A Fresh Approach: How Five Guys® Built a Booming Burger Business by Focusing on Quality and Simplicity
Posted: 4.4.17 Entrepreneurial Success

A Fresh Approach: How Five Guys® Built a Booming Burger Business by Focusing on Quality and Simplicity

By: Jon McDonald

The Crunch: The fast-food industry’s focus on heavy advertising, extensive menus, and cutting costs often lead to disappointing customer experiences and food that is anything but fresh. Five Guys Burgers and Fries rejected these industry norms by taking a fresh approach to the burger business. Family-owned since 1986, the company has grown to more than 1,400 stores in nine countries and continues to branch out. Characterized by fresh, handmade products, a simple menu, and old-fashioned word-of-mouth advertising, Five Guys has built a highly successful business and a huge following based on quality and simplicity.

Many of us have received a coupon in the mail with a mouth-watering depiction of a fast-food chain’s latest menu item. Chances are, you have even given one of those items a try when it is lunch time and you’re in a hurry. But, as most fast-food customers discover, the freshness and quality advertised on a billboard or flyer are often far from what is served. In many cases, both the burger and fries started out frozen, and the bun was not freshly baked.

By emphasizing larger menus and focusing on ways to make meals cheaper and faster, quality has suffered in the fast-food industry. But Five Guys Burgers and Fries takes the opposite approach — a simple menu, old-fashioned advertising, and quality ingredients — which are all key to its success.

Five Guys logo and photo of menu items

Five Guys opened in 1986 and has been focused on making quality burgers and fries for customers ever since.

It probably won’t be a flyer in the mail that draws you into a Five Guys location — it’s more likely to be a friend’s rave review, as the burger purveyor is more interested in word-of-mouth advertising than any other form. There aren’t any pictures on the Five Guys menu board, and your order will take an extra minute or two, but, as founder Jerry Murrell and his five sons expect, you’ll be satisfied with the best burger and fries in the business.

Jerry Murrell and His Sons Set Out to Make the Best Burger Possible

Jerry’s mom used to tell him, “If you can serve a good hamburger, you can always make money in America.” So, in 1986, when Jerry’s then four sons didn’t want to go to college, he encouraged them to open a family burger business instead. Being a group of four sons and their father, they decided to call it Five Guys.

Growing up, Jerry realized that the definition of a good hamburger didn’t depend on fancy advertising or pristine presentation, but on quality. In his hometown, there was a burger joint where the owner was known for petting his cat while he prepared food, Jerry told Inc. Magazine. Even though people called them “fur burgers,” they were still popular because they were simply the best burgers around.

Photo of the first Five Guys location

The first Five Guys location in Arlington, Virginia, quickly became a popular burger joint.

Focusing on quality, Jerry and, eventually, all five of his sons (Matt, Jim, Chad, Ben, and Tyler) modeled their business approach after the best in the industry. They decided to stick with only hand-formed burgers made with fresh ground beef and fresh-baked buns, accompanied by hand-cut potatoes fried in peanut oil.

After opening their first business in Arlington, Virginia, the Murrells continued to perfect their simple system and, by 2002, had opened four more locations in Virginia and Maryland. In 2003, they began to extend franchise opportunities — a step they had hesitated to take out of concern it would compromise the quality of the Five Guys brand.

But that proved to be the very step that escalated the growth of its simple formula. Over the next 18 months, Five Guys Enterprises sold options for 300 franchises and drew attention from national media.

Dedication to Quality Means Fresh Ground Beef and No Freezers

Contrary to the industry norm, freezers aren’t found in the back room of a Five Guys location. That’s because Jerry and his sons are dedicated to using only fresh ground beef that is stored in coolers and hand-formed into burgers for every order. Rather than the dehydrated and frozen product typical of the fast-food industry, Five Guys fries are also freshly made. Potatoes are mostly sourced from Idaho (the company claims 8% of state’s baking potato crop), where slower growing conditions yield firmer potatoes than crops grown in warmer areas of the country.

Because fresh ingredients tend to cost more, Five Guys channels the revenue other fast-food chains use on advertising right back into purchasing fresh ingredients. That’s also why prices often fluctuate — because the quality is never sacrificed, regardless of market conditions.

“From the beginning, I wanted people to know that we put all our money into the food,” Jerry told Inc. Magazine about the Five Guys strategy. “That’s why the decor is so simple — red and white tiles. We don’t spend our money on decor. Or on guys in chicken suits. But we’ll go overboard on food.”

An Uncomplicated Menu Filled With Items Five Guys Has Perfected

A critical downfall for some in the fast-food industry is a large menu that spreads resources and quality thin. Many large chains offer every category of food you could think of: burgers, sandwiches, breakfast foods, numerous side options, and desserts. The result is a menu that overwhelms customers and items that can look impressive in a picture, but not in reality since the speed of the industry doesn’t always allow for careful preparation.

Photo of the Five Guys menu

The Five Guys menu is uncomplicated, keeping the focus on quality.

Five Guys tried a few experiments before quickly realizing it was better to specialize in fewer items it could perfect versus spreading itself too thin trying to offer everything. It settled on a simple menu that features only five main categories: burgers, sandwiches, hot dogs, fries, and milkshakes. The largest category — burgers — has only eight selections, and most of these are variations in size and the addition of cheese or bacon.

This simplicity allows Five Guys to devote time and attention to preparing its items with precision. For instance, their hamburger buns are grilled rather than toasted, so customers get a caramelized taste. A simple menu also helps customers save time making their selection. But it could take some time to decide which of the 17 toppings to put on their burger.

Five Guys tells its customers up front that, because of its focus on quality and customization, it isn’t the fastest in the fast food industry. But Five Guys compensates for that time by offering an award-winning burger experience — and, of course, complimentary peanuts while a customer is waiting.

Overwhelming Success Has Led to Over 1,400 Locations Worldwide

The difference between the picture on a fast food flyer and what you’re served is a sign of the focus on quantity over quality in the fast food industry. That’s why businesses like Five Guys stand out from the crowd and gain international attention for keeping their focus on simple menus, fresh ingredients, and reliable quality.

Jerry says that the Five Guys business approach is summed up well in a quote by J.W. Marriott: “Anyone can make money in the food business as long as you have a good product, reasonable price, and a clean place.”

More than thirty years after it opened, Five Guys has more than 1,400 locations in nine countries and continues to build itself on the principle that the best salesman is a satisfied customer.

By providing customers with quality products and consistent standards, Five Guys has built a devoted following that doubles as its advertising. Instead of pouring resources into ad campaigns or developing an extensive menu, Five Guys reinvests in its employees by giving generous performance bonuses, encouraging a sense of ownership in each location, and always sourcing quality ingredients, whatever the cost.

This approach has turned Five Guys Burgers and Fries from a simple burger joint to an international fast-food enterprise and continues to drive its success.