Five Guys: Who knew?

The Food Watchdog staff is not in the biz of endorsing or rejecting restaurants, but sometimes we can’t help but relate our latest finds.

As list of restaurant facts go, it’s hard to beat this one:

  • There are no freezers…just coolers. Nothing is ever frozen.
  • We use only Peanut oil.
  • Our menu is trans-fat free.

A new organic fare eatery? Well, no.

It’s called Five Guys Burger and Fries, started in Washington, D.C. in 1985 by the Murrell family and now grown to 800 franchise locations across the country. I ventured into one for the first time last week in Beaverton, Oregon–yes, there really is a city with that name. There the brightly lit red-and-white themed Five Guys is cleverly located across the street from a Petsmart store, providing needed relief from the shock of spending twelve bucks for a bag of dog treats that will last approximately 9 minutes.

The place borrows from the old-time diner model, where orders are yelled back and forth and the action is more like air-traffic controlling than cooking. A dozen workers in red caps and t-shirts with the store name across the back work an assembly line with a choreography worthy of Broadway. It’s not a straight-line, raw meat-through-paper bag production, but a complex routine in which workers meet the needs of the moment. The fast-line, cooked-to-order style is a lost art, and watching the team do their thing is downright entertaining.

The menu is mostly about¬† burgers of course–there are 250,000 variations possible with the 15-item free toppings list. My heart was won at the realization that I could have A-1 sauce and green peppers together. (Oh bliss!) The origin of the potato crop that led to the day’s fries is posted on a white board. (A farm in Idaho, the day I was there.) Peanuts serve as hors d’oeuvres. Hot dogs and grilled cheese sandwiches are offered but I did not see any takers. The menu also lists a Veggie Sandwich. (Oh, please.)

One of the institutionalized quirks is counter-intuitive for success: Calorie counts are listed next to the menu items, in large clear numerals. The psychology here (at least in my case) goes like this:

–Gasp at realization that a bacon cheeseburger (319g) has 920 calories and $6.49.

–Comfort self by ordering the Little Hamburger (171g) which is only 480 calories and $3.79.

The decor is Early Subway (trillion-watt lights, lots of tile.) and bags of potatoes and vats of peanut oil are stacked around the red tables and chairs.

The clientele could not have been more varied had they called Central Casting and requested the Convincingly Diverse Mix: soccer kids, cops, women and men in suits…and of course, a few shell-shocked refugees washed up from the shores of Petsmart. The look of the folks waiting in line was just as varied–thin, huge, all ages, obvious athletes and the rest of us.

If I sound a bit surprised by all this, it’s because a buzzing hive of hamburger stands out around here a bit more than it might in other places. There are more vegans per square yard than there are dust motes in Greater Portland.

I did notice a phenomenon that I’m sure is not as common at Five Guys locations elsewhere in the country. A section of the parking lot located about 10 yards from the restaurant entrance is darker and hidden a bit from view. There sits a row of cars, each occupied by a lone person, head down, furtively wolfing down their food from the grease-spotted bags. (Remember: It’s peanut oil!) They toss the wrappings in the trash can, roll down the windows, open the sunroof and speed away.

You just know that every one of those people is on their way down the street to New Seasons to pick up healthy fare for the family.

–Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett



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