MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:
Now, McDonald's may be the biggest burger chain, but the fastest-growing is Five Guys Burgers and Fries. Five Guys is also leading a burger revolution, and it's making the big guys take notice.
Rob Sachs has more.
ROB SACHS: Five Guys CEO Jerry Murrell doesn't shy away from how his restaurant isn't a typical burger joint.
LOUISE KELLY: We put a sign up in our stores when we first opened up, and the sign said: If you're in a hurry, there are a lot of other really good burger places real close to here. It was real in-your-face.
SACHS: You can grab a McDouble for a buck over at the Golden Arches almost as fast as you can order it. On average, Five Guys customers wait five to 10 minutes for their double burger, which also costs around four-and-a-half dollars.
LOUISE KELLY: We're just trying to cook a burger like a mom-and-pop burger.
SACHS: But unlike mom and pop, they operate on a much larger scale. In 2003, Murrell, his wife and three sons decided that Five Guys was ready to go national, and the franchise took off.
To date, they have over 700 locations. And according to Technomic, a Chicago-based restaurant consulting firm, they show no signs of slowing.
LOUISE KELLY: We see Five Guys' growth. We expect it to continue for at least the next three to five years, to continue to compete aggressively both with casual dining chains like Applebee's and Chili's, as well as McDonald's, Wendy's and Burger King.
SACHS: Darren Tristano is the executive vice president with Technomic. He says the rapid growth of Five Guys and other high-end burger joints might, in part, be explained by the recession.
LOUISE KELLY: The gourmet market has really come out of this rebirth of the burger, and the reason is that it's a comfort food to many people. It's also not an expensive product. So if you would've purchased a steak, but you still want beef, a good quality burger is a nice alternative.
SACHS: Hans Hess got into the burger biz with lofty ideals, and gave his restaurant a lofty name, Elevation Burger, which strictly uses free-range, grass-fed, organic beef.
LOUISE KELLY: We're doing it better. We're bringing it up. We're raising the standard.
SACHS: Since 2005, he's been able to open 18 franchises from New York to Dallas, with another 100 in development in the U.S. and a few in the Middle East. Hess says despite all his hard work building a supply chain for organic meat, he wins over most customers through their taste buds.
LOUISE KELLY: One of the great things about grass-fed organic is that it actually tastes better. It has its own complex flavor profile.
SACHS: Overall, more variety is a good thing, says food critic Dan Pashman, who co-hosts a foodie podcast called The Sporkful.
LOUISE KELLY: I have a problem in general when people take foods that were invented to take low-grade ingredients and make them more palatable, and then they try to take that food and somehow make it high-end. I mean, you know, you wouldn't add grape juice to your Dom Perignon.
SACHS: Don't tell that to Michael Landrum over at Ray's Hell Burger in Arlington, Virginia. There, you can purchase a steakhouse-quality burger for under 10 bucks, and an $18 burger.
LOUISE KELLY: But that includes a nice, thick slice of seared foie gras on top.
SACHS: Rather than being an expensive burger, Landrum sees his product more as an inexpensive steak. He integrates scraps of filet mignon and New York strip into his patties.
Industry researcher Dan Tristano says the big players are taking notice of the premium trend.
LOUISE KELLY: McDonald's, Wendy's and Burger King have had to shift to higher quality burgers - whether it's a steakhouse burger, the angus burger, or if it's sirloin.
SACHS: The strategy of switching to higher quality seems to be paying off. Wendy's says french fry sales were up 16 percent in December, when they began their publicity campaign for their new natural-cut sea-salt fries. The chain is planning to roll out a line of deluxe burgers in the fall.
For NPR News, I'm Rob Sachs.