The new burger war: 5 Guys vs In-N-Out

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When I was a kid, after my hockey practices, my mom and I used to go to Burger King. It became a tradition. What did i like the best? It was nice and quiet, compared to the crowded noisy McDonald’s right across the street. No lines, no one taking up great seat locations and almost zen. Today, there’s a new Burger War brewing: 5 Guys versus In-N-Out Burger. Who will win? This is a Brand site, so we look at this through the eyes of marketers and consumers, not food critiques.

Who has the better burger?

I know there’s lots of debate out there. Let’s dispel the myth here: they are almost the same burger. They take a high quality ground chuck, and squish it firmly onto the grill which locks in the flavor and creates a juicy burger. It’s a much higher quality meat than McDonald’s and much juicier in the end due to the cooking technique. The only difference is 5 Guys burger feels like the burger actually breaks apart more which could make it feel less fast-food and In-N-Out feels very neatly stacked. VERDICT:  Tie

Fries versus shakes

UnknownIf the burger is a relative tie, then what else you got. 5 Guys wins on fries and In-N-Out wins on Shakes.  I’m a big fries fan, and 5 Guys does have pretty darn good addicting fries. They give you enough that you likely won’t finish them.  The In-N-Out fries (except for Animal Fries) are a little bit nondescript and boring. In terms of shakes, the In-N-Out shakes are legendary, whereas 5 Guys is completely missing out by not even having a shake. Verdict:  Tie, pick your poison and likely only have it once in a while.  


Who has better atmosphere?

I have to say, neither is very cool at all.  In-N-Out had the plastic feel of a McDonald’s, with booths that are too small to fit those that can eat a double-double. The hats on the employees are cute, giving it a 50’s diner feel. And 5 Guys atmosphere feels like a Costco. Dusty floors, crappy little tables and chairs. Plus, do we really need 50 signs per restaurant telling us how great you are. What you’re doing is opening up the door to local establishments finding a niche against both of these with a cooler pub-like atmosphere. Verdict:  one bad tie.

So the overall product is a tie.  

Where does In-N-Out Burger win?

Clearly as I’ve heard from the fans, In-N-Out does a great job engaging with their consumers.  The secret menu and the secret sauce, the traditions of the double-double and the “animal fries” all help create a “club” filled with brand fans who will take on anyone that knocks their brand.  There’s a slight difference in who each attracts.  In-N-Out’s menu items are generally less expensive — the chain is most popular with young men ages 18 to 24 with an income of less than $70,000 a year, according to NPD. By contrast, Five Guys patrons are generally 25 to 50 years old, with an income of more than $100,000. In-N-Out seems to have a more engaged consumer base that it can leverage as 5 Guys is now into the Southern California market ready to do battle right in the backyard of In-N-Out.

Where does 5 Guys win?

5 Guys has been much more aggressive. They have pursued winning on reviews and lists that can help drive awareness for the brand. In 2010, they won the Zagat best burger. They’ve aggressively gone after celebrities such as Shaq and Obama. And most of all, they are winning on location, location and even more location.  At this point, In-N-Out is stuck as a West Coast brand, in California, Arizona and Nevada with only 280 locations. And 5 Guys is everywhere, with 1000+ locations, fairly national and even in Canada.  They are clearly following the McDonald’s real estate strategy by trying to be everywhere. The other area where 5 Guys wins is pricing.  I’m a marketer, so the more price you can command the better. For relatively the same burger, 5 Guys charges twice what In-N-Out charges. In this current stagnant economy, people are proving they’d rather pay for an amazing quality burger than a cheap steak. It feels like In-N-Out is leaving money on the table with the prices that are just slightly above the McDonald’s price points.

So who will win?  

At this point the clear winner will be 5 Guys. Just like McDonald’s versus Burger King in the original burger war, it’s not as much about the burger itself but about the aggressive pursuit of real estate. Unless In-N-Out wakes up, takes all that brand love they’ve generated among their fans and they go on an 5-year big expansion, they’ll be relegated to a regional brand we only visit on our road trips to California.

5 Guys is quickly becoming the upscale version of McDonald’s

To read more about how the love for a brand creates more power and profits:


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8 thoughts on “The new burger war: 5 Guys vs In-N-Out

    1. I understand what you’re saying about the middle states Miles. That’s the main reason I love Five Guys so much. The secret menu though is a branding technique aimed at creating a culture of true fans. The people who are “in the know” tend to feel more connected to the brand. Many other major companies do this as well.

  1. As you note where each chain wins, quality of the product; burgers, fries or shakes, has nothing to do with the end decision. If it did, Pizza Hut would have been out of business long ago. The brand secret is in the experience, not the product. You’re right in pointing out In N Out’s weakness — their lack of expansion. The secret menu is the brand. And if it leaves you a little cold, wait until the first time you successfully order a double protein (insert your preferred condiments), and fries well done (and get a bunch of those great crispy bits). If you’re still cold, you’re not the target.

  2. Great analysis, however, you are missing a crucial brand from your analysis

    Culvers is like Chic-Fil-A but with a much wider selection (Great Lakes Walleye in winter for example), and no controversy. It has been expanding rapidly with 475 locations nationwide.

    I think this is their first TV ad, it does an amazing job communicating quality of the product and value of the brand (fresh, quality, innovative)

  3. Great post here. I grew up on the west coast and always loved In-N-Out. When I had my first Five Guys burger in Virginia on a visit, I was hooked. I told everyone that Five Guys was the In-N-Out of the east, mostly because you couldn’t get an In-N-Out burger outside of Cal-Nev-Ari. Now you can get both in many more states. It’ll be interesting to see how these chains expand and how their local culture develops, as you’ve described above. In-N-Out has always had that California 50’s beach vibe, so will that be changing?

  4. You forgot about price – 5 Guys is pricey! I think I took my family there once and it was a $50 venture..for burgers and fries?? No thanks. I’ll take In and Out any day but now that I’ve left Arizona and I’m in Georgia…I’m missing out! I would agree with Roman, Culvers has amaaaazing burgers. Too bad they struck the bananas foster sundaes from there menu.

  5. I grew up in Los Angeles and was weaned on In N Out. I live on the east coast now so I really believe Five Guys is just as amazing. I however prefer In-N-Out’s thinner french fries to Five Guys thicker fries.

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