Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Five Guys and the Renewed Love for the Hamburger

     If you live in South Florida it's hard not to notice Five Guys Burgers and Fries. The red-and-white burger place has been popping up everywhere, making more than one shopping center landlord happy, I might add. Even if you don't live in South Florida, you probably have seen them in your city. If not, it won't be long til you do. I think we're going to keep seeing more of them.

     The family-owned chain's burgers were ranked No. 1 in Zagat's 2010 Fast Food Survey, beating long-time favorite In-N-Out Burger, based in California. Five Guys' claim to fame is all-fresh (never frozen), 80% lean, grilled burgers on grill-toasted buns, and freshly cut potatoes fried in peanut oil.  Based in Virginia, Five Guys has been on heavy expansion mode since the family-owned business began franchising in 2002. Somewhere along the line it got a $30 million loan from GE Capital. As of August 2010, Five Guys had 644 locations in the U.S. and Canada, and reportedly has 1,500 units in various stages of development.
      My daughter, who has never been much of a burger eater but rather a chicken nuggets kid, loves it, because "it's not greasy, and it's really fresh." (She really says it like that. Her grandfather was in advertising, there might be some genetic manifestation here.)
      I generally don't eat burgers unless they're homemade or the Cuban variety known as "frita", and Five Guys hasn't changed that for me, as I haven't tried their burgers yet. But I will vouch for their fries and I give them credit for having a veggie sandwich on the menu, said sandwich not bad at all, especially if you include the grilled mushrooms. Keep in mind, it's a sandwich (consisting of any or all of the trimmings you would put on a burger), not a veggie burger.
       Helping the chain is a renewed love for the hamburger and something of an infatuation with the so-called "better burger", which means at the very least a hamburger that doesn't start as a frozen patty, and at the most, an Emeril Lagasse gourmet burger creation. The celebrity chef late last year opened Burgers and More by Emeril in Bethlehem, PA.
      In that vein, restaurant chain the Melting Pot says it plans to launch more than a thousand Burger 21 locations, the name referring to the 21 different kinds of burgers that will be on the menu. Total servings of burgers in the U.S. in 2009 were 9.3 billion, an increase of 800,000 servings since 2005, according to market research firm NPD. This in a year when restaurant traffic experienced consecutive quarterly declines.
     What I do like about Five Guys is its trajectory as a family-owned business. It is owned and run by a father and four sons, who to this day control how things are done, including such defining decisions as sticking to what they do best, which explains why they don't serve coffee or chicken sandwiches, and using only fresh ingredients, which explains why they don't sell milk shakes, which would be too time-consuming and costly to make from fresh milk and ice cream.
      So far, patriarch Jerry Murrell says he'll keep it that way, as he told Inc. Magazine:
      "When we got pulled to Florida, I didn't want to go! Too far. I didn't want to go to Canada -- we're there now. Two princes came from the Middle East. They want us to go over there. We have another group that says, "Anywhere you want to go, we'll fund it." We've also had a few companies that want to come in and buy us. They say they would let us run it, but I don't think they would. Why would they put up with fresh bread and taste-testing 16 different mayonnaises?"
      But to be sure, lean beef and all, noone is claiming that the juicy burger with a side of fries, even if from fresh-cut potatoes, is what the doctor ordered for your cholesterol. In fact, Men's Health magazine rated Five Guys' burgers and fries among the most unhealthy foods for their amounts of calories and saturated fat.
      Somehow that isn't stopping burger lovers. Is Five Guys on its way to becoming the Starbucks of burgers?

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