Although Barney’s is a perennial favorite in reader’s choice polls and ‘Best of’ lists in local publications like The Guardian, East Bay Express, The Chronicle, and others, we found the experience and the burger underwhelming. Their website boasts of a thirty-five year heritage and a “unique, award-winning concept for creating quality hamburgers.” That concept, it turns out, is to offer fresh ingredients and impeccable facilities.
With a few notable exceptions, most things that were awesome in 1979 don’t inspire the same feelings of awe today. Times change. People change. Tastes change. Barney’s has a bigger-is-better attitude when it comes to its burgers: the patty is thick. The tomato is thick. The onion is thick. Add an ample bun, and there’s a lot to work through to arrive at the heart of the matter. It draws sharp contrast with most of the ‘better burgers’ we’ve tried lately, which work hard to master the proportions of the ingredients. They balance flavor and texture and volume to create a carefully orchestrated experience. Barney’s, on the other hand, still takes a features-based approach: Lettuce? Check. Onion? Check. Tomato? Check. Yes, all that produce is fresh, but it’s 2014 in San Francisco. Everyone’s produce is fresh. Every burger has Intel Inside. It’s no longer a differentiator.
Like a mid-90’s Apple catalog, the menu is vast and varied, with six classic burgers and twenty-four specialty burgers (each with five different patty options). Somewhere between the wild Alaskan salmon patty with teriyaki glaze, grilled pineapple and Canadian bacon, and the whole wheat pita wrapped Garden Burger® with avocado, feta cheese, lettuce, tomato and cucumbers, Barney’s has surrendered its own point of view of what a burger should be. Who cares if you offer a Quadra 950, a Performa 6260CD, 6290, and 6290CD? In the end, they’re all beige boxes.
Barney’s may have set the standard for fast causal burgers 30 years ago, but yesterday’s benchmark is today’s baseline. Now that everyone makes a burger Barney’s needs to streamline their offerings and focus on how their burgers are different and how their experience is special.
The Creative Lesson
As others caught up in quality, Barney’s reenergized its appeal by diversifying its menu—giving diners a dizzying array of choices. But customers already have a choice between you and your competitors; competing simply by offering choice yourself is a marginal proposition. Barney’s is looking narrowly when it ought to look broadly, and broadly when it ought to be focused. To keep current you need to regularly survey the landscape. To stay relevant, you need set your sights on a specific destination within the landscape—or better yet, look to the horizon.