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

Posted on 8 CommentsPosted in Beloved Brands in the Market


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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The Beloved Burger: BURGER’S PRIEST.

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Original Story, October 2011:  This saturday, I visited THE BURGER’S PRIEST in Toronto.

Great Mystique created around the whole Priest thing. Different makes them stand out.
Burger 9 out of 10, fries 6.5 out of 10.

Even before you try the burger, you hear the story first, and it’s quite crazy.   That’s the way a brand should be.  I have had quite a few people tell me that the Burgers Priest was clearly the best in Toronto.   But then they get into the story telling of what they know.   Part of the story is this idea of a secret menu, that you have to ask for.   Funny enough but if you google “Priest Secret Menu”, you’ll see about 15 stories come up from various Food Critic reviews.   Confirms that it’s a marketing ploy–and a great one for driving word of mouth.   The second part of the story is that the owner, who most describe as crazy, even though they never likely interact with him.   Apparently, one day he was looking for a really good burger and couldn’t find one.  So, he decided to just get in his car and drive until he could find one.  He ended up in his car for six months, travelling all through the US from New York to the South, through Texas and Out to California and back.   He was intent on learning about the secrets of the best hamburgers he could find.   He’s has photos, up at the Priest, of all the great burger places that inspired this burger.   Once back, he took all the great ideas and build his own burger.   He’s layered in the idea that this burger is a religious experience, with the priest idea.  And the mission is to  missio “redeem the burger one at a time”.  That’s the brand story anyway.

Now with a brand story, you need to create buzz.  Word of mouth on this is amazing.   When I got there, just before noon on Saturday, there were already 10 people in line about 10 minutes before the place was open.   I also saw the attached sign, asking people to line up to the left to avoid blocking the entrance to the Apartment.   I looked for the appartment, and it’s about a good 50 feet away.

Here's the sign they had in the window. Line ups are good for brand value

So clearly, all the story and mystique has created a word of mouth that is getting people to travel for this burger.   It’s 45 min from my house, and I ran into someone I knew who lives 45 minutes the other way.   Both of us just felt compelled to try it.  Keep in mind, the stories he’s created help drive word of mouth and in turn demand.   The line up makes things much more predictable for him, so the food is fresher/better tasting.   He can manage his inventories, staff accordingly and drive down his costs by driving up his volume.   Plus, I would have paid anything at this moment for the burger.   Lastly, I started to tell my friend in line that about the Five Guys burger I had which was amazing and a stranger jumped into our conversation to defend his priest, saying it’s not even close.   Already has brand advocates defending the brand.   He’s clearly working his branded business system.

As for the burger, it was ideal.   I’d say it’s a tie with Five Guys Burgers–which has a story unto itself–with celebrity endorsement like Obama and Shaquille O’Neil.   Both use the same technique of keeping the burger juicy, while ensuring it’s well done on the outside.  Very similar taste.   (More bacon on the Five Guys, and the Fries are better)  The fries at the Priest need improving to be great.    Poor Licks, a Toronto icon for many years, has been losing out the last few.  The only good thing about Licks now, is there’s never any wait and you can have a nice quiet meal (e.g. no one goes there)

For those of you looking for a great burger, I’d recommend it for sure.  For those of you looking for unique marketing and seeing how a small business is trying to drive a BELOVED BURGER, this is a great example.  Not sure if he spent six months figuring out the world’s best burger, or just six months becoming the world’s best marketer.   A great brand in the making.

Top 3 Burgers in Toronto (my view)

  1. Five Guys Burgers
  2. Burgers Priest
  3. Craft Burger (now the Big Smoke)

Nov 16th, 2011, Update to the Story:  Burger’s Priest opening a second location in North Toronto, on Yonge Street between York Mills and Lawrence.  Great location choice.   Talk of further expansion into the West end of Toronto, likely High Park or Bloor West Village.   Need a good income level to afford 9 dollar burgers.   It will be interesting to see how many they put into Toronto, and then into the rest of Canada.   One big fan of the Priest who I told was actually disappointed about the expansion plans..