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Five Guys and other joints make D.C. a 'better burger' capital

Barack Obama's wife has launched a public campaign for healthy eating. But the president himself seems to favor the unhealthy stuff -- at least when he's on the road.
By Matthew Barakat
Monday, July 12, 2010

With a drive-through seemingly on every corner, you might think the market for burgers long ago reached saturation. But the fastest-growing restaurant chain in America last year was Five Guys, which specializes in double-pattied burgers and freshly cut fries.

And that's just the tip of the arugula. "Better burger" joints are among the fastest-growing parts of the restaurant industry. Celebrity chef Bobby Flay launched Bobby's Burger Palace in the Northeast. Elevation Burger is expanding into Kuwait. Mooyah Burgers & Fries, Meatheads and the Shake Shack are looking to expand.

Higher-grade beef, fresher or more creative toppings, and better buns are bringing customers in the door.

The Washington area has emerged as fertile ground for ground chuck. Five Guys, the earliest success story, is based in Lorton, Elevation Burger in Arlington, BGR-The Burger Joint in Lansdowne.

Ray's Hell Burger, also in Arlington, is not a chain, but the restaurant, run by iconoclastic chef Michael Landrum, earned a national profile with President Obama taking Vice President Biden and, later, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev there last month. (Medvedev's review: "Not quite healthy, but it's very tasty.")

It's a market that has room to grow. Such chains represent only about 2 percent of the $65 billion burger market, said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Chicago-based restaurant consultant Technomic.

"The traditional players -- McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's -- have really shifted their focus away from burgers to breakfast, chicken and beverages," Tristano said. He predicts that the boutique burger chains will continue to have double-digit sales growth for at least the next few years.

The founder of Denver-based Smashburger, fast-food industry veteran Tom Ryan, was keenly aware that Americans were hungry for higher-quality fast-food burgers.

The company did extensive research with fast-food customers, who reported that the burgers they ate were mostly a matter of convenience. Ryan summed up the sentiment as "It's not the burger I crave; it's the burger I use." Smashburger has expanded to 70 stores in 15 states in just three years.

Customers are willing to pay to ease that craving. A full-size Five Guys burger starts around $4, and you can pay quite a bit more.

Five Guys, like others, sells the fact that its burgers are never frozen -- the stores don't even have freezers, only coolers. Elevation Burger uses organic, grass-fed beef and sells fries cooked in olive oil. BGR uses a mix of dry-aged beef.

Despite recent success of better burgers, one of the oldest names in the business has fallen on hard times. Fuddruckers filed for bankruptcy protection in April. Tristano said he thinks the Fuddruckers chain's problems resulted from large restaurants with high real estate costs.

-- Associated Press

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