Watch out, Shake Shack -- the future of fast food isn't about burgers

The hamburger is the quintessential American food.

It has reigned supreme in the fast — food industry for decades, as evidenced by the success of Shake Shack, Five Guys, and Smashburger.

But it seems the burger might be past its prime.

American tastes are turning toward exotic flavours and cuisines not normally associated with American food.

“Americans increasingly are looking for real flavours,” Kara Nielsen, culinary director of brand-building firm Sterling Rice Group, told QSR Magazine.

The success of Chipotle is a clear indicator, rising from a regional Colorado chain to global burrito behemoth in little over a decade. Fast-food chains are noticing, implementing their own flavorful twists on standard items in an attempt to grab a hold of the trend.

Even so, the amount of burger chains featured on Zagat’s recent national fast-casual survey is surprisingly low: only three out of 14 restaurants named focus on burgers.

Moe Chipotle 21Hollis Johnson/Business InsiderThe Tex — Mex chain Chipotle has exploded onto the restaurant scene in the past decade, with nary a burger in sight.

So, what’s happening? Is it perhaps better — burger market saturation?

“The challenge [burger] concepts will face over the next few years is that this is a one — product show right now, and there may be a time when people might get tired of it,” says Mark Godward, president of WD SRE, a restaurant operations and consulting firm, told QSR.

Of those surveyed for Zagat, 51% report consuming burgers most frequently — but Mexican food is catching up, at 44%.

And New York City, birthplace of the celebrated Shake Shack, is churning out new fast — casual chains that could one day rival the Danny Meyer — founded burger chain.

Num PangFacebook/Num PangNum Pang’s spicy and fresh banh mi sandwiches are a far cry from a classic burger, filled with cilantro, carrots, and chilli mayo.

Num Pang, a Cambodian-style sandwich restaurant, opened in 2009 and is enjoying enormous success, with six locations in the city and two more planned for this year.

Luke’s Lobster, started by a former investment banker, opened the same year and has now expanded to six states and Washington, DC, raking in over $US11 million in 2013.

And DC — based Sweetgreen, offering healthy salads made with sustainable ingredients, has grown from one location to 33 in the past eight years and shows no signs of stopping.

Are burgers going away? Definitely not; the burger is an American classic. But as an article from National Restaurant News points out, the burgeoning better — burger industry is stronger regionally than nationally. Why? Burgers are a distinctly American food, and each region in the country has its own tastes and preferences.

But Americans are looking for new foreign flavours across the board.

Perhaps the better — burger industry has reached “peak burger” saturation as more exotic foods take hold of the fast — casual market. So while the burger is here to stay, it may not be at the top much longer.

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