It sounds like a sure winner. Combine consumers' demand for precooked, convenience products along with their insatiable craving for hamburgers, and you get the precooked hamburger — a product that ought to lead the race among fully cooked, case-ready items.

Americans love hamburgers. They consume 14 billion of them each year. What's more, convenience is one of the mega trends in the food industry. According to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) Beef Innovations Group, convenient and microwavable products accounted for nearly a third of all new product introductions in 2005.

“The precooked burger has tremendous growth potential — simply because the hamburger is America's favorite sandwich,” says Randy Irion, director of retail marketing for NCBA, the organization that contracts to manage retail programs for the national beef checkoff.

Precooked burgers have been around for several years; until recently, they didn't sell well because they didn't taste good, says Robert Maddock, North Dakota State University meat science professor.

But that's changed. Thanks in part to the great innovations in the heat-and-serve beef category, the industry has a better understanding of precooked beef's potential for warmed-over flavor, which is caused by oxidation. This has led to tremendous success in formulating products and packaging to avoid this off flavor.

Even so, Maddock says it's not easy to develop a precooked hamburger that's acceptable to consumers. It requires quality control, extreme supply chain management and ingredient control. More specifically, the process requires paying very close attention to raw material inputs and making sure the raw meat is kept very cold, processed quickly, cooked to the right temperature, and then chilled and frozen rapidly.

“All that together helps to decrease the off flavors that happen when you precook hamburgers,” he says.

The new way to precook

The equipment used to cook burgers also has advanced significantly in the last few years, Maddock says.

The traditional way of precooking burgers, used mostly at the institutional level, is a batch-oven process. The patties go into the oven in batches — just like cookies. They cook and then are taken out and chilled.

In contrast, the latest technology involves a continuous-flow oven. The patties essentially never leave a conveyor. The raw product goes in one end, and cooked patties — complete with grill marks — come out the other end.

One designer and manufacturer of this type of cooking equipment is FMC FoodTech in Chicago, which makes the Stein brand of oven-cooking systems. The company says its MultiPhase° cooking process is specifically designed to recreate the distinct flavor profile of a burger grilled on-site from raw meat.

The basic premise of the technology is that multiple cooking methods are required to achieve the desired product appearance and capacity. This industrial cooking application promises to achieve the desired sensory attributes by using the proper sequence of hardware and process conditions to deliver the appropriate heat transfer mechanisms at the appropriate time. The company also makes the CM II-HC Charmarker to produce grill marks on both sides of the meat without flipping the burger.

Another manufacturer of this type of continuous-cooking oven is Cook King, based in La Mirada, CA. Three adjustable heat sources within the oven account for the improved flavor, color, texture and yield of the finished product. A built-in internal searing unit and grill marker allow for char-flavor and appearance on precooked burgers. The company also makes freestanding searing and branding units for applying grill marks; the degree of color and the width of the grill mark is adjustable.

Retail hurdles

With the technology in hand to offer a tasty product and the market ripe for convenient meal solutions, the concept of precooked burgers is clearly gaining ground. But the product itself is still sluggish to make the goal at retail.

Sales are very slow, says Bill O'Neill. He's vice president of business development for Advance Brands, which has manufactured precooked burgers in its Fast Fixin' product line for about six years. Available in retail supermarkets nationwide, Fast Fixin' Fully Cooked Beef Burgers, Jumbo Beef Burgers, Bacon Cheeseburgers and Mushroom Swiss Burgers are frozen patties that go for about $7.99/box and can be ready from the microwave in 2-3 minutes.

Though most retailers are struggling to sell precooked burgers, Advance Brands is by no means giving up on them.

“We're probably as bullish on them as we've ever been — only because it seems so right. What's happening convenience-wise would lead you to believe that the time is right for fully cooked burgers,” O'Neill says. “If we can make it catch, I think it's a huge item for beef producers.”

Right now, chicken clearly dominates the majority of the fully cooked, case-ready category in retail freezers. Fully cooked chicken strips and tenders have been a major growth vehicle for retailers, he says.

Retailers looking at growing their fully cooked category over the next five years ought to include the fully cooked burger in their business plans, O'Neill advises, because of the growing demand for convenience. Now is the time for retailers to fully commit to merchandising precooked burgers.

For starters, retailers need to put the product alongside other fully cooked items in the freezer and help customers clearly distinguish between raw and cooked patties. This is a different meal solution, and the consumer who buys a raw patty is probably not the same type of consumer buying the fully cooked burger.

Having a national or private label brand that people trust is key to retail success, O'Neill says, adding that supermarket employees need to be ambassadors of the product, attesting to its quality and taste and personally encouraging customers to try it.

In this age of time-starved consumers, Irion says, the opportunity for precooked hamburgers is nothing but upward.

“Beef is America's favorite protein, and the hamburger is their favorite protein sandwich,” he says. “There's an opportunity for that item to be purchased and prepared in the home in many different ways.”

Sidebar: One step ahead

On the convenience scale, one step beyond the precooked hamburger patty is the complete, precooked hamburger sandwich — bun and cheese included. For instance, Fast Fixin' On-the-Go Cheeseburgers by Advance Brands are sold by the half-dozen, come individually wrapped on a bun with cheese, and microwave in just one minute.

This item falls into the “handheld” entrée category — one of the fastest growing convenient meal solutions. The handheld category includes sandwiches and other refrigerated and frozen items that folks can easily eat on the go. In 2005, dollar sales were up 16.5% for refrigerated handheld products, and up 8.2% for frozen handheld products. That's according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) Beef Innovations Group.

Currently, retail handheld items are more likely to contain pork and chicken than beef. But the good news is the checkoff-funded Beef Innovations Group has studied the handheld foods category and is tailoring new beef product concepts to tap into this market.

“There's tremendous, untapped potential for more beef items in this category,” says Randy Irion, NCBA's director of retail marketing.

Bill O'Neill, vice president of business development for Advance Brands, agrees. He says the market potential for prepared frozen sandwiches is huge, especially for the beef industry.

Commuters, mom's taxi service, occupational driving, 'tweens and teens on the go, and light bites — the new eating habit of smaller portions more frequently rather than larger, traditional meals — are all driving the need for handheld consumption.

Just-for-one packaging is another related food industry trend. According to the market research company Datamonitor, that's a response to new research suggesting the average number of persons per household is barely more than two.

Diana Barto is a freelance writer based in Waconia, MN, and a former BEEF Senior Associate Editor.