoked by Burger King's PR shop, Cow PR, and the curiosity of this Ad Age reporter.

With scaffolding outside and part of the entrance boarded up, the Gloucester Road branch does not inspire culinary confidence. It has been chosen because it's the nearest branch to Harrods and the wealthy people who shop there.

Inside, $190 burger customers, who have pre-ordered by telephone, are ushered through a red velvet rope and up some steps to a more upscale dining experience than the regular diners. There is crisp table linen and free-flowing 2003 Tapanappa Cabernet Shiraz from the Whalebone Vineyard in South Australia.

A free limited-edition bottle of Coca-Cola, declared by the attendant on duty to be worth $300, is presented on arrival -- as if the hope of a quick sale on eBay will make up for the price paid for the burger.

Made from Wagyu beef, topped with white truffles and Pata Negra ham (which owes its nutty flavor to the fact that the pigs are fed on acorns), the burger nestles in a bun spread with organic-white-wine-and-shallot-infused mayonnaise, plus pink Himalayan rock salt, and dusted on top with Iranian saffron. It is served with Cristal champagne onion straws (inspired by the "angry lobster" dish at David Burke & Donatella Manhattan restaurant) and a garnish of lamb's lettuce.

The customers' take
While I wait, I chat to some fellow customers. The first is Ireen Esmann, who won the burger in a newspaper competition. She shrugged, "It's a burger." Then she whispered guiltily, "It's very dry. The Pata Negra and champagne onion straws are nice, though."

Next up are two Leo Burnett employees (who preferred not to be named). They were sharing a burger on expenses, checking out the competition on behalf of client McDonald's. "The experience is terrific," they said, "and it's a unique occasion, but the presentation and the service are better than the burger -- the ingredients are good, but it's overrated."

Anna Martin and Bernard Coyle, both employees at Because, an experiential-marketing agency across the road, won an in-house competition to taste the world's most-expensive burger and were also on expense accounts. Ms. Martin said, "It's a nice combination of flavors. It's very meaty and you can taste the truffles. It's a treat and a real brand experience."

My burger arrives, beautifully presented, and I tuck in nervously. Mr. Dowding ("Call me chef," he said), is waiting to speak to me about the product that he has spent six months developing and personally prepared for me this lunchtime.

Not about the meat
Unfortunately the meat has to be cooked to U.K. Food Safety Standards at around 74 degrees Celsius (165 Fahrenheit), so it's overcooked by anyone's standards and pretty dry. Mr. Dowding acknowledges that he's more of a "medium" person. "But food safety and consumer protection are more important to us," he added.

So the meat's not perfect but you can really taste all the other stuff -- the mayonnaise, truffles and Pata Negra are something special. The bun is dry but the saffron coating is a new experience. I'm even finding myself convinced by Mr. Dowding's suggestion that "the saffron's aroma puts your nose in synch with your taste buds."

"Food to me is entertainment; the emphasis is on igniting the senses," he said. So far the chain has sold 30 of the burgers in the U.K. and plans to introduce the $190 burger in Spain and Germany, also for a limited period.

Coming next
Burger King's other big initiative in Europe this summer is the 6-Pack, which challenges KFC and Pizza Hut in the "sharing" category. The Angus 6-Pack consists of six mini-burgers set inside six rolls that are joined up so that consumers can tear off their own portions. There are three different types of burger to choose from -- plain, with cheese or cheese and bacon.

David Kisilevsky, Burger King VP-marketing, EMEA, said in a statement, "It has been developed as a new menu item that can be shared and enjoyed sociably amongst friends and family at home as well as in restaurant. With a summer jam packed full of tennis, football, the Olympics and cricket, the new 6-Pack is set to be a sporting success."

What McDonald's has planned
Rival McDonald's will not admit a similar move upmarket, but has hugely increased its appeal to the British middle classes with stylishly refurbished restaurants, healthier, better-sourced menus, and staff uniforms designed by Bruce Oldfield -- a favorite of Diana, Princess of Wales, Queen Noor of Jordan, Faye Dunaway and Angelica Huston.

The modernized restaurants, a cheerful homage to the classic Danish designer Arne Jacobsen, are showing an average sales uplift of 6%. The modernist setting, combined with organic milk, Rainforest Alliance-certified coffee, free-range eggs and "locally" sourced produce, have made the middle classes feel more comfortable at McDonald's without alienating its traditional customer base.

Aspirational eaters can also bask in the kudos of McDonald's new U.K. head of food, Mike Faers, who has worked with the Roux brothers and done time at two of Europe's most-celebrated restaurants, Le Gavroche and Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons. He is currently developing the "M," a more fanciful burger, where "the beef is the hero."
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