Northeast Times

Battle of the burgers

Store man­ager Den­nis Ehredt holds a chocol­ate shake at Jake’s Way­back Bur­gers in the North­east Vil­lage Shop­ping Cen­ter. JENNY SWI­GODA / TIMES PHOTO

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. ••

You can reach at wkenny@bsmphilly.com.

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