Halifax Burger Week: A History
As Halifax Burger Week approaches its 7th year, and grows larger and larger, I find that there are more and more people who don’t really understand the event. Since 2013, I’ve been keeping a close eye on the event, its raison d’être, its growth, its shenanigans and most importantly, the burgers.
This year I’m noticing an unprecedented amount of criticism, conspiracy, and negativity towards Burger Week. So I’ve written a little history here, and and I hope to dispel some of the misinformation that’s been floating around the internet.
Whether or not you celebrate Burger Week is up to you, and the burgers you choose to consume is up to you. I’m just here to set the record straight.
What is Burger Week?
Burger Week is a promotional event (read: PROMOTIONAL) that The Coast puts on with their advertising partners and other restaurants in collaboration with FEED Nova Scotia. It is one week of burger specials across the city. Participants can pick up “Burger Week Passports” at participating restaurants which list all of the specials, and these are stamped by each restaurant that is patronized. Three stamps and you can submit your passport to a draw for a prize (this year it’s Moosehead “beer for a year”).
The Burger Week Passport has two sections: the first list is made up entirely of $6 burgers, and the second section lists the more expensive FEED Nova Scotia Burgers. These are the ones with some of the proceeds going to charity, though many of the $6 restaurants still collect donations at the cash.
The Context: Why Burgers?
Let’s look at the conditions that led up to the existence of Burger Week. Halifax had been a grungy, beer soaked port city infamous for things like booing the Bare Naked Ladies off stage, and 14 year old girls beating people up in the park with table legs. The city was stagnant, even the music scene was fading, and the commercial drags were becoming ghost towns.
Then the recession hit in 2008. Yay!
This basically marked the end of fine dining, as consumers could no longer afford those white table cloths and black tied waiters. Bish, for example, rebranded to the Bicycle Thief, a more “casual” approach to dining, and, yes, there is a burger on the menu. This phenomenon was happening all across North America. People needed comfort in these hard times, and comfort foods were being dressed up as affordable, “out-on-the-town” cuisine. We had entered the “Age of the Gastropub”.
Then Cheese Curds opened in 2012. In my opinion, this was the first spark of a new culinary fire. We had scaled down fine dining, but this was upscaled fast food! The “Buying Local” movement was becoming mainstream, and diners increasingly expected their food to be sourced from local farms and producers. It was no longer acceptable to serve frozen French fries. Even Darrell’s, arguably the first gourmet burger restaurant in Halifax, (quite ahead of its time in 1992), had to switch from frozen patties to fresh beef in order to stay competitive.
Then Ace Burger popped up, slinging gourmet burgers in dive bar digs, using 100% Nova Scotian grass fed beef. They were followed by Flip Burger, Relish, The Works, Crispy Cristy, Boom Burger, Krave Burger… they kept coming! Tourism Nova Scotia even promoted a (now out-of-date) Burger Trail.
We eventually hit gourmet burger saturation and some of these places have since closed. Burger Week itself may seem tired now – just another food festival alongside every other food-themed week. But at the time of its inception it was groundbreaking and exciting.
The hamburger was symbolic of a new life being breathed into our city. It was the perfect symbol to unite the community in a movement to “Support Local”.
The Coast is a free, alternative weekly paper covering news, arts & entertainment. Love it or hate it (or love to hate it), The Coast has been a valuable resource for the city and a platform for alternative points of view for 25 years. While print media is becoming endangered across the board (I’ll never forget when Calgary’s FFWD Magazine printed its last issue in 2015) The Coast has been resilient!
The Coast’s revenue is generated almost entirely by ad sales, and in this ever-changing world of print media, publications need to get creative. The idea was to cash in on the burger hype, boosting business for their restaurant partners, in what is otherwise a slow season, while creating a revenue stream for themselves. The Coast was new to the “event game”, but taking inspiration from similar events in Toronto, and events that RANS would put on for its members, they came up with Burger Week.
As is common in the world of promotions, a charity component was attached to the business model. Having some of the proceeds going to charity provides good optics, and gives consumers the feel-goods when they participate.
They decided to make it an event that was both charitable and low barrier: restaurants could either promote $5 burgers (so that the event could be enjoyed by people of all incomes) or more expensive burgers with $1-$5 of proceeds going to FEED Nova Scotia (so that those who could afford to spend a little extra, could pass the buck to those less fortunate).
The inaugural Halifax Burger Week was launched in 2013, with a mere 21 participating restaurants. There were 8 restaurants offering $5 burgers and 13 restaurants with FEED NS Burgers.
It was a HUGE success.
“To me it shows The Coast’s dedication to supporting the BUY LOCAL cause and putting independent small businesses in the limelight for all to notice. Moreover I know for a fact, that the staff of The Coast are always trying to do something unique for the people of our city. Initiatives like this create awareness and help to enrich the culture of our city. A BIG THANK YOU to the staff of The Coast for that, AND helping to ring the registers in the cold month of March.” – Ace Burger, after Burger Week 2013
Burger Week has grown from 21 restaurants and $10,000 donated to FEED NS, to 125 restaurants and $113,101 to FEED NS last year. This year’s Burger Week has 150 restaurants and unlimited potential!
As Burger Week has grown over the years, there are people who have participated since the beginning, and there are people who are just finding out about it now. Most of you are blissfully unaware of the negativity and bickering in certain corners of the internet, and just want to enjoy some good burgers. If this is you, skip this section. Enjoy your life, hug your loved ones, and be grateful for your disposable income.
“I thought this was a charity event. Why are some restaurants not donating?”
There has been some discussion of late concerning the charity component of Burger Week. It turns out that some people thought this was a charity event, and are holding Burger Week up to those standards.
I will repeat: BURGER WEEK IS NOT A CHARITY EVENT.
It is a promotion.
With that said, it is by far one of the biggest fundraisers for FEED NS, which is testament to the success of the event and a great accomplishment.
There has been some criticism of the restaurants opting to promote $6 burgers, even calls to boycott, as if they are opportunists benefiting from the charity optics without contributing. Remember what I said: The Coast wanted Burger Week to be a low barrier event for all incomes. That’s why there are cheap burgers. The price has gone up from $5 to $6 over the years because restaurants literally can’t make them any cheaper without losing money (especially when people are taking up a whole table to split one burger 4-ways!). Just remember when you are buying a $20 hamburger and feeling good about your donation, that many people can’t afford that $20 burger and would still like to participate.
If you want to support FEED NS and you don’t care one way or the other about hamburgers, then Burger Week isn’t the most efficient way to contribute. Don’t force yourself to eat burgers in crowded restaurants if that’s not your thing. Donate your money, don’t eat it!
Burger Week is a fun community event that gets people out of the house, exploring the city, supporting restaurants,, discovering new restaurants – all of which stimulates the local economy, and if some of that generates money to FEED NS that’s awesome! I mean, with last year’s donation of $113,101 it’s clearly working.
“Restaurants aren’t donating enough. If I can spend $20 on a burger, they can damn well donate $5 to charity.”
There has been some criticism of restaurants for not donating enough, and the data does reveal a trend of decreasing donations as a percentage of price over the years. There’s nothing wrong with gentle encouragement to increase donations in the form of: voting with your dollars and shout outs on social media. But I think it is misguided to trash talk restaurants who are donating the minimum.
The reality is that the restaurant industry already has really low profit margins (like, 5%). The cost of food and labour has been growing steadily, while consumers demand that prices stay the same. The cost of that burger you’re eating has increased since 2013, at a greater rate than the price you’re paying for it. Restaurants, to stay profitable, likely have to choose between cutting quality, increasing price, or reducing donations. I’m sure it’s not an easy equation, and every kitchen has their own business model and cost-control structure. I don’t think that donations as a percentage of the price tells the whole story, and it tends to put the onus of virtue onto the restaurants, who are already busting their ass and just hoping that it pays off.
“Yeah, but don’t the restaurants get tax write-offs?”
No. FEED NS does not issue tax receipts to the restaurants.
Also, it is a good idea to educate yourself on the benefits of tax receipts. For example, did you know that the grocery store can’t get a tax receipt for that $1 they ask you for at the counter? The only way to get a tax deduction is if they donate their own profits.
“Okay, well, The Coast is just raking in profit at the expense of the restaurants and FEED NS”.
The Coast charges participating restaurants a registration fee, which is tiered based on whether or not the restaurant is an advertising partner. Christine Oreskovich, (Coast co-founder), tells me it ranges from $175 to $795. I would point out that The Coast is only charging what 150 restaurants have been willing to pay.
I know that some restaurants are disgruntled about the conditions put on them by The Coast during Burger Week, and it’s certainly not a good fit for every restaurant. But participation is voluntary and the list keeps growing….
The Coast has spent upwards of $65,000 on promotional expenses this year, and I’m sure there are other major operational costs to consider. As for profit, Christine tells me they make a “small margin”.
But why should we be critical of The Coast for making money? They are a business, after all. A local business. There is a strange phenomenon in Nova Scotia where people shout “Buy Local” but get critical if businesses are too successful. We want independent local media and restaurants. We want to have “nice things”.
Here we have a successful event that 1) keeps a local paper afloat, 2) supports local restaurants during a slow time of year, 3) stimulates the local economy, 4) builds community, and 5) generates donations to FEED NS. I don’t know how anyone could criticize this event or the parties investing in it to make a profit. It’s a win, win, win, win, win….. etc.
“There is no way FEED NS could run something like this and have it be as cost effective. The effort and resources we would have to invest… The Coast does all the recruiting, planning, promotion, relationships – I don’t think people realize how much work, effort, heart and soul goes into organizing the event.” – Karen Theriault (FEED NS).
“What can I do to help FEED NS?”
Burger Week has raised over $285,000 for FEED NS over the last 6 years, and it is currently one of FEED Nova Scotia’s largest fundraisers.
So I say: enjoy Burger Week and don’t think about it too much.
If you really want to help FEED NS: DONATE. You don’t even have to wait for Burger Week.
At 15.4% (1 out of 7 households), Nova Scotia is the province with the highest rates of food insecurity in Canada, and all donations are greatly appreciated by FEED NS.
But while donations help ease the struggles and burden of the food insecure, they do not get to the root of the problem. Perhaps if we took all of the energy we expend on criticising Burger Week, and put that energy into advocacy for real change we could really make a difference!
“Don’t you think it’s hypocritical to gorge on hamburgers, while tossing pennies at hungry people?”
Yes, I do. But maybe that’s kind of the point. When you find yourself in the midst of your 3rd burger, wiping the meat sweat off your forehead, please acknowledge your privilege and think of those less fortunate.
“We do all have to eat and this campaign is perhaps a reminder that not everyone has the luxury of being able to enjoy a burger with their family.” – Karen Theriault (FEED NS).
“Do you work for The Coast or something?”
No. I’ve written a couple of articles for them, and I certainly benefit from the Best of Halifax Awards, but I have no connection to The Coast. I just saw pitch forks and felt I had to speak up on their behalf.
I have my own criticisms of Burger Week:
I think there are too many participating restaurants, and a situation where we have quantity over quality.
I don’t like that many of the Burger Week offerings are not really burgers.
I don’t like that Burger Ambassadors seem to be arbitrarily chosen without regard for social media presence.
I find many of the burgers are too expensive. Man, I hate paying more than $15 for a burgers and fries.
And as Burger Week approached I would say things like, “Burger Week is so played out. I don’t even care anymore”. But now on Burger Week Eve I find myself getting excited to get out on the town with an excuse to try new restaurants and call up friends I haven’t seen in a while. I look forward to hearing the buzz at work, everyone talking about burgers they enjoyed, and the endless pictures on my feeds.
Like many of you, I’m making my hit list, and I promise my next post will be fun, colourful Burger Week content!