CHICAGO -- It has come to this in America: Burgers are losing their buns.
Some of them, at least.
Burger King's rollout of breadless Whoppers this week is a nod to the low-carb craze that's sweeping the nation - and the latest evidence that the burger wars are taking a turn for the healthy.
Smaller chains Hardee's and Carl's Jr. dumped the bread from some hamburgers last month, going lettuce-wrapped instead, and TGI Friday's restaurant has started serving a bunless cheeseburger, too.
But hold the bun odes, please. Burger-lovers will have the last say, and experts say the bun shouldn't be written off from restaurants' regular fare, much less from its place in modern American food lore.
"This won't be a big segment of the (burger) market," predicted Jerry McVety, a foodservice industry consultant based in Farmington Hills, Mich. "I don't see it lasting very long."
Besides, he noted, a Whopper without a bun is almost an oxymoron. "The bun is almost the least of my worries," he chuckled.
McDonald's and Wendy's, the other two largest burger purveyors, aren't biting on bunless for now. Spokesmen for both those chains, which have added entree salads and taken other steps to assuage customers' diet concerns, said Wednesday they have no plans to include bunless burgers on their menus.
With good reason, according to Carl Sibilski, an analyst for Chicago-based Morningstar and frequent fast-food patron. "Bunless burgers don't sound so appealing," he said.
The price of the new product risks being unappealing to customers, too: It's the same with or without bun, per Burger King's recommendation to its 8,000 restaurants.
The surge in popularity for the high-protein, high-fat, low-carbohydrate Atkins diet is what prompted a move that once would have been unthinkable in the hamburger business. Customers who used to ask "Hold the pickle" now are saying "Hold the bun"; can "Hold the burger" be far behind?
Burger King took out a full-page advertisement in USA Today on Wednesday to tout its unlikely new product, showing a giant Whopper with dotted lines marking the outlines of where a bun would normally be. The Miami-based chain is selling them in plastic salad bowls, with knife and fork, after reporting an increasing number of such requests over the past year.
It also is introducing Whopper meals that substitute salads for French fries and bottled water for soft drinks and promising a new line of salads, so company officials aren't staking their future on a bunless trend.
"A large majority of our customer base still enjoy fully loaded, high-quality cheeseburgers, so we don't see this as some kind of sea change," said Russ Klein, Burger King's chief marketing officer. "But it's a change that we felt was warranted in order to give all our customers options they feel comfortable with in terms of diet."
The bunless Whopper has 3 grams of carbohydrates, compared with 52 for a regular Whopper.
No matter how you slice it, though, such "gimmicks" as bunless burgers don't impress dietitians like Connie Diekman.
"The issue is we need to burn more carbohydrates - more physical activity - and eat less," said Diekman, director of university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis. "The better option would be a smaller burger, maybe less often, and still have it on a bun so you control the calories and the fat."
Ricardo Real, a tourist from Mexico who lunched at a Burger King in downtown Chicago on Wednesday, was unimpressed when informed about the bunless burger and chose a regular hamburger instead. "A burger without bread? That's crazy," he said. "That's not a burger."
The bunless burger is hardly a new innovation at fast-food joints. The Irvine, Calif.-based In-N-Out chain has been offering them since the 1970s.
But in a sign of the times, the name has changed. Currently known as "protein style" burgers, they used to go by the less politically correct "animal style," Sibilski said.
"It wasn't on the menu, but if you asked for it 'animal style' they stuck it between two pieces of lettuce without the bun," he said. "They kind of set the precedent for it."