'We're not reaching saturation point yet': Behind Singapore's insatiable appetite for burgers
SINGAPORE: Burgers may be a rare indulgence for some, but for 30-year-old Ivan Yee, he has them several times a week.
The foodie estimates that he has eaten about 100 burgers over the past 10 months, proclaiming on his Instagram page where he shares reviews of his meals: “I can eat burgers till the day I die."
Mr Yee, who works in finance, identified several criteria for a good burger - from freshly-made, ground meat patties to the type of sauce, cheese or the quality of buns used.
When asked if he could live without burgers, Mr Yee joked: “I could, but I wouldn’t like my life.”
It’s burger fans like him who have been driving Singapore’s appetite for the food item, with more burger restaurants sprouting up across the island.
Earlier this month, American chain Five Guys opened its second outlet in Singapore at NEX in Serangoon Central.
In December, another US burger chain, Shake Shack, unveiled a new restaurant in VivoCity - its fifth outlet in Singapore in less than two years.
Five Guys’ vice-president of operations for APAC Danny Lee said: “We wouldn’t enter a market if there wasn’t sufficient demand, and people enjoy our freshness and quality. Singapore has an intelligent consumer base where they want freshness and quality, so our open kitchen is a draw.
“Through our market research, we found that Singaporeans love to customise their food to their favourite flavour profiles and dietary preferences – and you can do that at Five Guys."
Describing the country as a “key global city”, Shake Shack Singapore also said: “Singapore has a vibrant energy, rich culture and deep appreciation for food, yet still stays on the cutting edge of Western culinary influences.
“We knew we wanted to be part of a culture so infatuated with food, just like we are."
FEEDING SINGAPORE’S APPETITE FOR BURGERS
According to local food blogger Leslie Tay of ieatishootipost, burgers were first introduced to Singapore around the late 1960s and early 1970s when fast-food chain A&W set up shop in Singapore. McDonald’s and Burger King followed in the years to come, familiarising the population with burgers.
But the local gourmet burger scene only started developing about 15 years ago – gathering pace particularly quickly from 2011 onwards, said Dr Tay.
The founder of independent restaurant BurgerLabo, Ken Loon, said the arrival of international burger chains also exposed people to a greater variety of burgers.
“On top of that, people were travelling more as well, and the exposure on the Internet and social media helped people know more about what’s a good burger,” he said, noting that customers’ tastes have become more sophisticated over the years.
Diners have also developed a greater appreciation for quality beef, he said. His own “basic” patty at BurgerLabo is a blend of “100 per cent grass-fed Aberdeen Angus from Argentina and Kuroge Washu from Toriyama Umami Wagyu from Japan”.
Other local restaurateurs also gradually upped their game, Dr Tay added.
“The buns started to get better … And people started doing all sorts of things to the patty – grilling in a charcoal oven, experimenting with smashed patties.”
“The next development is the hawker burger … It’s another milestone because burgers are getting so accessible,” Dr Tay added, citing stalls like Burgs, Ashes Burnnit and Hammee’s.
Bolstered by Singapore’s relatively affluent, meat-eating population, the hunger for burgers in the country has continued to grow, added the food blogger.
READ: Commentary: Eating less meat could help the environment and our health – so what’s stopping us?
IS THE MARKET SATURATED?
Five Guys’ Mr Lee said that despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the chain has received much support from customers in Singapore. On how it will stand out from competitors, he added that the brand is committed to quality and value, and will “stick to what (it) knows best”.
Shake Shack Singapore said that it too has been “humbled” by the response of fans. When asked about possible expansion plans, it said its priority is to focus on its existing five outlets for now.
To differentiate itself, it added that it seeks out local ingredients and food partners as a nod to the country’s culture.
Standing out is essential amid a mature burger scene with many players, Dr Tay said, adding that it has not been easy for stalls to stay afloat. In fact, many eateries on a list he curated in 2016 have now shuttered.
The ultimate winner in this is the consumer, because competition can help keep prices down for them, Dr Tay told CNA.
Despite that, he believes the market still has room for more players, supported by demand from the younger generation.
Mr Loon agreed: “We're not reaching saturation point yet – far from it. As long as you can produce good burgers at an affordable price, then there will be people going.
“In the F&B industry, price versus value is a very tricky balance to get right,” he said, adding that those who do not find this equilibrium will fall to the wayside.
Mr Loon also told CNA that different players satisfy different market segments, be it customers looking for “quick and dirty” burgers or patties with more luxurious cuts of meat.
“The cheaper burgers will tap a new segment of students, for example, who will eat there. And as they graduate then earn more, they can afford better burgers,” Dr Tay added.
To cater to changing preferences, burger eateries are also starting to adjust their menus to introduce more sustainable, vegetarian or “flexitarian”-friendly options.
Ultimately, burgers are here to stay, both Mr Loon and Dr Tay said.
“It’s already in the same category of comfort food as mee pok or chicken rice. From kids, up to my generation of those in their 40s, who grew up with it as comfort food, burgers are deeply entrenched,” said Mr Loon.
“It’s one of those things that are fad-free. It’s always in fashion. It may go through different iterations but people will always want to eat burgers,” Dr Tay said.