Who will win the new burger war? It might depend on where you live. If you are in California, you may be partial to In-N-Out, if you are a New Yorker, it is Shack Shake for sure. Everywhere else, it looks like Five Guys is the dominant brand. This is a brand site, so we look at this through the eyes of marketers and consumers, not food critiques. I am also a burger fan, so it’s exciting to see us move past McDonald’s and Burger King.
I know there is a lot of debate out there. Let us dispel the myth here: they are almost the same piece of meat. They take a high-quality ground chuck and squish it firmly onto a grill, use a cooking technique to lock in the flavor and create a juicy burger. It is much higher quality meat than McDonald’s and much juicier in the end due to the cooking technique.
The only difference is at Five Guys, the burger feels like the burger actually breaks apart more which could make it feel less fast-food while In-N-Out feels very neatly stacked. I do like the bacon at Five Guys, but In-N-Out does a nicely toasted bun. Small details.
If the burger is a relative tie, then what else can you look at. Five Guys wins on fries, Shake Shack or In-N-Out wins on Shakes. I’m a big fries fan, and Five 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. I do like the crinkle cut style Shake Shack fries, but they are frozen, not fresh. In terms of shakes, the In-N-Out shakes are legendary, whereas Five 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.
I have to say, neither In-N-Out or Five Guys have a nice atmosphere. The In-N-Out restaurants have the plastic feel of a McDonald’s, with booths too small to fit those who can eat a double-double. The hats on the employees are cute, giving it a 50’s diner feel.
The 5 Guys atmosphere feels like a Costco, with dusty floors, crappy little tables, and chairs. Plus, do we really need 50 signs per restaurant telling us how great you are. There is no effort in their store atmosphere.
What you are doing is opening up the door to local establishments finding a niche against both of these with a cooler pub-like atmosphere. The Shake Shack locations are much nicer. If you ever get the chance to go to the original Shake Shack in NYC, it is worth it. I was doing some work with an ad agency and arrived a couple of hours before the meeting. I didn’t feel like going up early and I noticed about 50 people lined up for lunch at this “shack” in the park.
Every time I have Shake Shack whether in Dubai or throughout the US, I still think of the park. A little like my first Movenpick experience, 20 years ago, in the middle of the swiss alps.
Verdict: Shake Shack
What In-N-Out Burger does best
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.
At this point, In-N-Out is stuck as a West Coast brand, in California, Arizona, Nevada and now Texas, giving them only 320 locations. They have not expanded very quickly, believing it is better to be loved by a few than tolerated by many. This gives them a regional strength and more emotional engagement goes to In-N-Out.
What Five Guys does best
Five Guys has been much more aggressive on their expansion plan. They have pursued winning on review sites and lists that can help drive awareness for the brand.
In 2010, they won the Zagat best burger. They have aggressively gone after celebrities such as Shaq and Obama. And most of all, they are winning on location, location, and even more location.
Five Guys is everywhere, with 1000+ locations, fairly national, and even in Canada. Five GuysThey are clearly following McDonald’s real estate strategy by trying to be everywhere. The other area where Five Guys wins is pricing. I am a marketer, so the more price you can command the better.
For relatively the same burger, Five Guys charges twice what In-N-Out charges. In this current stagnant economy, people are proving they’d rather pay $10 for an amazing quality burger than $15 for a lousy 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. More aggressive growth goes to Five Guys.
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What Shake Shack does best
They were definitely late the expansion party, with only 120 stores at this point. The NYC location in the park is such a part of their brand, yet it also drives a lot of revenue. At one point, Shake Shack thought they would stay a “New York only brand” which is part of their delay.
Right now, the US market is fairly saturated with burger shops, so they now have 30% of their locations overseas including Seoul, Tokyo, London, Cardiff, Istanbul, Moscow, Muscat, Beirut, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Kuwait City, Riyadh. Pretty smart strategy to see an opportunity in those markets and close on them before the others could. I would say, the more interesting locations go to Shake Shack.
Who will win?
At this point, the clear winner will be Five 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 have generated among their fans, and go on a 5-year big expansion, they will be relegated to a regional brand we only visit on our road trips to California.
Five Guys is quickly becoming the upscale version of McDonald's
In-N-Out Burger case study – Ranked 4th Among America’s Best Workplaces
In-N-Out Burger, a brand deeply cherished worldwide, recognizes the extraordinary role its employees play in delivering a remarkable customer experience that reflects the essence of their brand. Even though this West Coast brand is cautiously expanding eastward, it boasts an enthusiastic base of brand devotees. Try challenging its superiority to other burger joints, and you might find yourself in a fervent debate. Hidden under this rampant fandom, however, lies a bedrock of dedicated, diligent, and well-compensated staff members.
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