Move over Ronald, there are competitors to the Burger King’s crown
Dave Thomas may have been a fast-food genius, but even he would’ve been hard-pressed to predict the state of today’s burger war three decades ago during the original “Where’s the Beef?” craze.
Thomas, of course, is the late founder of the Wendy’s chain. And back in 1984, he and his crack marketing team wheeled out an octogenarian former manicurist, Clara Peller, to bark her instantly famous appeal for better-quality hamburgers.
Nowadays, consumers finally seem to be treating Peller’s signature plea less as a pop culture phenomenon while taking it more to heart and stomach.
In recent months, numerous burger-sector outsiders have been successfully pitching tastier — albeit more expensive — menu offerings, along with some 20th century nostalgia in an effort to nibble at the formidable market share of the industry’s Big Three: McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s.
MEAT IS ALL AROUND
In the Greater Northeast, that means burger-lovers have new options like Five Guys, Jake’s Wayback Burgers and even the recently reborn Gino’s to satisfy their beefy cravings. That’s in addition to longtime torchbearer Nifty Fifty’s, which perhaps defined the retro-niche locally and continues to succeed with it despite the new competition.
“I don’t know if it’s a trend, but maybe we’ll put McDonald’s and Burger King out of business. That’s our goal,” said John McLeish, co-manager of the new Jake’s in the Northeast. “It’s honestly a better burger.”
Located at 9173 Roosevelt Blvd. adjacent to the Northeast Village Shopping Center, Jake’s had its “soft” opening on Oct. 31 and celebrated its grand opening six weeks later. It’s the first one of its kind in the city, although suburban stores in West Chester, Chadds Ford, Kennett Square and Exton preceded it.
The first Jake’s opened in 1991 in Newark, Del., near the University of Delaware. There are now more than 40 franchised stores spanning mainly from Massachusetts to Maryland, with additional locations in North Carolina and Ohio.
In August 2010, the company added the “Wayback” in its name to reflect and, perhaps more importantly, promote its commitment to what it calls “a better burger, made just the way you like it, in a warm and comfortable restaurant that feels like home.”
A NOD TO AMERICANA
Although the new Northeast location looks more like a redecorated Taco Bell (the building in fact housed a Taco Bell for many years), the franchiser’s intent to pay homage to “the great American roadside burger joint” of lore is clear.
Fresh red paint covers the walls. Chrome accents the countertops, stools and fixtures. Black-and-white photographs that may or may not have anything to do with the actual history of the business adorn the walls. The grill is positioned right behind the counter so patrons can watch their food being prepared.
More importantly is the food itself, the management says.
“Our burgers are all beef and made by hand,” McLeish said. “Nothing is ever frozen. It’s not shipped frozen or stored frozen. It’s never, ever frozen.”
“When you come here, everything is made when you order it,” added Dennis Ehredt, the manager. “It’s like buying ground beef at the store and putting it on the grill.”
The patties are bigger, too, they claim: 3.3 ounces after cooking. And much like Nifty Fifty’s or Five Guys, the fries are hand-cut daily.
The other premium burger places make similar boasts.
THE GUYS HAVE IT
In fact, Five Guys has made an empire out of the business model. Founded in 1986 by an Arlington, Va., couple and their four sons (the fifth son or “guy” was born later), the company had five Washington-area locations by 2001 and had developed a cult following.
Franchising began in 2002. There are now more than 900 locations in 46 U.S. states and six Canadian provinces. One outlet is at 2552 Grant Ave., which opened last summer.
The sales pitch on the Five Guys Web site is quite familiar: They serve “only hand-formed burgers cooked to perfection on a grill along with fresh-cut fries cooked in pure peanut oil.”
So does Nifty Fifty’s, which is directly across the street from the new Five Guys.
“We’ve been doing [that] since day one — twenty-four years here and twenty-four years in our McDade Boulevard store [in Folsom, Delaware County],” said the Northeast store manager Bill Everitt.
Unlike the other burger shops, Nifty Fifty’s is not franchised. The same people own all five Philadelphia-area locations. Also unique is its emphasis on sit-down dining, whereas the others seem to emphasize take-out more — although both options are available at Jake’s, Five Guys and Nifty Fifty’s.
“We’re like a cross between a Nifty Fifty’s and a fast food place,” McLeish said. “Our goal here is to serve you within five minutes.”
A LEGENDARY NAME
As if the local burger market wasn’t already crowded enough, Gino’s got into the act late last year with a new location at 1606 Street Road in Bensalem.
Founded in 1957 by Baltimore Colts Hall-of-Famer Gino Marchetti, along with Heisman Trophy winner and teammate Alan Ameche, the chain grew to 349 company-owned East Coast locations before Mariott bought it in1982 and began converting them into Roy Rogers fast food restaurants.
Marchetti and another partner revived the name in 2010 and now have three locations, including their King of Prussia headquarters and another in Towson, Md.
In its heyday of the 1960s and ’70s, the old chain was known for its big burgers, such as one made from sirloin steak and another known as the Gino Giant, which predated McDonald’s introduction of the Big Mac. The new Gino’s boasts the return of the Giant, along with over a dozen available toppings, fresh chicken sandwiches and fresh fries.
Not to be outdone — and with an apparent nod to the groundswell of premium burger shops — Wendy’s re-launched its “Where’s the Beef?” slogan last year in new TV advertisements. Meanwhile, according to a Dec. 21 report published by abcnews.com, industry analysts project that Wendy’s will soon usurp Burger King as the nation’s No. 2 fast food burger restaurant, based on market share.
According to the report, McDonald’s holds about 50 percent of the “limited-service hamburger sector” market, while Burger King and Wendy’s each have about 13 percent.
“This increased market share can most likely be attributed to Wendy’s focus on premium foods and the remodeling of its restaurants,” the news agency said, citing a market report by Janney Capital Markets, a division of Philadelphia-based Janney Montgomery Scott.
And with all of that going on, Burger King seems to have adopted a different strategy. The burgers are the same, but the company has begun to test home-delivery from a few of its Washington, D.C., area restaurants. BK reportedly has developed new packaging to keep the food warm in transit. They’re expected to charge $2 for the door-to-couch service. ••