Innovation in Fairfax County: Five Guys

Thanks to Five Guys, Fairfax County has become home to 'America's Best Burger Restaurant'

You can find Five Guys Burgers and Fries in more than 1,500 locations, from Maine to California and from Spain to Saudi Arabia. But Five Guys' headquarters is right here in Fairfax County, where Jerry Murrell and his family turned a local favorite into an international culinary institution.

In addition to uncommon business sense, Murrell, now in his early 70s, displays a quirky sense of humor.

"C'mon, I'll show you our test kitchen," he says, escorting visitors to the second floor of the company's unassuming offices in Lorton. Sure enough, the sign on the door reads "Test Kitchen." But try walking through the doorway and visitors immediately encounter a solid brick wall.

It's good for a laugh. But the Five Guys' success story, rooted in quality and consistency, is no joke. Founded in 1986, Five Guys has become a tribute to family with a willingness to adapt with caution, making certain that every company kitchen is a kitchen that cares.

The "five guys" are sons Jim, Matt, Chad, Ben and Tyler. Murrell's wife, Janie, and grandchildren are also involved. While the recipe for grilling tasty burgers hasn't changed in more than three decades, the company has kept ahead of the competition through technology, much of it utilized at the Lorton headquarters.

In 2017, Five Guys ousted west coast-based In-N-Out as "America's Best Burger Restaurant" in Harris Poll's EquiTrend study. It retained that ranking this year. Jerry Murrell recently sat down with E-Bird Extra to discuss how all this happened to a guy who originally "hitchhiked here" from Michigan to take a job with a brokerage firm.

E-Bird Extra: What's the secret to a great hamburger?

Jerry Murrell: The best hamburger you can ever get is the hamburger you cook at home and put between two pieces of white bread with some butter on it -- just like your mother did it...But for us: Keep it simple. Don't base any of your pricing on saving money on food costs. We buy the most expensive products that we want and add a margin to that for our profits. We don't ever cut back on food costs. We pay, on average, five to seven times more than other chains pay for a hamburger roll...We also pay a lot more for potatoes than anyone else pays because (our suppliers) only grow them north of the 42nd parallel. No Florida or California potatoes. We only use potatoes grown slowly in northern climates.

EE: What's with the free peanuts? How do those tie into the burger-and-fry strategy?

JM: We always worried that when people came in the store and could see us cooking that they would put pressure on us to hurry up and get their order ready. To slow that down, we said, let's give them something to do while they're waiting. So we started giving them peanuts.

EE: How did Five Guys come to be in northern Virginia?

JM: Well, I hitchhiked from Michigan to here (when) I was hired by a big brokerage firm. When I went from that job I set up my own business in estate planning. But when I first got to this area I just loved it. I love the mountains. I love the Potomac River. I like to hunt and fish. I like the outdoors. We just love this area. Me and my kids all live within 30 miles of our headquarters.

EE: What was your vision when you made the switch from the financial sector to burgers?

JM: We opened up five small stores for the boys to have a business and, of course, we had no idea it was going to do this (take off). The newspapers in this area started talking about us...They always said good things. It just amazed us. Then, people started coming to us and wanted to franchise, which we didn't want to do. We put it off, put it off, put it off. Finally, we broke down and said, "Alright, we'll start franchising." We thought it might just be Fairfax County and Alexandria (but) within a year and a half we'd sold out the whole United States.

EE How has your business changed and have you done much that is innovative?

JM: I went to a meeting one day and a very successful businessman said if you don't understand IT you're not going to make it in business. So, I figured I was sunk. But in this area we've been able to hire the kind of people who bring us that IT talent. (When it comes to hamburgers) we haven't changed anything in 35 years. We're sticking to the old school.

EE: How do you use IT?

JM: I'm not an IT person. I just know we'd be lost without it We collect (data). They analyze it. Our supply chain, for instance. We're responsible for getting potatoes and other products into Saudi Arabia. That's all (about) IT. Those trucks, ships and planes that are moving that stuff, they're (operating on) a real tight deadline because everything's fresh. Our supply chain is like Star Wars.

EE: You resisted delivery for the longest time. Why did you eventually change your mind and what's next for Five Guys?

JM: I was always against delivery. We wanted everything to be fresh. But Uber changed the world. You no longer have a choice. Uber comes into your store and orders...If you don't do delivery in this new world, I don't know what you do. A lot of people ask what our vision is for five or 10 years down the road. I've never had a vision for that. We're in Hong Kong because somebody convinced me to go to Hong Kong, just like somebody called us one day and said they wanted us west of the Mississippi. People pulled us...It's wonderful to be wanted.

EE: How does being located in Fairfax County help your family business today?

JM: We can get incredibly smart people in this area to help us out in areas that we know nothing about. Now days, if you 're not into IT in a big way, it's very difficult to do business. And we've been able to find some incredible talent here. Also, we've got locations in the Far East, the Middle East, we're in Europe. So, we have easy transportation with two big airports right here. We can probably get to half the people in the United States in two hours or less.

EE: What actually takes place at the location here in Lorton?

JM: I'm only here mostly Monday and Tuesday. The rest of the week, I don't know what these people do [laughter]. Five Guys has offices in Amsterdam and here. The people in this building...give us a sense of what our customers want and (the ways in which we utilize IT) is all of that. We know what our customers are thinking, what they want and why they want it. A big share of this building is dedicated to (analyzing) those kind of things

EE: How do you train and retain the right people and how does your use of "secret shoppers" play into ensuring quality and consistency?

JM: Five Guys has a tendency to pay more than other fast-food chains. I've always believed in that. We also have marketing money that does not go to marketing. We give almost all of it back to employees for doing a good job.... In a way, our employees are working somewhat on commission. The better their store does, the better they do. It gives them "ownership." It keeps everybody smiling, and it keeps the bathrooms clean when we're not there.

EE: What do you worry about? What keeps you up at night?

JM: Probably our biggest concern in the food business is food safety. You have to be constantly concerned about your image and food safety is vital. Things change so quickly that you have to be constantly concerned...From the time a piece of hamburger leaves the steer, we want to make sure it stays at the same temperature, so we know if that piece of meat dropped two or three degrees. We know exactly where every piece of lettuce comes from, what farm it's coming from, what kind of safety record they have. We know, almost down to the second, what every store is doing in regard to temperatures. Computers take care of all of that. (Without them) we could never keep up.

EE: What would be your tip to an entrepreneur just starting out?

JM: To start in the food business, make sure you've got a product that people like to eat. That is so missed in this world. People start out cooking what they like to eat. But you have to have something the customer likes to eat and stick with it.

EE: What makes you most proud?

JM: My family, the way they have participated in this. I've never cooked a hamburger myself. My kids took to it and my grandkids. My wife has always been behind the scenes, taking care of people and our suppliers to make sure they got paid (even if it meant) robbing from Peter to pay Paul in the old days. Very few businesses get to the third generation. Working with your family is the most wonderful thing in the world, if you can pull it off.