The untold truth of Five Guys

Quick-serve food chains are taking over the fast food industry, and one of the chains at the top of that movement is Five Guys — they've come a long way, and they've done it in a hurry. 

The growth of the Five Guys Burgers and Fries chain is nothing short of amazing, and the story behind it will make you believe that anything is truly possible. With founders who have remained an integral part of their company, franchisees who aren't just buying a brand name but an entire formula, and a company built from the ground up, Five Guys has a story that embraces what the American dream once was... and still can be.

Of course, they've hit a few bumps along the way, and made some serious missteps — they even have some secrets they'd probably rather you didn't know about. This is the untold truth of Five Guys.

There are no timers in the kitchens at Five Guys

There are a ton of things to keep track of in any kitchen, but take a close look at any Five Guys kitchen — and you totally can because they're wide open — and you'll notice there's something missing: timers. There's a very simple reason for that, and according to what founding father Jerry Murrell told NBC News, it's because good cooks know when a burger is done.

Those burgers are thin for a reason, too, and that dates back to the early days of Five Guys. The first burgers they experimented with were thicker, but the longer cooking times meant they dried out before they were ready to serve. Thinner burgers gave them the taste and texture they were looking for, so thinner burgers, it'll always be.

Five Guys refuses to deliver, even to the Pentagon

Getting a phone call from the government to place an order would throw any restaurant into a tailspin of excitement, but when Five Guys got a call asking for 15 burgers to be delivered to the Pentagon, Murrell refused. "We've never had a delivery service," he told QSR. "We don't believe in it. We think it cheapens the product."

Not only did they refuse, but they hung a massive banner outside their Arlington store that read, "Absolutely No Delivery." Risky? Heck yes! The Pentagon's 26,000 employees were a huge part of their customer base, but it worked. They say business from the Pentagon went up around 20 percent after their refusal, and President Obama famously stopped by in 2009. When one Five Guys employee suggested sending the new president a T-shirt after he took office, Murrell refused pretty enthusiastically, saying, "That's cheap!" (via NBC News). Turns out, Obama wanted a burger, not a shirt, because he showed up anyway.

Haters hate the buns, but Five Guys went to insane lengths for them

If there are any complaints ever made about Five Guys, it's usually the condition of the buns. They're a bit on the squishy side, and that's actually by design. According to NBC News, the buns originally came from Brenner's, an Alexandria bakery that was a favorite of Janie, Murrell's wife. They made a bun for the new restaurant that was eggier and sweeter than the standard hamburger bun, and when they closed, Five Guys started making their own buns.

As they grew, there was no way they could keep making the same sweet buns in their little bakery, so they started contracting out — with some super-specific regulations now overseen by Murrell's youngest son, Tyler. According to franchisee owner Tom Horton, those buns are a massive expense. To those that love them, though, they're totally worth it.

There are a few secrets to how Five Guys gets their french fries right

According to Chad Murrell (via Food Republic), Five Guys gets all their potatoes from Idaho — and only north of the 42nd parallel. They buy so many of them they account for 5 percent of the state's potato sales. (Except for two months of the year, when the growing season dictates they switch to Washington State potatoes.) After hand-cutting them, they give the raw potatoes a 3-minute power wash to get rid of the extra starch. They're pre-cooked for two and a half minutes, and then cooled for anywhere from 10 minutes to a few hours. Once they're ordered, they're finished off with another two or three minutes in the frier, shaken off exactly 15 times, and served up to the customers.

Chad also says they use peanut oil to try to make their fries a little healthier, and it's the quantity they serve up that makes their meals' calorie counts astronomical. If you have too many fries, Chad suggests you take them home and make hash browns with them.

Five Guys is notoriously unhealthy... but you can find less intense options

No one in their right mind suggests heading to Five Guys if you're looking for a healthy lunch option. According to their nutritional information, their bun alone is a whopping 260 calories and 9 grams of fat. There are a few healthier options, though, and The Washingtonian took a look at what your best choices are.

If you're not there because you have your heart set on a hamburger, go for their Veggie Sandwich. It's not a veggie burger, but it's their vegetable toppings — like mushrooms and peppers — grilled up and served on a bun. That'll still set you back more than 400 calories, and the Food Network Blog recommends a burger option: order a bunless, Little Burger. Skip the mayo and bacon, but stack on some of their other toppings like tomatoes, onions, lettuce, and jalapeno peppers, and you'll only be eating about 220 calories... and 17 grams of fat.

Those peanuts at Five Guys aren't going away any time soon

You probably know someone with a peanut allergy, and it can be a deadly. According to The Peanut Institute, around four percent of adults and four percent of children have severe food allergies, and tree nuts — including peanuts — account for about 90 percent of those allergies. Cases have steadily risen since at least 1997, making it surprising that not only does Five Guys continue to offer guests peanuts to snack on while they wait, but they exclusively use peanut oil.

Allergy information is posted in their nutritional guide, and their fries are marked as including peanut and peanut oil products. 

Five Guys says they have no intention of changing any of their practices, as it would negatively impact the brand they've been building for several decades. Instead, they say they make sure there are plenty of signs posted, warning people who have a problem with peanuts to stay away. They also say the potential for an allergic reaction is also why they don't allow people to take peanuts outside.

Five Guys was ruled as the fastest-growing restaurant chain in the US

Sometimes, you can look back on a single decision and know it was the right one, like Five Guys and their decision to franchise. Between 2006 and 2012 alone, they saw an unthinkable 792 percent growth (via Forbes). That's even more impressive when you compare them to their closest rival over that same period. Jimmy John's saw a still-impressive 241 percent growth rate, but compared to Five Guys? That's nothing.

Even their first foray into franchising was a massive success. According to their own web site, they received national attention when they started offering franchise opportunities, and had sold options for more than 300 units in just 18 months. They kept going, and in 2012, they passed $1 billion in revenue — and now, they're international.

There really are more than 250,000 ways to order at Five Guys

According to Five Guys, there are more than 250,000 ways to order your burger. That sounds like something the marketing department made up as a boast, but if you do the math, there really are more than that many different combinations for your burger... but 250,000 is such a nice-sounding number, we'd stick with that, too!

With six options for burgers, including different sizes, with or without cheese, and a whole host of toppings, it's a paradise for someone who loves options, and a challenge for the completionist.

Five Guys was the first fast-food chain to get Coca-Cola Freestyle machines

As if all the combinations for your burger weren't enough, Five Guys has a machine that does for you what you used to love doing yourself — taking a little bit of each flavor of soda at the machine, and making your own mix-n-match drink. According to Consumerist, Five Guys was the first fast-food chain to get the Coca-Cola Freestyle machines. Their upgrades started in 2011, and they were installed in every company-owned store Five Guys had: all 156 of them. They've only gotten more popular, and it's easy to see why.

Who wants a boring, regular Coca-Cola when you can have a Coke Zero with either lemon, lime, or raspberry, or almost any kind of Powerade you can dream up? According to Serious Eats — who tried 127 different soda flavors — some are hits, some are misses, but you'll always have something new.

Their prices at Five Guys can change based on the market and location

If you head to, say, McDonald's, you know how much you're going to spend on your usual before you get there. That's not the case with Five Guys, and Murrell is pretty straightforward about the fact that the prices of their burgers can — and will — change. He told Inc. when tomato prices skyrocketed after hurricanes severely damaged that year's crop, some of his franchisees wanted to stop using them. He even suggested cutting back, but his sons said they'd rather raise the price than compromise on quality.

Pricing according to the market is great from a business point of view, but it's not always popular with the customers. When Belfast, Ireland, got its first Five Guys, the guest reaction was that it was a decent burger... but it shouldn't be priced several dollars more than the same burger in America. Five Guys defended the price hike, citing the price of ingredients and the fact that UK prices include 20 percent added tax. But their American customers were saying the same thing in a 2015 survey from Business Insider, with millennials in particular saying their burgers just weren't worth the price.

Five Guys chose to use mystery shoppers instead of advertising

There's a lot about the way Five Guys does things that's unconventional, and that includes their approach to getting the word out. According to AdAge, Five Guys took their advertising budget and put it somewhere else — into mystery shoppers. You're not likely to see a Five Guys commercial or billboard, and that's because they use that cash to hire third-party companies to visit their restaurants and do a full evaluation. It keeps employees on their toes, ensures their customers have a great experience, and those experiences turn into advertising.

Anyone who's worked in retail knows just how terrifying the prospect of a mystery shopper is, but Five Guys turns it into a major rewards program. Director of Communications and Marketing Molly Catalano told QSR Magazine they hand out a huge amount of money as bonuses for meeting mystery shopper goals. Every week, the top 200 restaurants are given between $900 and $1,300 to split among employees. That means there's a chance they can win every week, and that's incentive!

Five Guys was involved in a weird controversy in Baltimore

Giving away free food at a time of crisis seems like something that couldn't possibly backfire, but it absolutely did in 2015. In August, Baltimore was in a state of chaos as protesters took to the streets after the death of Freddie Gray, who died in police custody after being arrested. Outrage over police brutality filled the streets with angry citizens, and the National Guard was called in to help the police restore order. Five Guys — along with Whole Foods — started handing out free food to members of the National Guard. Once social media got wind of the act, people were quick to point out that Baltimore schools had been cancelled, and around 84 percent of those schoolchildren were enrolled in reduced price or free lunch programs. The idea of those kids going hungry while Five Guys and Whole Foods fed law enforcement wasn't well received — probably not the reaction they were expecting.

Five Guys started because Jerry Murrell's sons opted not to go to college

According to Forbes, founding father Jerry Murrell hails from a middle-class Michigan family. His father was a stunt pilot in between working at a car factory, and his mother sold products for Stanley. He was told he needed a college education to be successful, so he went — but didn't care for it. When it came time to send his own sons to college, he gave them a choice. It was 1986, his older sons were at the end of high school when he made them an offer. The money he'd saved for their education was theirs, and they could either each go to college, or — as a family — decide to pool the money to start a restaurant.

The idea was twofold — not only would it give his kids a legacy, but it would let them work together. The elder Murrell didn't have a close family, but if they opted to open a burger joint together, his sons would have what he didn't. According to his sons, it was an easy choice.

The founder kicked himself out of "Five Guys"... sort of

The name Five Guys couldn't be more straightforward. Murrell and his sons decided on the name to describe themselves: father Jerry, sons Matt, Jim, and Chad from his first marriage, and son Ben from his second. But when youngest son Tyler was born, the name didn't quite fit any more. According to Murrell's interview with Inc., that was when he unofficially removed himself from the name roster, at least, now saying the "five" refers to his kids.

And all remain key players in the business. While their father oversees everything, Jim and Matt travel the country and visit locations, Chad is in charge of training, Ben works with the franchise owners and selects new applicants, and Tyler runs the bakery. Murrell's second wife, Janie, is also involved in the business as their bookkeeper.

Franchising almost didn't happen for Five Guys

Five Guys opened its doors in 1986 — but that almost didn't happen. At first, the Murrells — especially Jerry — were content with opening just a few restaurants in the same area. They had complete control, kept the menu the same, and experimented with a few new things (like coffee and a chicken sandwich) that failed.

The subject of franchising came up in 2002, and Jerry didn't want to do it. Five Guys is run by a policy of unanimous voting from the family members, so Jerry's lone "no" vote was enough to put an end to talks. But Matt bought him a copy of Franchising for Dummies, written by Wendy's Dave Thomas... and at the same time, former Washington Redskins kicker Mark Moseley was pondering the future of his own burger joint. In a case of, "right place, right time," Moseley got on board with Five Guys and kicked off their franchising efforts. They found out quickly how good of a decision it was: Franchising rights in Virginia sold out in three days.

Adding milkshakes at Five Guys was a huge family controversy

Part of the difficulty in franchising was keeping new owners on board with the idea of sticking to the very set menu Five Guys offers. They've tried other products, and any appeal from franchisees to add new things is usually refused. One of the most debated of those products is milkshakes, and franchisee owner Tom Horton told Forbes they'd had a conversation about milkshakes "6,000 times." The Murrells kept refusing... until 2014.

They debuted their milkshakes in August of that year, and if you've ever wondered what a bacon milkshake would taste like, head to Five Guys and find out. Their other flavors include non-traditional offerings like salted caramel and coffee, along with favorites like chocolate and strawberry. Best of all? You can mix as many flavors as you like.

Five Guys' fries are both the best and the worst

If you like Five Guys, chances are good that one of the things you really, really like are their fries. They've got just the right amount of golden brown and the right amount crispy crunch, the right amount of pillowy softness, and there are just so many of them. We ranked them second on our round-up of fast food's best fries, and when Business Insider did a fast food fry survey, Five Guys took top honors with almost half the people surveyed saying they were the best. 

Now, the bad news: they're also the worst. 

Taste of Home crunched the numbers, and found that a single, small serving of these delicious Five Guys fries comes with a shocking 530 calories. A large order has 1,310 calories, and if you're sticking to the general rule of a 2,000-calorie-a-day meal plan, well, that's way more than half your calories in those fries. Oh, and there's also 57 grams of fat in that large fry, as well as 1,327 mg of salt. Did you want to eat only fries for the whole day?

That's made even more surprising when you start doing some comparisons. A large fry at McDonald's only has 510 calories (and yes, it does contain fewer fries, but it's the size designation we're talking about here.) And if you want to get that fat content elsewhere, you can opt for six Krispy Kreme donuts. Might want to bring a friend.

Five Guys got an "F" for their antibiotics policies

You've probably heard at least some talk about the controversies surrounding the use of antibiotics in meat. In a nutshell, it has to do with the likelihood that consuming meat from animals raised on a steady diet of antibiotics (which are used to increase their weight) will ultimately make antibiotics less effective when we need them to do things for us, like fight off disease. 

In 2018, a joint report supported by organizations like the National Resources Defense Council, the Center for Food Safety, and Consumer Reports graded various fast food chains on their commitment to use beef from producers that promised not to use antibiotics as a weight gain supplement (via CBS). While Shake Shack and BurgerFi each got an "A", Five Guys got an "F" (along with most chains). 

Not long after the report card came out, McDonald's announced (via Inc.) that they were going to be shifting to antibiotic-free beef over the course of a few years, and that's a huge deal. They said they were hoping the move would force competitors to do the same, but Five Guys has remained silent about the antibiotics present in the meat they're using.

Five Guys has been accused of wage discrimination

In 2018, Five Guys was hit with a massive lawsuit that, given the name of the chain, sounded extra bad. The suit was started by Jody Finefrock and Julia Francis, two Pennsylvania Five Guys managers who claimed that throughout their time with the chain, they were consistently paid less than their male counterparts. Even though they did the same work and had the same responsibilities, they claimed that they were the target of a deliberate practice of paying women less than men for the same work. 

Finefrock says (via Bradley/Grombacher) that when she was an assistant general manager, she was making $5,000 less than a male assistant manager she was in charge of training. She was eventually promoted to general manager, at a pay rate $2,000 less than her male counterparts. The suit also alleges that when several female employees took the issue to corporate, they were put on review and finally fired. 

The plaintiffs pushed to make the case a class action lawsuit that would cover all Five Guys' female managers, and the chain pushed back with the reasoning that the Equal Pay Act only covered employees in the same establishment. Bloomberg Law says a US District judge gave the go-ahead to include all female managers, though, and it was a big loss for Five Guys.

There's a legal battle over the distinctive look of a Five Guys' store

Five Guys was hit with a lawsuit in 2017, and this one had to do with that distinctive look all their stores have. And it's complicated. 

According to the Cook County Record, Five Guys contracted the architectural firm Soos & Associates Inc. to design 95 locations in 2008. The locations were in Wisconsin and Illinois, and even though there were slight differences between them all, there was an agreement that some elements would be the same — and that Soos would own the copyright to the design. Five Guys was given specific, one-time-only permission to use the design in each of those 95 locations. 

But, the suit claims, Five Guys later contracted with DXU Architects for new locations, and used the Soos plans — right down to the font on the construction blueprints. Five Guys responded by saying that since the plans had been uploaded to a file-sharing website, it was implied that the firm was fine with using them as reference materials. Furthermore, they said the new designs came not from the Soos plans but from a corporate standards guide, which Soos says doesn't even exist. Soos asked for a jury trial, and the case appears to be ongoing.

Five Guys' gift cards may have cost you

Here's a tale that definitely brings a bit of "buyer beware" along with it. If you're a fan of giving gift cards, you should know that some places charge a fee when the cards have been inactive for a certain amount of time. Strange? Definitely. 

According to NJ.com, it was a former attorney who bought a gift card from Five Guys in 2010, and saw that the fine print said Five Guys reserved the right to take $2 off the $10 card each month it wasn't used after 12 months. It's called a dormancy fee, and places can legally do it — as long as the card has been inactive for 24 months, not 12 (at least, in New Jersey). So, he took them to court. 

It doesn't sound like much, but companies can make millions by charging dormancy fees; and Five Guys' policy wasn't written by the letter of the law. Five Guys not only denied wrongdoing (and also denied actually charging dormancy fees), but also added that during the settlement period, they had sold "in excess of 15,000" gift cards. That's a lot of potential dormancy fees, and Five Guys agreed to give out $50 gift cards as reparations, to anyone who could provide proof of purchase of a gift card impacted by the lawsuit's terms.