New Guys Are on The Rise

By Tim Carman
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The iconic burger of Washington is, without question, the one sold at Five Guys. Unless you're a vegetarian or an agoraphobe, you can probably describe the thing in your sleep: two fresh patties cooked on a flattop in their own grease until the edges are crisped and charred. These twin beauties are then slid inside a soft, slightly sweet sesame-seed bun, topped with your favorite condiments and wrapped in foil. The foil is the final, brilliant touch: a sly suggestion that, if you could see yourself in the wrapper, you'd be looking at one happy human being.

So where does Mark Bucher at Bethesda's BGR: The Burger Joint get off thinking he makes a better burger than the one at Five Guys? And why is that madness not exclusive to Bucher? Okay, I should clarify: Neither Bucher, nor Hans Hess at Elevation Burger in Falls Church, nor David Calkins at Urban Burger in Rockville, nor even Tom Racosky at Big Buns Gourmet Grill in Arlington actually proclaimed their superiority out loud; they're not dumb enough to bad-mouth an icon. But given how they've set up their operations, they clearly believe their ground-beef sandwiches leave the old Guys in the dust.

You know what? They're mostly right about the burgers (see sidebar). Whether they can compete with Five Guys as a business, though, is another story.

No one will disagree that Five Guys unearthed an under-served market -- at least on the East Coast -- and became wildly successful by selling counter-service burgers so unlike those frozen fast-food patties of unknown provenance. The chain's formula was simple: Maintain a tight focus on the burgers (fresh patties made from a blend of sirloin and chuck) and keep prices down by selling in an environment that smacks of a stadium men's room. The concept's success speaks for itself; more than 20 years after the first Five Guys opened, there are about 120 locations nationwide, mostly in the East. Five more probably opened while you read that last sentence.

In the past year or two, though, the post-Five-Guys generation of fast-casual burger joints has raised the standards even higher. Bucher at the two-month-old Burger Joint sells grilled burgers made from a dry-aged mixture of chuck, sirloin, hanger and brisket from cows raised at a single Midwestern farm, where the feed can be strictly controlled. Hess at Elevation sells only organic, grass-fed, free-range beef, while Urban Burger and Big Buns are content to sling mere Angus patties, which puts them on par with many of the full-service restaurants that sell similar burgers at twice the price.

Several of the new burger shacks are owned or co-owned by chefs. The self-taught Calkins used to be a chef at J. Paul's in Georgetown; his business partner, Lee Howard, is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. Racosky holds a two-year culinary degree from Johnson & Wales, and Bucher is a serial culinary student who has taken classes at the CIA, the French Culinary Institute and L'Academie de Cuisine. All these guys know how to build a top-quality burger.

They also know that the $61.5 billion burger market is dominated by the big three: McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's, which gobble up more than 72 percent of the sales annually, according to Technomic, a food-industry research firm. Americans never seem to tire of ground-beef sandwiches, even the awful ones. "Burgers are never going to be -- if you'll excuse the pun -- a flash in the pan. We'll be selling burgers 200 years from now," says Calkins, who opened Urban Burger in late 2006, a few years after opening Urban Bar-B-Que. "Burgers are like pizza and sex: Even bad experiences are pretty damn good."

Most of the new burger men had specific role models and aspirations as they entered the market. Hess had decided that Elevation would not only model itself after the burger joints of his West Coast youth (In-N-Out, Burgerville) but would also reflect one of his concerns as a former legislative aide on Capitol Hill, namely the growing number of deaths attributed to antibiotic resistance. He wanted to give burgers a better reputation, or at least stop using meat from cattle that have been given antibiotics.

Bucher, on the other hand, sought inspiration at the top of the fine-dining food chain: fat-cat American steakhouses. His prime-beef carcasses are dry-aged in Baltimore before they're butchered, ground and turned into loosely formed patties by a machine that Bucher modified to his exact specs. Those patties are delivered fresh daily and thrown on a gas-fired grill with lava rocks, not a greasy flattop. "We want [to take] that steak that you eat at Morton's or the Palm and grind it and serve it," Bucher says. "From our standpoint, it's not cheap."

Then there's the story of Z-Burger, which opened in April near Tenley Circle. It is owned by Peter Tabibian, who slogged along as a Jerry's Subs & Pizza franchisee for more than a decade. His new operation may have a broader menu (and less utilitarian decor) than Five Guys, but Z-Burger is as close as you can get to an outright homage to D.C.'s famous chain. "Five Guys is a great company," Tabibian says. "They have a lot of money, and they started with nothing. They're an inspiration to everybody."

Tabibian is certainly ripping a page from the Five Guys playbook when it comes to expansion. Z-Burger already has five more locations in the pipeline: one each in Glover Park, Dupont Circle, Adams Morgan, Georgetown and Arlington. Others are on the way, Tabibian says. "We have enough money that I can open up 100 of these locations at one time and buy the buildings," Tabibian says. "I'm serious."

Z-Burger isn't the only new place with empire-building aspirations. Hess's Elevation Burger, which opened in 2006, has signed contracts for more than 20 franchises, including restaurants in New Jersey, Philadelphia and Northern Virginia. His research indicates that the U.S. market could sustain between 500 and 700 Elevation Burger locations. Hess isn't ruling out the possibility of nationwide expansion. Nor is Racosky at Big Buns, which opened in June 2007: "My goal is to have as many of these as there are McDonald's in the world," the owner says.

The question, of course, is this: Is there enough appetite to support all these burger joints, no matter how upscale their products? More such places, after all, have just opened or are headed our way. On Monday, 2008 "Top Chef" contestant Spike Mendelsohn launched his Good Stuff Eatery on the Hill, and Mendelsohn has been yakking a lot about opening more of his "handcrafted" burger houses in the District and other cities. A week earlier, local steakhouse maverick Michael Landrum opened Ray's Butcher Burgers several doors down from his Ray's the Steaks restaurant in Arlington, and the California-based chain Fatburger has been eyeing the local market, too. What's more, another California chain, the Counter, has a major assault planned on the area, promising locations in Reston, Arlington, the District and Baltimore.

The Burger Joint's Bucher, for one, says all the folks with dollar signs in their eyes ought to be careful. Much of the recent burger mania, he says, is economy-driven, as in we're gobbling down greasy meat to ease the pain of our higher debts and lower home values. Once the economy improves, diners are "not going to go out for burger. They're going to spend more money" on fancier restaurants again, he says. "It'll happen naturally."

Tim Carman writes the Young and Hungry column for Washington City Paper.

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