Posted on Oct 19, 2011
Profiling the Best Burger Chains in America
Once upon a time, Americans had two options to alleviate their beef binging desires: visit a fast food joint or go to a traditional sit-down restaurant. The former often offered sub-par meals, while the latter required too much of a commitment of both time and money. The people demanded a happy medium, where they could be chowing down on quality eats within minutes of ordering.
Consumer desire for a new approach led to the birth of the better-burger segment, a relatively recent culinary invention that's nonetheless produced some of the best burger chains (and beefy up-and-comers) driving the direction of the industry today. From category juggernaut Five Guys Burgers & Fries franchise to newer better-burger chains like the Elevation Burger franchise and Boardwalk Fresh Burgers & Fries franchise, the modern burger industry offers discerning consumers options galore when it comes to finding quality food made fast, well and with no waiter service.
The numbers back the notion that Americans are demanding fast service, while their patience for the same old too-dry, too-small burgers is running thin. According to a recent report by research company Technomic Inc., sales at full-service restaurant franchises, like Applebee’s and Ruby Tuesday, fell 1.3 percent last year. On the other hand, fast-casual chains, of which the better-burger industry is a sub-category, enjoyed an impressive 6 percent rise in sales in that same time. And it doesn't stop there. According to the same report, sales in the better-burger segment specifically grew 16 percent last year, far surpassing sales of most other fast-casual food segments.
Given this country's increasing focus on eating healthy, the popularity of these beef-based concepts may come as a bit of a surprise. Perhaps the rise of the quality burger chain can actually be attributed, at least in part, to the downfall of the economy. In times of economic crisis maybe people start turning to something familiar (and cheap, for sure) – some call it comfort food. And there’s no denying that few forms of nourishment give humans as much satisfaction as a classic beef patty on a bun.
A word of caution: Grab your burgers, fries and milkshake now, because this roundup of deliciousness isn't something you'll want to read hungry! Now, let’s take a look at the country's best burgers and the innovative burger chains behind them.
Five Guys Burgers & Fries
Named simply after the number of males in its founding family, which consisted of husband and wife Janie and Jerry Murrell and their four sons, the Five Guys franchise is now one of the biggest names in burger chains. Although the restaurant began captivating customers with fast-cooking burgers at its primordial Arlington, VA location in 1986, it was not until 2001 that the the business-savvy Murrell family pushed to capitalize on the brand's great potential. Its first 15 years saw just 5 new locations open. Its next 10 years saw over 700. The restaurant's cult-like following, filled with thousands of people who salivate at the first site of Five Guys' famous grease stained brown paper bags, has now turned into something more closely resembling a mob.
To what does this franchise opportunity owe its success? To start, Five Guys has not wavered from its time-tested, customer-approved menu. With over 250,000 different combinations of toppings with which to decorate the burgers, the Five Guys menu offers a beautiful, if not delicious, combination of simplicity and complexity. Each burger is made to order with 80% lean, never frozen beef, and is always cooked well-done for consistency and health reasons. The restaurant also offers hot dogs and grilled cheese sandwiches. Unlike many of the other popular burger joints, Five Guys does not offer milkshakes, chicken, or salads. It did introduce chicken to its menu briefly in the past, but its quality did not live up to the company’s lofty expectations for its products, they cut the concept loose.
Since the burgers are made to order, Founder Jerry Murrell says that a drive-through service is not feasible. In fact, Murrell used to hang a sign on his restaurant explaining to customers that if they are in a hurry, there are plenty of other good fast-food burger joints in the neighborhood. To keep customers happy as they sit inside awaiting the arrival of their meals, all patrons are entitled to unlimited peanuts, still in the shell, gratis. Although the company has revisited this idea a time or two due to the increasing number of people with peanut allergies, Five Guys claims that its food and storefronts are safe for anyone who is allergic to peanuts.
The franchise development team at Fransmart, who crafted Five Guys' successful expansion strategy, are also playing integral roles in establishing Elevation Burger and Boardwalk Fresh Burgers as the next big things – but more on that later.
- Min. Net Worth: $1,300,000 ($500,000 liquid)
- Development Fee: $50,000
- Franchise Fee: $25,000
- Royalties: 6-7.5% gross monthly income
- Marketing Fee: 3% gross monthly income
With a fan following as strong as any fast-service restaurant in the country, this non-franchised burger establishment is the current gold standard for west coast burgers. In-N-Out burger was founded in 1948, long before any other burger joint in this article. Unlike Five Guys, In-N-Out actually originated as a drive-thru only joint, even though its burgers are, indeed, made to order. Like many better-burger joints, the company looks down upon the use of microwaves and freezers and claims to use only the freshest ingredients. Now, many of the 265+ In-N-Out burger locations offer indoor and outdoor seating along with traditional drive-thru service, and customers love the experience of going to an In-N-Out to dine in.
In-N-Out’s burgers and buns are its bread and butter. However, besides delicious hamburgers, French fries and milk shakes (which are made from real ice cream) are offered as well. And if for some reason customers don’t see a menu option with which they'd like to tickle their taste buds, they can ask about the burger joint’s famed (not-so) secret menu. In-N-Out has a few recommendations from the secret menu on its website, such as the Animal Style burger, which includes hand-leafed lettuce, tomato, a mustard-cooked beef patty, and the option to add pickle, extra spread and grilled onion, or the Protein Style option, which includes a burger wrapped in lettuce instead of a bun. The company has remained privately owned for over 60 years and has no plans to start offering franchise opportunities (despite your idea to open an In-N-Out near you).
Boardwalk Fresh Burgers & Fries
Without having firsthand experience, it is difficult to understand the magic in savoring a delicious, juicy burger and washing it down with a shake and fries after taking a stroll along Maryland’s famous Ocean City Boardwalk. Backed by the strong belief that everyone should be so lucky to taste, see and smell this truly all-encompassing sensory affair, brothers Dave and Fran DiFerdinando founded the Boardwalk Fries concept in 1981. After spending quite some time as the world's only french fries franchise, the company expanded to what we now know as the Boardwalk Fresh Burgers and Fries franchise in 2007. Now, the brothers are well on their way to servicing their country and exposing it to the wonders of the Boardwalk experience, with 16 units in the U.S. and plenty more locations sure to be on the way.
The chain offers unique Boardwalk-style fries and burgers, which customers can top with American, cheddar, bleu, or Swiss cheese, in addition to an entire slew of vegetable and other toppings, on white or wheat bread. Sauces and toppings are free and unlimited. The famous fries, which are traditionally covered in vinegar and Old Bay seasoning, are cut fresh every morning and cookies in peanut oil multiple times and at different temperatures to get the trademark consistency and texture. These fries have been the subject of much critical acclaim. In 2009, AOL Small Business called Boardwalk the “Next Big Chain” -- a nod to the quality of the food as well as the PR smarts of the Fransmart development team. Along with its burgers and fries, Boardwalk offers up chicken, veggie burgers, premium shakes, funnel cake fries, and salads.
Sticking to its selfless and service-inspired beginnings, Boardwalk does its part to not just help the country in which it was founded, but other parts of the world as well. Most locations offer a 20% discount to all members of military families. The company also boasts of having raised enough money through the LifeWell program for the completion of two fresh water boreholes in remote African villages, which will serve 500-1,000 people.
- Min. Net Worth: $500,000 ($250,000 liquid)
- Franchise Fee: $30,000
- Royalties: 6%
- Advertising: 2%
Elevation burger is a breath of fresh air to the better-burger segment, both literally and figuratively. In an industry dominated by not-so-good-for-you options from a health standpoint, the Elevation Burger franchise only serves free-range, certified organic lean beef. Furthermore, you will not find any grains -- or antibiotics, for that matter -- being fed to the Elevation beef, which is 100% grass-fed. Here's why: Cows' digestive systems are not cut out to process grains, which unfortunately is the cow feed of choice in modern day agriculture. The weakened immune systems of grain-fed cows call for the use of antibiotics to combat the increased likelihood of sickness.
That the beef is grass fed also bodes well for the health of those eating Elevation Burgers. Grass fed beef is much lower in saturated fat (the bad stuff), higher in Omega 3 fatty acids (the good stuff) and is far less likely to contain any traces of antibiotics than its grain-fed counterparts.
As for the literal part of Elevation Burger giving a breath of fresh air to the better-burger segment: An acre of grass filters up about 850 pounds of carbon dioxide each year. Meanwhile, on an industrial scale, corn actually has the opposite effect, requiring intensive use of hazardous fertilizers and fossil fuels for heavy machinery to encourage its growth.
So what does this all mean? Well, once customers sit down with an Elevation Burger, they forget all about the environmentally friendly practices, and get busy savoring every last bite of their new favorite burgers. The food speaks for itself, be it the beef patties, veggie burgers, hand scooped ice cream shakes, malts or fresh baked cookies.
The company was founded in 2005 by Hans Hess, who couldn’t find the burger he had grown to love after leaving his home state of California in 1999. Driven by this mission for good, organic food that is sustainable and fresh, Elevation Burger has been franchising since 2008. There are currently about 35 Elevation Burger locations, most of which, with the exception of a few Texas store fronts, can be found along the east coast in Florida, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia. As with Five Guys and Boardwalk, the franchise development team at Fransmart is driving the expansion strategy at Elevation, marking this better-burger chain as one with national breakout potential.
- Min. Net Worth: $1 million ($250,000 liquid)
- Total Investment: $378,500 - $743,500
Like many of the other newcomers on this list, Mooyah’s offerings go far beyond hamburgers and French fries. The company, which was named Fast Casual’s #1 Mover and Shaker in 2009, boasts a menu of turkey burgers, veggie burgers, grilled cheese, hot dogs and shakes made from pure ice cream. Mooyah, whose name was surely inspired by the well-known "booyah" coined by sports personality Stuart Scott, takes pride in maintaining a fun and young atmosphere within each of its 85+ locations.
Back to the food. Given the increasing trend of people choosing to completely neglect carbs as an important part to a balanced diet, Mooyah, like In-N-Out, offers the option to have a burger wrapped in iceburg lettuce as opposed to sitting between two bun halves. However, for those who have yet to take the advice of Dr. Atkins, white and whole wheat buns are also available. As far as toppings go, customers have the choice to include avocado, bacon, cheddar, swiss, and American cheese, in addition to other sauces and traditional veggie toppings, on their burgers. To help store patrons wash down their rib-sticking meals, the full Coca-Cola lineup of soft drinks is offered at each location.
Never wanting lines to be a barrier to enjoying its food, Mooyah gives its customers the option to pre-order food online, by phone, and yes, even by fax. Staying with the theme of utilizing different mediums of communication, Mooyah gives special offers to members of the Mooyah Text Club. So if you are someone who can’t live without a Mooyah burger – like, without one you'd really have a cow – then text “mooyah” to 89686 to join.
- Min. Net Worth: $500,000 ($200,000 liquid)
- Initial Investment: $318,825 - $514,520
- Initial Franchise Fee: $30,000.
- Size: 1,800-2,400 square feet
A modern day “roadside” burger stand, as the restaurant dubs itself, Shake Shack's roots can be traced back to 2004 at its Madison Square Park, NYC home. Its reputation for having delicious food is matched only by its now equally well-known reputation for having long lines – even by NYC standards! However, interestingly enough, the company does believe that the line is part of the Shake Shack experience, saying, “…people take to the wait, happy to be together amongst friends and strangers in the name of delicious food, in a fantastic setting.” (Right... so that may be the most pompous marketing statement of any burger chain on this list, but fortunately the Shack Cam allows die-hards to monitor the line at the company's flagship location remotely).
As the chain's popularity grew, so too did its reach. Once exclusive to NYC, Shake Shack has expanded to 14 locations worldwide, including locations in Kuwait and the U.A.E. Earlier this year, no location was under more scrutiny than its Washington D.C. restaurant – the first lady, now famous for her fight against childhood obesity, was caught enjoying an allegedly 1700 calorie meal consisting of a burger, fries and a shake from the Shack.
Shake Shack offers many of the same items as the rest: burgers, hot dogs, fries and shakes. However, true to its Big Apple roots, Shake Shack also holds a liquor license. (Maybe that's why customers so enjoy hanging out in in line).
The tastes of the American consumer have changed tremendously since the first burger joints started popping up over fifty years ago. Long gone are the days of flat, tasteless patties and frozen cardboard beef. Today's burger lover demands freshness, quality, and taste, but -- true to the country's instant gratification culture -- isn't willing to invest much time waiting around to get it. The better-burger movement, combining the convenience of the fast food franchise model with the mouth-watering flavor of a truly well-prepared meal, addresses that need head on. The result has been the establishment of a powerful new category, the emergence of several exceptional new brands, and a redefinition of what it can mean to be a burger chain today.
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