It’s a weeknight in Hong Kong, and gaggles of guys from the finance world are gathering to tuck into the latest food craze. Not ramen or sushi or Peking duck: juicy bacon cheeseburgers.
“It’s typical Hong Kong, you get these fads where people latch on and everyone seems to adopt it,” said Greg Smith, a managing partner at Hong Kong-based wealth-management firm Taylor Brunswick Group, as he finished feasting on a bunless mound of beef, bacon and cheese at the 11-month-old Beef & Liberty restaurant.
The beef craze sparked by Shake Shack and its ilk in New York and the likes of Byron Hamburgers in London has finally spread to an unlikely place -- Asia. The past year has seen the opening of at least four gourmet burger joints in Hong Kong, some so popular there’s often an after-work mob or a 90-minute limit to occupy tables. The trend has been embraced by the financial community in the former British colony, with its large numbers of North American, U.K. and Australian expatriates. Smith said he now seeks out burgers at least once a week, compared with almost never a year ago.
“There’s definitely a path from hunter-gatherer, meat, O blood type, to bankers -- the new hunter-gatherers,” said Neil Tomes, 44, a U.K. native and executive chef at Beef & Liberty. “I do find that the whole thing of sitting down and eating a burger with a group of your colleagues in finance is disarming. You’re not sitting there with knives and forks and trying to show table etiquette or understanding of the menu.”
Burger sales in Hong Kong grew 6.4 percent last year, more than double the U.S. rate, and will increase 6 percent this year, to $787 million, compared with 4.3 percent growth in the U.S., according to research firm Euromonitor International. Burger consumption in all of Asia grew 5.8 percent last year, higher than the 5 percent global rate, the data show.
“It’s a good time for burgers worldwide,” said Aarik Persaud, 31, a Canadian co-owner and executive chef of Butcher’s Club Burgers, which debuted its open-air, hip-hop-blasting outlet near Beef & Liberty in June and plans a second location in Hong Kong and an outpost on the Indonesian island of Bali in December. “When something is hot and popular, you gotta have it. You gotta try it.”
While Butcher’s Club has just one sandwich on its official menu -- a bacon cheeseburger for $12.90 -- a “secret menu” available by scanning a code with a smartphone accounts for as much as half of sales, Persaud said.
Today’s included Double Happiness: two cheese-topped patties with twice as much bacon, served between two grilled- cheese sandwiches instead of a bun, and stabbed through with a steak knife.
Butcher’s Club and Beef & Liberty were among blogger Francisco Skovmand’s top three hamburger outlets in Hong Kong.
“They’re really putting effort into their burgers,” said Skovmand, a 28-year-old Mexican-Dane who organizes monthly outings for his Hong Kong Burger Aficionados, a group of about 230 enthusiasts.
To capture the finance crowd, franchise owners of CaliBurger, a California-based global fast-food chain modeled on In-N-Out Burger, sent hundreds of free burgers to the Hong Kong offices of HSBC Holdings Plc, Macquarie Group Ltd. and BlackRock Inc. in August to promote its lunch delivery. Finance employees make up an estimated 10 percent of sales at the 13-month-old outlet in the Wan Chai district, said Donald Klip, a CaliBurger investor and board member.
“This is our target market,” said Klip, who previously worked in hedge-fund sales for several global banks in Asia. “When people get free things, they remember you.”
Brokers began seeking quick lunches following the halving of Hong Kong’s trading break to one hour as of 2012, said Andrew Sullivan, 52, a trader formerly with Banco Espirito Santo SA who completed a recent lunch run to CaliBurger within 30 minutes. While hamburgers have caught on as quickly as previous finance- world trends such as Red Bull, they have staying power, he said.
“Burgers have got more wings,” said Sullivan, referring to the drink’s former advertising campaign. “There will always be a place for the burger.”