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The Origins of Cult-Favorite Fast Food Restaurants: Five Guys Burgers and Fries


Were there really five guys? Yes...and no.

People who like burgers and fries really like Five Guys. Zagat's (or the people who vote in Zagat surveys, anyway) likes Five Guys. Serious Eats likes Five Guys. President Obama likes Five Guys. Are you going to argue with the Oval Office's taste in hamburgers?

The first Five Guys Burgers and Fries opened in Arlington, Virginia, in 1986 by then-stocks and bonds trader Jerry Murrell -- an economics graduate from the University of Michigan who ran a frat house kitchen to put himself through school -- and his wife. Their sons, Matt and Jim, eschewed college, according to a USA Today profile. So dad used their tuition money to open a burger joint, which, when you think of it, is a dream come true for thousands of American college-bound teenagers.

Now all five Murrell sons are involved. Matt, Jim and Chad -- sons from his first marriage -- work in operations. Then there are Murrell's two sons, Brad and Tyler, from his second marriage to wife Janie, who takes care of the books. So it's really Six Guys and One Gal, but that ain't as catchy.

Murrell tells Inc. magazine that right before the family opened its first restaurant, he read a profile J.W. Marriott, who once said that, "Anyone can make money in the food business as long as you have a good product, reasonable price, and a clean place." That's the model that Five Guys have stuck with -- they don't advertise, they don't deliver and they make everything fresh. (Feeling hungry while you wait for your burger? Try snacking on the free peanuts.)

The original inspiration for Five Guys goes back further, though, to Murrell's childhood memories of two old-school joints: Push 'Em Up, Tony, a burger stand in Michigan, and Thrashers French Fries on the boardwalk of Ocean City, Maryland, a place Murrell had admired for its simple focus on fries and its long lines of loyal customers.

These days the burger business is sizzling. The recession has prompted consumers to turn away from pricier restaurants and return to traditional American comfort food. Even high-end outfits are attempting to create the perfect patty-and-bun combo.

Five Guys' distinctive red and white décor is showing up all around the country. Since the outfit opened its first franchise in 2002, the chain has grown from five family-owned stores to 625 across the country and Canada today.

According to founder Murrell, the key to Five Guys' success is simplicity: they concentrate on hamburgers and fries (although hot dogs, grilled cheese, and a veggie sandwich are other menu offerings). The restaurant did venture into coffee and chicken sandwiches -- both failures, according to Murrell, which only served to convince him to stick with his original idea. Five Guys' employees are also part of the winning formula: unlike other burger makers, the staff at Five Guys are eligible for bonuses.

Five Guys likes to make noise that its offerings contain "zero artificial trans fats," but Men's Health editors recently took issue with the menu's calorie count. A basic hamburger weighs in at 700 calories. But, hey, why not add some mayonnaise (100 calories), cheese (70 calories), a coupla slices of bacon (80 calories), and some barbecue sauce? (60 calories). After all, the toppings are free.

But someone at GE Capital Finance certainly likes the burgers. In November 2009, the financing firm loaned Five Guys Holdings, the group's franchise arm, $300 million in order to aid their expansion efforts. As a Five Guy competitor might say: you want fries with that?
No positions in stocks mentioned.

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