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Greasy goodness sets hearts aflutter

"If you come in and eat my hamburger," says Darren Browning, general manager of the Five Guys Famous Burgers and Fries in Trinity, "you'll never eat McDonald's again."

By MICHAEL KRUSE, Times Staff Writer
Published January 27, 2008


TRINITY -- In the rear corner of the Trinity Village Center is a Five Guys Famous Burgers and Fries, and on the wall inside is a bulletin board, and on the bulletin board are a bunch of note cards. What's written on those note cards is where this story starts.

"Is it wrong," one customer wonders, "that I love Five Guys more than my girlfriend?"

Another: "Five Guys reminds me of a magical castle in the sky filled with fries."

And another: "You get it. And I don't even know what 'it' is."

The Five Guys here on State Road 54 has been open since late October and is the first of a handful set to open in Pasco and Hernando counties in the coming months and years. It's all part of the ballyhooed Virginia-based chain's rapid expansion.

Five Guys, equal parts nostalgia and grease, tends to come to an area with buzz that just isn't normal. Some people like it, some people don't, but the people who like it love it. They turn into wide-eyed evangelists.

"If you come in and eat my hamburger," said Darren Browning, the general manager at the Trinity store, "you'll never eat at McDonald's again."

What's the deal?

Good PR?

The laughably large portions of fries?

Those big burgers wrapped in foil so as to hold in the bulk of the goop and the slop?

"Pure cultism," said Josh Ozersky, the author of the forthcoming book The Hamburger: A History.

Perhaps.

Somewhere in the Five Guys phenomenon, though, is a glimpse of what we, bona fide, red-blooded, face-stuffing Americans, really, truly, actually want. Not what we say we want. What we want want.

The answer can be found in one of Five Guys' plain brown grease-spattered bags.

More on that later.

First, though, the CliffsNotes of the Five Guys tale:

How it all started

Jerry Murrell, a retired insurance salesman, and his wife, Janie, opened the first Five Guys in Arlington, Va., in 1986. Over the next 16 years, they opened five more, all of them in northern Virginia. Then, one day, one of their five sons -- the five guys -- gave the father the book Franchising for Dummies.

That was 2003.

Now there are almost 250 of them, from upstate New York to down here in the Sunshine State, from the Carolinas to as far west as Wisconsin, with thousands more in the works.

Five Guys in 2006 was No. 1 on Restaurant Business magazine's "Future 50" list of successful growing concepts in the field. It also had the highest growth rate of the nation's 27 largest burger chains, according to Technomic, a Chicago-based research and consulting firm for the food service industry.

The 2007 numbers aren't final yet, but there's no reason to think that pace has changed, said Darren Tristano, Technomic's executive vice president.

The first Five Guys in Florida opened in late 2006 in West Palm Beach.

In Tampa Bay, the first location was at the University Mall. There are now two more in Tampa, there's one in Brandon, there's one in Pinellas Park. Largo and Clearwater are coming soon, and the Five Guys growth spurt is headed up the Veterans Expressway.

Next up, sometime this spring, is Spring Hill at State Road 50 and Mariner Boulevard. After that, probably in the fall, is Wesley Chapel at State Road 56 and Interstate 75.

The location here at the Trinity Village Center follows the Five Guys formula: red and white tile decor, sparse, stainless steel open kitchen, hand-rolled patties, hand-cut fries, no freezer, no heat lamps, no combos in cardboard boxes.

Busy, busy, busy.

People have their theories on Five Guys.

It's simple.

"We try to focus on what people want," Five Guys spokeswoman Molly Catalano said, "and what they want is a good hamburger."

It's fresh.

"People really dig the 'fresh, not frozen' trend in fast food," said George Motz, the maker of the documentary Hamburger America, who keeps a blog at hamburgeramerica.com and has taught a class on hamburgers at New York University.

"The business model of cheap, frozen, crappy burgers," he said, "is hopefully on the way out."

But it's also more than that. Has to be. Lots of places are simple. Lots of places are fresh. But few places elicit the fervor Five Guys does.

Here's where Harry Balzer comes in.

He's the vice president of the NPD Group, a Port Washington, N.Y., consumer marketing research firm. His job is to watch how people eat. He was asked the other day for help in making some sense of Five Guys' striking success, and he said three very interesting things.

One: "You can tell me everything you know about how people are changing, but the No. 1 food ordered in restaurants today is still a burger and fries."

Two: "We're not looking for new things we don't know. We're looking for new versions of things we already know."

Three: "I hear us talking about health and wellness, but in truth our behavior rarely reflects that."

Why the buzz?

Why the wide-eyed evangelism?

What do we, the aforementioned red-blooded, face-stuffing Americans, really, truly want, as evidenced by Five Guys?

We want simple.

We want simple because now is a time when everything seems so scatterbrained. Does anybody out there really want a Facebook, a MySpace, a LinkedIn account, two cell phones and six different e-mail addresses?

The menu at Five Guys, on the other hand, has burgers, cheeseburgers, grilled cheese, a veggie sandwich and fries. One size drink. That's it.

No pizza, no chicken nuggets, no Filet-O-Five Guys. No fajitas, no quesadillas, no burritos. No McGriddles, no McRibs, no McFlurry. No Southwestern Egg Rolls. No Turtle Caramel Nut milkshake. No Apple Dippers. And certainly no salad bar.

We want big.

The National Restaurant Association says a trend right now is that small is big: those 100-calorie snack packs that are all the rage; those desserts at Chili's served in shot glasses.

Small is big?

No.

BIG is big.

The Five Guys burger is, in fact, a double burger. A burger with just one patty at Five Guys is called a "little" burger, which, of course, is not little at all.

As for the fries?

They are piled high, and piled, and piled, in that Five Guys plain brown paper bag that starts to shine with splotches of grease that let everybody know what's what.

Which gets to the last thing: We want real.

Five Guys' mission statement reads as follows: "We are in the business of selling burgers."

"They're doing something that people identify with," said Valerie Killifer, a senior editor at Fast Casual magazine and at fastcasual.com.

"They don't try to be anything other than what they are."

Information from the Washington Post, Dallas Morning News and South Florida Business Journal was used in this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4617.