Habit Burger may be the most forgettable burger I’ve ever eaten. Honestly. I can’t remember a more forgettable one. It’s only been a couple of hours since I chomped down their signature Charburger but as I try to recall the experience the flavor of other burgers—even awful ones—keeps crowding out the memory.
Their setup is familiar: an all-beef patty, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles and onions on a sesame seed bun. The toppings are fresh, although there is scarcely such thing as a fresh tomato anymore and, fresh or not, you’ll get as much flavor by a biting into crisphead lettuce as you will by looking at a picture of it. To their credit, Habit Burger also uses fresh ground beef and grills it over an open flame. They also caramelize their onions but to be honest I couldn’t taste them through the salt and cheese. The bun comes toasted which, like caramelizing onions, happens to be my preferred preparation. There is a difference, however, between toasted and toast. This was the latter. Expectations of excellence notwithstanding, Habit Burger was a disappointment.
So now I’m struggling to understand both why they exist as a brand and how they topped TMIMR favorite In-n-Out and the very tasty also-ran, Five Guys.
Seriously. The most remarkable thing about Habit Burger is how incredibly dull it is. I’m not just talking about the burger either, but the whole experience. I’ve actually eaten at two locations (just to confirm that my amnesic experience was not an isolated one). Both were in suburban strip malls; one next to a Yogurtland with temporary banners and another next to a Pasta Pomodoro. Both featured a safely neutral decor. The interior of the latter location was accented with what looked like digital prints of acrylic paintings of people enjoying the ‘California lifestyle’ (windsurfing, cycling, etc.) by an artist of unknown origin but by all appearances the work of a reasonable talented but reluctant middle school student forced to take a art class.
On my visit to this location there was a line out the door. Out the door. Past the oversized window vinyl of their oddly akilter logo, out of earshot of the classic rock drifting innocuously through the air conditioned atmosphere of unit 1100 and onto the angular beige hardscape of the Park Place shopping plaza and Archstone residential development. Even the conversation I overheard was boring:
“Hey, this is some line huh?”
“Yeah, and on a Tuesday.”
“I wonder what's going on...”
“Well, it’s lunchtime, so...”
Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that readers gave Habit Burger an average rating of 8.1 out of 10 (10 being “the most delicious meal you have ever eaten”).
The Creative Lesson
I'm sure the folks behind Habit Burger would disagree, but it really seems to be a chain without purpose. They have reasonable prices and they’re conveniently located. That’s not much to build a brand on. But somehow they have. Without a strong point of view, or a superior product, or a smart ad campaign, Habit Burger is more than a successful business, it’s a suburban American brand.
Marty Neumeier said that a brand is “A brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, or organization.” In other words, a brand is what people agree it is, not what a business says it is. We The People think Habit Burger the best burger in America. It’s confounding. Confronting. Confusing. Maybe I take things too seriously, but I find it a little depressing as well. I guess I’m just one of those people who wants things to be about something; but nothing’s for everyone.