Saturday, April 9, 2011

REVIEW: Five Guys Burger and Fries- ***1/2 / $

Oh frabjous day, callooh callay, I chortled as I ate. I have lived to see a time when fast food is legitimately good! That day has been here for years, in some areas of the country, but around Rhode Island, we've been wallowing in fast food hell. In-N-Out, Sonic, Carl's Jr.; none of these venerable restaurants are anywhere near us. When Chipotle arrived, we finally had a taste of what really great fast food could taste like, and the wait for a burger joint of equal quality was just freaking interminable.

We have Beef Barn in Cumberland, which is just as good as the best fast food, and even cheaper(!), but it's out in the middle of nowhere. I want something that's on every street corner like McDonald's... but good, unlike McDonald's. Well, Rhode Island might not have one on every corner yet, but we finally have two locations of a brand that could, conceivably, one day, have a whole bunch of locations peppering New England: Five Guys.

I have no idea why it's called Five Guys; it was started by two guys, and one of them was a woman (UPDATE: I have since found out why. The five guys were the husband and his four sons, even though the actual owners were the husband/wife team). Truly, the branding was so terrible that I assumed that it was some crappy local joint destined for failure when the location on Route 2 in Warwick opened up. But no, it's actually a large franchise with over 600 locations in North America, with more undoubtedly on the way. Even better, they've been winning awards with their burgers, even topping the legendary In-N-Out in a recent Zagat survey.

After hearing this, I set about to try them. A grueling journey of nearly twelve minutes exhausted all of our resources, and we were half-dead upon arriving. Thankfully, free peanuts that are available by the front door provided succor. Oh, and about the free peanuts, it's nice that they've chosen to provide sanitary, clean, easy-to-use paper baskets to load up. The only other place that I know of to provide free peanuts is Texas Road House, which serves them up as part of some grotesque schtick where you shell the nut and throw the remnants on the ground. It's just like a local bar, h'yuk! Fuck you. No it's not. It's disgusting. Give me a trash can.

It was a Saturday at about 5:00pm, so I'm assuming that this isn't always the case, but the place was bedlam. There was a long line, and the dining area was about 75% full. The sheer size of the kitchen staff blew my mind. They must have had ten people grinding away behind the counter, with perhaps more in reserve. The crew size paid off, though, with lots of orders coming out with great speed. It was slightly slower than, say, a McDonald's, but not by much, and faster than a Johnny Rockets.

The noise level in the dining area was "intense" according to my girlfriend, Danielle. People in the kitchen were yelling information to each other, people were yelling at each other in the dining room. The line waiting for orders to come out was squeezed in with the condiments and soda. As Danielle put it, "I think I have shell shock from what just happened." The energy level is much higher than any other fast food place at which I've eaten, even Chipotle during the rush. It's something that I can certainly deal with, but it's also something that I would avoid if possible.

Prices are excellent. I came into the place and, coming from a restaurant management perspective, the amount of money that they're spending on labor must be enormous. Well, it's easy to see how this works. They are selling in bulk, and they don't really give you an option to not buy in bulk. It's in this way that their prices are not that much higher than McDonald's. Five Guys' cheese burger is $4.99, which includes two patties by default, and ALL toppings are included in the price. McDonald's Angus burger is $3.99, with a similar level of toppings, and only one patty. You can opt to buy single-patty burgers, which are called, ahem, little hamburgers. This is still a huge hunk of food, and further illustrates their business model of forcing bulk on you. They further default to bulk delivery with the french fries, where even a small overflows from their serving cup and partially fills the bag in which they're stored. A large fry is honestly the equivalent of two whole potatoes.

When I ate the Angus burger from McDonald's, it didn't taste half-bad. The problem was that it tasted like the best McDonald's burger that I had ever eaten. The bread still had this odd sweetness that McDonald's bread has, the cheese was still crap, and the burger tasted like a McDonald's burger, just better. Five Guys tastes like a burger. Their patty is very beefy, with very little seasoning (which I would have kinda' liked). It's tender, juicy but not too, and not at all greasy. I ran across a single hard bit in the beef, but that did little to detract from the impression of quality. The toppings were crispy and fresh, and there are OH so many of them, and the bacon was delicious. It tasted like real, fresh, hot bacon. Not rubbery strips that have been sitting in an oven for hours. The only disappointment was the cheese, which was crappy American cheese, with no option for any other kind. I guess fast food has to have its calling card somewhere. Make no mistake, though, these are, without doubt, the best fast food burgers available.

The french fries offered a similar impression of quality. It's obvious that fries are a popular item, since their supply of potatoes has overflowed into the dining area. Bags of the little spuds were everywhere. They're a bit soft for my taste, but perfectly seasoned, popping with fresh potato flavor, and hot, hot, hot. I very much enjoyed the Cajun seasoned fries, which tasted like real Cajun spices, like, paprika! Spicy! I'd ditch the ordinary fries for Cajun on every visit.

By the end, I was done with my burger, and not even halfway through my small fries. Danielle couldn't finish either, and a girl next to me at the counter couldn't finish her single-patty burger. These are large, hearty burgers for very little money. I was not as impressed here as I was with Chipotle, which really blew me away with the incredible quality of every item, but at the same time, Chipotle is significantly more expensive, with all menu items at $6 or more. Still, I see them both standing in the same vanguard of quality fast food that is sweeping the nation.

All of this makes me ponder the state of fast food in the United States. McDonald's, Burger King, and all of the old guard have built up large numbers of locations, extremely advanced logistics, and an almost unreal level of quality control. But at the same time, they've built up reputations as fast food, and that means crappy quality.

We first saw market segmentation with the emergence of so-called casual dining restaurants like TGI Fridays, which upped the price and service, but not so high as to be competing with expensive, singular restaurants. This pressure in the middle of the market caused many, if not most, of previously expensive restaurants to adapt some of the trappings of casual dining, such as no dress codes.

McDonald's and the rest of the fast food industry, instead of increasing quality or selection, doubled down on price to compete. Prices either dropped or stayed the same regardless of inflation, and we saw the emergence of dollar menus. What this threatens to do, though, is amplify the market and demographic segmentation, creating the dietary haves and have-nots. Those that can afford to spend a little more will continue to do so, forcing fast food to drop prices and quality even further in an effort to spur growth. But this will drive more of their demographic up-market, and the feed-back loop continues. We'll eventually end up with casual dining and high-end fast food like Chipotle serving the middle class, and traditional fast food serving the bottom 10% increasingly bad food, thus further relegating this demographic to an eternity in the lowest echelons of society.

I think that McDonald's was aware of this destiny way back in the 1990's when they introduced the Arch Deluxe. It was a disaster for them, but that insight into the direction of the market is probably why they're doing gangbusters business while Wendy's and Burger King fight for small growth numbers (McD's is about three times the size of BK, but does TEN TIMES the revenue). They absolutely don't want to be the company that's shoveling slop into the mouths of the lowest of the low demographic.

Perhaps this is too complex a subject for a simple restaurant review, but sitting in Five Guys, eating a legitimately good hamburger, and leaving with a stomach bursting at the seams for less than $6, I realize that McDonald's has problems on the horizon, and it's only going to get worse.

Five Guys Burger and Fries: ***1/2

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Most locations open daily from 11:00am to 10:00pm

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