Planet Money Burger Story Takes The Cake The people have spoken: According to NPR's online poll, the winner of Planet Money's 2nd annual "Iron Reporter" competition is Alex Blumberg, with a story about the guy behind the burger chain Five Guys' efforts to break into worldwide shopping malls. Here, his story.
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Planet Money Burger Story Takes The Cake

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Planet Money Burger Story Takes The Cake

Planet Money Burger Story Takes The Cake

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: the winner's piece will now air on our program. So the people have spoken.

The winner by a healthy margin is Alex Blumberg. In his story, he reveals the secrets of the success burger chain Five Guys, despite the recession.

ALEX BLUMBERG: It's not hard to find evidence that the economy is an issue at this conference. In fact, you can tell before you even get inside the conference itself.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)

BLUMBERG: Here at the bar in the lobby of Hilton, outside of where the booths are all set up. Here in the bar, attendees huddle in groups, drinks in hand, convention badges dangling from suit lapels - well, from some suit lapels, just not the lapels of a guy named Keith Mecca.

KEITH MECCA: In a downed economy, I didn't feel like paying the entrance fee so I came up here, like a lone wolf. And I just conducted myself out of this in the Starbucks.

BLUMBERG: So you never went upstairs. You've just been here the entire...

MECCA: No, I made it to Starbucks and here. It's a bad economy. They should charge less. I would have paid them maybe 200 but not five.

BLUMBERG: Mecca explains how it works here. All the people clustered around us, they fall into one of three categories: owners, tenants or brokers. The owners, they own the malls and shopping centers. Tenants, they occupy them; they range from big names like J.C. Penney or Best Buy to small gift shops or food stands. And the brokers, they bring the owners and tenants together.

And I talked to another broker, a woman named Mary Mowbray. And she says this event can be a launching pad for tenants. For example, one of her clients, a restaurant chain named Five Guys Burgers, which is trying to expand into the Canadian market.

MARY MOWBRAY: Their company has gone from about, you know, I think it was eight locations in 2004 to over 500 by the end of this year. So they have a lot to offer but they need to make sure landlords understand that. So they're on a real mission to be recognized.

BLUMBERG: It turns out when it comes to getting recognized, Five Guys, they might be the best in the business.

Where'd you get that burger?

Unidentified Man: Five Guys brought it.

BLUMBERG: Five Guys brought it?

Man: Yeah.

BLUMBERG: We're on a different level of the trade show now, on Concourse E, in front of the booth of a Canadian real estate developer who is munching on a special delivery from Five Guys Burgers. The guy who brought him the burger - we'll get to his name in a minute - this is not the first delivery he's made today.

MCGUIRE: Three different companies I've entertained with hamburgers today, 'cause they've never had them and the greatest thing - and now you missed it - is to watch them take their first bite. You missed the eyes. You miss them go, "Wow, that's the bomb. That's what I want. That's a hamburger."

BLUMBERG: The hamburgers are just one part of his multi pronged campaign for recognition. There's also a clothing component. He's wearing a Christmas red mohair sports jacket, red suspenders, a bright red tie and then there's the name.

When he hands you his business card, it's like if Prince or Madonna or Sting were to hand you their business cards, there's just one name on it. And that name is McGuire. Like any good salesman, McGuire knows the value of maintaining a certain mystique.

MCGUIRE: Everybody gets a moniker as they grow up in life, and mine just happened to be McGuire.

BLUMBERG: Uh-huh. And what's it short for.

MCGUIRE: McGuire.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLUMBERG: I just want to know what the original name was.

MCGUIRE: McGuire. My wife calls me McGuire.

BLUMBERG: You had no other - your old name was forgotten, never to be recovered?

MCGUIRE: You can walk up and down this thing and ask anybody who the guy in the red jacket is, or do you know anybody with one name and I guarantee you it would be me.

BLUMBERG: This is true, by the way. When fate hands you a red-jacketed, one- named burger salesman in the middle of a reporting competition, you follow him around. And wherever we went, people would just shout out.

Unidentified Woman: McGuire.

MCGUIRE: See? What's my name?

Woman: McGuire.

BLUMBERG: At one point as we swept through one of the convention halls, I heard a man mutter to his friend, hey look, it's the Five Guys guy. I stopped to chat with him. The name is Andrew Auberman(ph) and he's a broker. What do you know about that guy?

ANDREW AUBERMAN: Is that McGuire? (Unintelligible) that's all I know. His first and last name is McGuire.

BLUMBERG: How do you know him? Is it like everybody knows him here? Is that how...

AUBERMAN: I've known him from past real estate conferences.

BLUMBERG: He's always there?

AUBERMAN: Yeah, he's a character. Yeah.

BLUMBERG: Has he ever tried to approach you about any, about like...

AUBERMAN: No. No. No, no, no. Everybody tries to approach him. He's a (unintelligible).

BLUMBERG: So everybody's recruiting him?

AUBERMAN: Yeah. In these times, for sure.

BLUMBERG: And this might be the greatest secret for McGuire's popularity around here. It is not a great time to be a (unintelligible) right now. We're coming out one of the biggest binges in commercial real estate development our nation has ever known. Mall vacancy rates are at all-time highs. And every month this past year, new names have been added to the pantheon of failed retailers. Circuit City, (unintelligible) Basement, Old Country Buffet.

So a guy like McGuire, with a business that's expanding, for God's sake, he's a pretty rare commodity in this place. I mean, you throw in his flair for drama, he's hard to resist. I talked to Tony Grocey(ph), the chief operating officer of Macerich Properties, a large retail property owner. We stood in in a conference room with small groups that Macerich employees gathered around tables with brokers and tenants. Blueprints laid out in from of them, hammering out deals. Rents, locations, lease details. It was an intense scene.

And it was into this scene that several hours earlier, McGuire had burst, like a genie from a bottle, sacks of burgers in each hand. Grocey was there.

GROCEY: Well, the fellow with the red jacket, I don't know, came in and you're bursting yelling that, burgers in the house. Five Guy McGuire. That's' his name.

BLUMBERG: You know, in terms of like the economics of the whole thing, does something like this, is it actually going to make a difference in...

GROCEY: I think so, (unintelligible). We had pretty much a splash when he come in here with a bag full of burgers that everybody love.

BLUMBERG: But will it actually make a difference? (unintelligible) like I see blueprints out, I see like, people, like, you know, hunched over.

GROCEY: There was - if you look carefully, there's probably some blueprints with oil on them and, you know, like - they use them as napkins.

BLUMBERG: And almost as if on to you, Greg Cochran, a Macerich VP, walks in, talks to McGuire and shouts out some news.

GREG COCHRAN: (Vice president, Macerich) Hey. We just made a Five Guys deal at Scotville Fashion Square in Phoenix.

BLUMBERG: With that, Cochran and McGuire do a little high five. One more deal done, one more burger joint in McGuire's ever-expanding Five Guys empire. And one small reason the mall owners in this conference room can breathe a little easier at night.

: That's Alex Blumberg of NPR's Planet Money. His story won what we're calling The Iron Reporter Competition. Thanks to those of you who cast votes at npr.org.

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