When Adam told me he wanted to go to Five Guys my initial assumption was that he meant Five Guys Named Moe, the musical featuring songs by the late, great Louis Jordan. Apparently not; Five Guys is the current vogue in American burger chains. Burgers are often referred to in the States as “sandwiches” so you can regard them as extended snacks for these purposes, well-suited to our modern habit of continuous grazing while also satisfying the carnal lust for fatty high-sodium foods…. which is not to say burgers per se are necessarily bad eating. Far from it – but to do them well in a high-volume operational fulfilment market takes skill and tenacity, though repeating a formula inevitably takes any successful idea from the love of food and into the world of international distribution and catering.
It’s worth saying at this juncture that my view has always been that the best burgers are the ones you make at home from freshly chopped matured steaks, which is not to say that the posh burger chains do them badly. You may recall my review of Honest Burgers, which certainly do what they say on the tin, and there is much competition for the prize of offering the best burgers in London (see here and here for example.)
Of the Five Guys franchise options available to us, including a number of outlets in London, we eventually chose to hop over the river into Kent, all the better to try the restaurant at the Bluewater Shopping Centre, where in a food court called the Plaza it sits opposite a Gourmet Burger Kitchen outlet, and not far from a Burger King, Byrons, Ed’s Easy Diner and Bill’s. In short, pseudo-American fast food joints and restaurant chains serving burgers have never been more fashionable, particularly at the posher end of the market. As with all foods we are becoming more choosy.
Five Guys seems mid-market: it picks up its cues from the fast food joints in rapid fulfilment no-nonsense eating, but does aim to stand out from the crowd with heavily-plugged USPs, chief among which are the fries made freshly on the premises from real spuds (ie. not in a factory from frozen) and cooked in peanut oil. Did I say heavily plugged? The queue (lengthy but fast-moving) is marked out by sacks of spuds and boxes of peanut oil! Here is what they say about their products:
There are over 250,000 possible ways to order a burger at Five Guys. We use only fresh roll stamped prime beef. There are no freezers in Five Guys locations, just coolers. Nothing is ever frozen. We use only Peanut oil.
The burgers themselves come in four variants: plain, with cheese, with bacon or with both. Thereafter you can choose from a mind-boggling array of “free” toppings, designed to give the illusion of choice so the buyer can stamp his or her personality on their fast food.
More good signs – you can, at a price, get a decent craft beer to drink with it too! Alas, not too many more liquid options beyond the inevitable fizzy drink machine, but the Brooklyn Lager I drank was very welcome, even at £4.50 for a 35cl bottle.
So, there we are with our bits of chopped meat and a mountain of toppings in a bun, all of which comes wrapped in foil, plus more than enough Cajun-spiced fries in one “regular” portion to serve us both. Would there be evidence that this product could step up to the mark and live up to the plaudits so lovingly enshrined on their website (see here)?
The meat itself might be American (I don’t know, it doesn’t say), but it is clearly decent quality, if slightly overcooked. Bear in mind that at places like Honest Burgers they ask you how you want it cooked, which can only happen when you are cooking fresh to order from top class raw ingredients.
Here the production line allows no such variation, and certainly none was offered. The toppings, hotchpotch that they inevitably are, clearly do not fine dining make, but do appeal to American “never mind the quality, feel the width” sensibilities. There was nothing wrong with either, if you accept that piling up the extras simply means you can’t truly enjoy any one of the salady components, pickles or condiments individually – they all become a mush in your mouth. A shame, since the roasted mushrooms and fried onions sounded promising.
However, any product is only as good as its weakest link. What disappoints me most about Five Guys is that the comments I made about burger buns and artificial processed cheese in McDonalds apply equally here. The buns are the same soft, sweet, cloying little bastards, topped with a sprinkle of glued-on sesame seeds. Most upper class burger joints use brioche buns these days, though personally I’d still go for something with a bit more oomph, not to mention texture. Sorry but soft sweet buns do not do it for me, whatever American chains might think.
The only virtue therein is that they are better than slices of plastic cheese, but not by much. Again worth saying that the quality chains tend to use proper cheese grated on the burgers, and it would not have taken Five Guys much wit or imagination to come up with a better cheesy alternative – even some Stilton for a black & blue option, maybe? Come on – anglicise the grub a bit!
But let’s finish on a high here. The fries were as good as any fries I’ve ever had in a burger chain, though losing the Cajun spice mix in which they had been dredged (thank you Adam) would have helped. Skin on, they tasted fresh and were clearly the dog’s whatsits of their ilk. Not quite up with triple-cooked chips, but then that would have been a minor miracle.
So there you go – I called Five Guys mid-market, and so it is. For all its strengths, it should work on the weakest aspects of its products to really stand out and to justify the premium pricing of its products – and £28 for a snack lunch for two is hardly giving it away. I suspect that the “free” toppings take a fair whack of the cost, so limiting those while improving cheese and buns sounds to me like a fair exchange.
Not that they will take the slightest notice of anything I say, for as long as the queues snake down the spud sacks, they will keep the cash registers ticking over faster than those of their competitors. I could certainly make improvements were I in charge of the company, but that’s not a very likely contingency, is it?
PS. Want some history, since all these chains are keen to push their heritage? From the Five Guys website:
The “Five Guys” Story
Five Guys has been a Washington, DC area favorite since 1986 when Jerry and Janie Murrell offered sage advice to the four young Murrell brothers: “Start a business or go to college”. The business route won and the Murrell family opened a carry-out burger joint in Arlington, Virginia.
Under the guidance of Jerry and Janie, the Murrell family served only hand-formed burgers cooked to perfection on a grill along with fresh-cut fries cooked in pure peanut oil. The little burger joint quickly developed a cult-like following. Press paid attention. Customers voted the burger “#1” in the metro area.
During the 1980’s and 1990’s the Murrell family perfected their simple system. Five Guys was The Place to get a fresh, juicy burger with all the toppings you could stuff between fresh-baked buns. A fifth brother was born and, as their family grew, so did their business. Four more restaurants with sit-down seating were added to accommodate the growing clientele.
Early in 2003 Jerry and Janie, together with the five “guys” began offering franchise opportunities. In just under 18 months, Five Guys Enterprises sold options for over 300 units. The overwhelming success of franchising a local restaurant made national news with articles in trade publications such as Nation’s Restaurant News, Restaurant Business Magazine, and the Franchise Times.
Now, over 20 years after Five Guys first opened, there are over 1,000 locations nationwide and over 1,500 units in development. Five Guys continues to receive media attention and has grown a cult-like following around the world.