Talk to anyone in their 20s or early 30s about their first memory of a burger, and they’ll all mention McDonald’s. Talk to someone a little above 35, and they”ll know the real gems of homegrown burger brands — the ones that had the sticky, sweet mayo, heavy meat, and soft buns. “McDonald’s was definitely our generation’s introduction to the burger. The Chicken McGrill was economical and it was definitely a memorable introduction,” recalls Karan Dhillon, a marketing professional for whom food-blogging is a passion.

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From McDonald’s to now, the burger had gone through some serious evolution. Not delving into too much history, we do know that burgers in India existed before the first foreign burger came in the 1980s via QSR (Quick Service Restaurants) chain Wimpy, followed by McDonald’s in the late ’90s — which introduced India to the fast food burger — and the story continued from there. Homegrown burger brands are not a new concept, thanks to Nirula’s in Delhi or Hearsch in Mumbai, but the last couple of years have seen so many new burger brands in India that the QSR market is projected to grow at a CAGR of over 18 percent during 2021-2025. Why the rise?

I ask Vir Sanghvi, journalist, author, and one of the most respected voices in the food space, and he points out that the two most ordered dishes during the pandemic have been biryani and burgers. “Until now, it was always pizza, but burgers have outdone them,” he says, adding that “mid-priced brands saw the room and demand to make actual non-vegetarian burgers that aren’t your chana tikki burgers and are affordable, which has led to the development of this burger market,” he explains. Author and food writer Kalyan Karmakar says, “Talking from Mumbai’s perspective, places like Indigo Deli, Salt Water Cafe and The Table had burgers that people would travel to and go and eat for. There were also a few small independent brands like Gostana in Mumbai”.

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Marketing professional and orchardist Suhail Baghdadi agrees with Karmakar’s choices, and lists his favourite burgers that he’s enjoyed before the burger boom: Old Timer at Chili’s, Depot 29 Lamb Burger at Depot 48 in Delhi, Original Legendary Burger at Hard Rock Cafe, and the list goes on. “Another burger memory I have is from the early ’90s, when the economy was just opening up (Pepsi had their ‘Are you ready for the magic’ campaign), there used to be a place right in the middle of Main Street in Pune that had fairly good burgers for that time, of course served with Pepsi as part of a combo meal,” he recalls.

Food writers, chefs, and everyone I speak to says one thing about what maketh a burger — the patty. Sanghvi explains that people understood that the cultural connection that the Americans have to the burger (their patty is beef) is not the same in India, McDonald’s was the first to start off with Indian versions, case in point, the McAloo Tikki. “In gourmet places abroad, it has always been about the patty. So we start off with a disadvantage in India. McDonald’s made its McAloo Tikki because of India,” adds Karmakar.

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Burgers in restaurants can’t be spoken about without Woodside Inn, which started in 2007, and despite its big menu now, is still regarded as the the go-to burger. Pankil Shah, director and co-founder, Neighbourhood Hospitality, explains, “We have seen that guests are also open to trying new flavours and burgers. We’ve tried burgers with jackfruit, with slow cooked raan (lamb leg), etc.” Woodside Inn is also bringing out an online only delivery brand, Woodside Burger Shop, to become a competitive player in the burger delivery market.

One of the highlights about these new burger brands is the personalisation and importance given to their sauces and buns. Chard-Burgers and Beyond, founded by chefs Jamsheed Bhote and Hanisha Singh, who are well known and respected for Plats in Delhi, prides itself on having the perfect meat-to-fat ratio, and the perfect bread-to-filling ratio. Another brand that has taken the capital by a storm is AKU’S, the brainchild of chef Akriti Malhotra, who partnered with her brother Ankit Malhotra to set up shop in 2018 when they realised that there is a dearth of casual, gourmet burger joints. AKU’s grew almost 2.5 times during the pandemic, fuelled by the fact that people were staying at home and ordering in more.

AKU_S at DLF CYBER HUB_29

The gourmet burger delivery bandwagon has been brought into the limelight by Louis Burgers, Zorawar Kalra’s brand that has me choosing a Truffletake burger over a non-vegetarian one, thanks to its stuffing of shimeji and shiitake mushrooms, cheddar, Parmesan cheese, truffle oil, and truffle pieces. They first launched Louis Burger in Mumbai in July, followed by Delhi-NCR in October. That even high-end hospitality groups and celebrity chefs are seeing the promise in India’s developing burger culture is further proven by chef Vicky Ratnani’s recently launched Speak Burgers, which also pays a lot of attention to sides, as fresh kettle chips with in-house jalapeño ketchup come with your burger.

On a nippy Mumbai evening, I bite into a Good Flippin’ cheeseburger — classic, delicious, and so cheesy. Good Flippin’ Burgers was started by Sid, Sijo, and Viren in July 2019 with its first outlet in Bandra, and now is across the city in five locations, serving in all dining formats. “Since July 2021, the brand has grown 300 percent in terms of sales, with over 75 employees,” they share.

Woodside Inn

A hidden gem in Mumbai, The Serial Griller is another homegrown burger worth trying, and was started by Anannt Chowdhary as a passion project in his own kitchen in 2016. Chowdhary recollects the lack of real, meaty burgers back in the day, and his menu today has something for everyone — from a basic grill to a huge doesn’t-fit-into-your-mouth burger, flavourful, and meant to make you happy. Today, The Serial Griller has a central kitchen in Andheri, and a dine-in place in Khar.

As the lockdown highlighted the already good brands, a lot of new ones opened in that period (inspiring stories, I tell you), and Nino Burgers being one of them. A friend who ate Nino’s burgers with me pointed out that their Shroom Burger is better than any burger she’s ever had, and I concur. The place was started in 2020 by Nino Foods, a cloud kitchen company founded by Nishant and Pranav, which makes high-quality gourmet burgers.

AKU_S FOOD

The biggest challenge faced by delivery joints is how to make their burgers travel well; it’s one that the brands acknowledge, and plan for. As Sanghvi rightly points out, the buns at a restaurant serving burgers have to be different from the ones that delivery brands use; a soggy, unpleasantly limp burger can ruin your mood, and I have had my share of those too (eyeroll). Chard has custom-designed their box to hold the burger in its place; the burger goes into a sleeve that holds it together, and the boxes also have vents to help keep the moisture at bay. Nino tested their packaging with transport a couple of times before locking it down, while Speak Burgers give their patty in the Baja Fried Fish Burger separately, so the customer can assemble it to ensure the fish remains crispy, and Louis Burgers specially composed a travel-friendly bun, and make their buns twice a day.

Food blogger Vidur Kapoor, who goes by @godbingeon on Instagram, says his current two favourite burgers places would be Louis Burgers and The Serial Griller in Mumbai, and for different reasons. “From a consumer’s and a burger lover’s perspective, I love how Louis does their burger buns. The Serial Griller is more of ‘Lets get our hands dirty with a big fat juicy burger’ experience. I pick either depending on the kind of day I’m having,” he grins.

Speak Burgers

Popular opinion, despite the rise in the number of burger brands in Mumbai, is Jimi’s Burger. Dhillon calls it his favourite, despite all the new ones he has tried. Digital marketing professional Yashad Kirtane recalls, “I went to Jimi’s after a long, hard week just to blow off some steam, and I called for a beef tenderloin burger. I remember it so vividly because I was craving meat at the time, but didn’t have the appetite for a steak. The meat in the burger was supremely tender, and it had this beautiful onion jam, lettuce, tomato, and pickles in it. I can’t get over the sauce. Jimi’s is still my favourite experience.”

So is this boom redefining how we eat burgers? Chef Ratnani opines, “Homegrown brands are changing the way people perceive burgers by creating unique burgers that are best suited for the Indian palate by trying to marry the use of Indian and Western ingredients.”

Nino Burgers

Karmakar, however, feels that we’re yet to see how the sudden boom plays out and brings about a change. “They need to work out the delivery format because in some cases, fries reach you really limp, in some cases, it’s more about the sauce than the patty. But again, as I said these are early days, and I am sure these brands are going to work on tweaking their food.”

Chef Malhotra agrees that there’s major redefining, because burgers are also going vegetarian, and thriving. “People are now also experimenting and doing things like a Butter Chicken Burger, which is so unique to India. We have a Potato burger, which is primarily a potato patty with cheese inside, and it’s a big hit with all our vegetarian customers,” she adds.

Sid, Sijo, and Viren of Good Flippin' Burgers

And has India made the burger its own? “We’re not there yet,” points out Sanghvi, adding, “We are yet to do a genuine Indian non-vegetarian burger, say, with a shami kebab patty. The closest we have come to an Indian burger is the vada pav.” A quotable quote indeed.

That being said, Sanghvi, too, feels the new brands are redefining how India eats burgers, because India went from small-ish brands doing authentic burgers to McDonald’s and other chains doing fast food burgers, and are now back to eating real burgers from homegrown brands.

Quite the comeback, and with the loudest bang. Burgers are getting bigger, better, and tastier.