Five Guys: Coming to a strip mall near you

by Brian Clarey

Everything is cyclical. The seasons turn in predictable order. Fashion trends come and go and come again. The sun rises in the morning and sets at night over and over and over. It’s like that with food, too. Consider that McDonald’s, the reason why your kids are so fat, was once a simple hamburger stand with a menu that consisted solely of burgers and fries before the advent of special sauce, calorie-laden salads and the McNugget. Around this time casual, fast-food type restaurants began offering more and more choices, expanding their menus in an effort to provide something for everybody. Remember the McDLT? The Super Bar at Wendy’s? Burger King’s meatloaf sandwich? The Hardee’s Husky? The Arch Deluxe? I loved them all. But now I’m down in Charlotte at Five Guys, a burger chain that came about in the mid-’80s, right around the time the McNugget was introduced, in the Washington, DC area. The place is busy. Real busy. At lunchtime in the Ballantyne section of Charlotte there are several business types, plenty of the flip-flop and T-shirt crowd and, in the back, two sections of tables pushed together to accommodate a flock of suburban moms and their progeny. The look of the room is clean: white tile and red trimmings with the kind of wise-guy slogans that have become so popular in these newfangled chains. In the middle of the dining space are piled sacks of potatoes and five-gallon jugs of peanut oil. No mere props, these. Over the next couple days they will be utilized in the production of truly great fries. Behind the counter swarms of red-shirted burgermakers work the griddle, drop the fryer baskets and assemble sandwiches on gleaming stainless steel tables. The orders come out fast and hot. There are about 150 of them in 16 states – none in Greensboro as of yet but the territory has recently been sold for franchising – and their power lies in their simplicity. There are three things on the Five Guys menu: burgers, fries and hot dogs. You can also get a veggie sandwich or a grilled cheese, which is served on an inverted burger bun. They also have free peanuts in the shell to eat while you wait. And since the store has opened its burgers have had accolades heaped upon them like so many delicious toppings. There are reasons for this. Each Five Guys store bakes its own bread, and none of them have freezers. The hot dogs are kosher; the burgers are hand-formed patties made from fresh 80/20 beef; the fries come from hand-cut potatoes grown in ideal conditions above the 42nd parallel – a Dry-Erase board announces where each day’s potatoes come from. Today’s fries were once below the ground in Rigby, Idaho but now they’ve been transformed by the sizzling peanut oil into these perfect French fries. My burger, a double patty with American cheese – the only kind they offer – sautéed mushrooms and onions with a slathering of A1 sauce, is solid and dependable. I eat the whole thing without putting it down even once. The bad news is that you can’t get a Five Guys burger in the Triad – the closest locations are in Raleigh, Cary and Durham. The good news is that they’re on the way. “As far as I know, somebody has bought the area,” store manager Matt Toler told me. And when they do, there will be no great advertising campaign, no grand opening, no guy in a burger suit with a sandwich board and a bell on the side of the road. They’re just gonna open the doors and start cooking burgers. And if history repeats itself, it should quickly become one of the toughest tables in town. “I was in Reagan National Airport,” my friend in Charlotte told me. “There’s all these fast food choices. Tucked into one little corner was a Five Guys. Huge line all the way out.”

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