Cheeseburger in Paradise

Big-Burger Sales Boom Despite Obesity Epidemic

By Published on .

Size really is the measure of a man when it comes to hamburgers.

Heedless of headlines decrying America's obesity epidemic, the burger behemoths have been unapologetically laying on the beef with two-, three- and four-patty stackable burgers and edible epics bursting with up to two pounds of meat, stacked chest-high from the plate. And from Burger King's Stackers to Hardee's Monster Thickburger and one grill owner's Triple Bypass, guys are eating it up. Orders of brawny burgers, especially cheeseburgers, have grown 4% in the 12 months ended in February while regular burgers grew just 1%, according to NPD Group.

The secret is that these buzz-inducing products ooze as much machismo as they do fat. "There is some correlation with manliness and appetite," said Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab. "There is this connection, at least in the young man's mind, of having a healthy appetite for food and having an identity that you believe is appealing to the opposite sex."

Research seems to prove it. While at the University of Illinois, Mr. Wansink led a 2001 study that showed college-age men and women videotapes of actors eating popcorn during a date, and asked them to guess how much test subjects could bench press. Men rated the actor who ate more popcorn as more masculine and able to bench press 34 pounds more than the actor who ate less.

This male mentality accounts for belly busters that are as much an engineering feat as they are politically incorrect. BK's Stackers, simply-topped burgers of meat, cheese and bacon piled up to four layers high, are selling well and outperforming market tests, said Denny Marie Post, BK's senior VP-chief concept officer. She said during the course of the testing in Reno, Nashville, and other markets, six out of 10 Stacker purchases were Doubles, four in 10 were either Triple or Quad and the Quad drew 15% of total sales.

She was quick to point out that the burgers are more about simplicity than size. The Quad weighs in at 1,000 calories, just 10 more calories than a Double Whopper with Cheese, but with half the amount of meat.

It helps that dieting is at its all-time low. Just 23% of adults in the year ended February 28 reported being on a diet, well under the norm, NPD found. "In 20 years since 1986, it has always ranged around 25 to 29," VP Harry Balzer said.

Perhaps no one knows this better than Jon Basso, owner of the Heart Attack Grill in Tempe, Ariz. The former health-club owner in December opened the 38-seat storefront shop with a simple-but-macho menu of burgers, fries, beer and soda served only through lunch. Staff "nurses" wear stripper-style medical uniforms.

"We're the next Hooters, but with good food," Mr. Basso said.


"Nurses" prescribe combo meals built with half-pound patties called the Bypass, the Double Bypass, Triple Bypass and Quadruple Bypass. Burgers are served with unlimited fries cooked in pure lard and a soda with a tax-included price from $11 to $17. "We do three Triple Bypasses a day," he said, adding that they sell just four Quads per week. Patients who complete a Triple or Quadruple get a complimentary wheelchair ride from a nurse to their car.

The restaurant hasn't received much in the way of print press unless you count a June 13 listing in the Arizona Republic for having three major health-code violations. But it has quickly become a darling of bloggers, men's clubs and shock jocks alike.

Which may explain why, when he franchises the concept, (he says several contracts are in the works) Mr. Basso plans to prohibit advertising by contract. Instead, he counts on the publicity the grill gets by offending people to draw customers. "Do me a favor and tell them about me," he egged on.
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