Hey, Enough With the Burgers Already

BOSTON ( TheStreet) -- Hold the pickle. Hold the lettuce.

In fact, can we just hold the burgers for a bit?

The Burger War used to be dominated by the superpowers of McDonald's, ( MCD) Burger King ( BKC) and Wendy's ( WEN). Now a whole slew of smaller players are hoping to cash in on the meat hockey puck.

The burger frenzy is heating up as low-brow and high-end restaurants roll out new versions of the old favorite.

Don't get us wrong, we have no beef with burgers. We just wonder how many variations the public can stomach. Even the Big Three see the value of diversity, adding panko-breaded fish sandwiches, salads, fruit and lattes to their menus.

But, then again, Burger King has sliders now. Wendy's is preparing a secret weapon in the form of a blue-cheese burger. Even McDonald's launched its first new hamburger in nearly eight years -- a one-third pound Angus burger. Whether it takes hold or becomes the next McLean Deluxe remains to be seen.

Everyone is getting into the bovine-based bacchanalia. The Food Network's omnipresent Bobby Flay, for example, has launched his own chain of burger restaurants, Bobby's Burger Palace. New outposts for Five Guys Burgers and Fries are popping up everywhere (with help from the publicity they gained from President Barack Obama's visit to a Washington outpost). Sonic ( SONC) is expanding northward. Ruby Tuesday ( RT) and Red Robin Gourmet Burgers ( RRGB) are trying to flip customers their way with specialty burgers. Then there's Hardee's and Carl's Jr. ( CKR). Farmer Boys. Burgerville. Fatburger ( FCCGE). Jack in the Box ( JBX). The list of places vying for your burger-begging taste buds goes on and on.

Sadly, we still can't get an In-N-Out Burger franchise here on the East Coast, a development that would definitely get us to shut up.

Our suspicions of a burger blitz were confirmed by Scott Hume, editor of BurgerBusiness.com.

"It even surprises me, and I've followed the industry for 30 years," he says.

So why the boom? "One reason is that burgers are comfort foods, childhood foods, party foods," he says. They're versatile and customizable, making them appealing to a broad array of customers. And they fit every menu, whether they're the $30 Kobe beef delicacies served at Daniel Boulud's db Bistro Moderne or the $1 sliders at White Castle.

"Chefs love to create signature burgers," he says. "It makes even French-trained chefs feel 'populist.' "

Burgers have become a recession staple as consumers look for cheaper eats and restaurants seek out dishes that are less costly to make.

Still, more burgers are coming even as there are fewer customers. U.S. restaurant traffic fell 2.6% for the quarter ended in May, its steepest drop in 28 years, market-research firm NPD Group said last week. Consumer spending at restaurants fell 1%. The number of restaurant locations also shrank by 1%, or about 4,000 units.

"The commercial foodservice industry has been struggling since last fall, and it appears that as unemployment increases, the struggle is increasing," says Arnie Schwartz, president of NPD's U.S. foodservice group.

Traffic to fast-food restaurants fell 2%. Visits to casual dining chains like DineEquity's ( DIN) Applebee's and Brinker International's ( EAT) Chili's Grill & Bar fell 4%. The midscale segment, which includes family dining chains like IHOP, were off 6%.

Instead of introducing new dishes to inspire customers, are restaurants putting too much stock in beef patties? Hume doesn't think so.

"Burgers haven't outstayed their welcome," he says. "Non-burger chains will add burgers, I'd guess, and more burger-specialty concepts will open."

We would be happy if we could just find a decent meatball sub somewhere on the burger battleground.

-- Reported by Joe Mont in Boston. Feedback can be sent to joseph.mont@thestreet.com.