America’s fast food royalty has been set in stone for years: McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s are the USA’s go-to sources for burgers, fries, and all forms of carbonated sugar. Or are they? There’s a new generation of burger joints on the scene with their eye on the Mickey D’s throne, from regional staples with plans for expansion to more upscale spots hoping to lure customers in with fancier fare.
Here’s everything you need to know about fast-growing chains with an eye on world domination. Danny Meyer is just the beginning.
Number of locations: 34
Growth spurt: Danny Meyer opened Shake Shack’s Miami outpost, its first location outside of New York, in 2010. Four years later, concretes and Shackburgers are available across the East Coast, and Dubai residents have no less than five locations to choose from. Shake Shack may not be as unavoidable as McDonald’s, but after taking five years just to open its second location in New York, thirty new locations in less than half a decade is no mean feat.
Claim(s) to fame: Translating an obsession with quality previously reserved for fine dining to fast food; customizing every location to its city and neighborhood, including specific “concrete” flavors; swapping out its crinkle cut French fries for fresh cut after a scathing comment in a New York Times review (then changing them back to crinkle cut). (Photo: Liz Barclay)
Number of locations: 287
Growth spurt: Just seven years old, the chain started in Denver as the brainchild of Tom Ryan, a Ph.D. in flavor and fragrance chemistry, and Dave Prokupek, a b-school grad and former banker. Since 2007, Smashburger has expanded as far as Kuwait, with franchises in over 35 states.
Claim(s) to fame: Sharing a home state with Chipotle; customizing burgers by location; offering performance-based cash bonuses to employees, like paying line cooks fifty cents extra an hour for filling out orders in six minutes or less; and last but not least, literally “smashing” burgers with a steel mold to give patties a distinctive crispy texture. (Photo: Smashburger)
Number of locations: 24
Growth spurt: Like In-N-Out, Umami had long confined itself to the West Coast, with a healthy presence in its native Los Angeles and a few branches throughout Northern California starting in 2011. Then the massive Greenwich Village outpost introduced custom-made ketchups and truffle burgers to New York last year, and Manhattan’s never been the same since. (Its first East Coast location, however, is actually in Miami.)
Claim to fame: Ostensibly, it’s the expert use of “umami” to craft uber-appetizing combos like roasted tomato and parmesan crisp, two elements of the restaurant’s signature burger. In reality, Umami steps the class factor up a few notches; it’s a sit-down, full-service restaurant offering fancier versions of meat-and-potatoes fast food fare. Ahi tuna burger, anyone? (Photo: Flickr/Umami Burger)
Number of locations: Over 1,000
Growth spurt: Still family-owned by the Murrell clan, Five Guys doubled its locations between 2009 and 2012 alone, earning it the title of the fastest-growing fast food chain in the country. Today, it’s by far the biggest entry on this list, currently clocking in as the ninth-largest burger chain in America. Not bad for a DC local hero that began franchising in 2003.
Claim(s) to fame: Not using freezers in any of its restaurants; offering strictly burgers and fries—no chicken, no shakes, and definitely no veggie burgers; retaining a farm-to-table feel by displaying what farm each day’s potatoes come from in-restaurant; FREE PEANUTS. (Photo: Flickr)
Number of locations: 45
Growth spurt: Three years after opening in Falls Church, Virginia, Elevation began franchising in 2008. It’s now established in eleven states, and like Shake Shack and Smashburger, Elevation also has a significant presence in the Middle East. Kuwait and Dubai have their own locations, but so do less-conventional locales like Oman, Qatar, and Bahrain.
Claim to fame: One word—organic. The beef is grass-fed, the veggie burgers are cooked separately to avoid cross-contamination, the fries are cooked in olive oil, and there’s even a paleo option for guests. The eco-friendly vibe extends even to the decor: locations use bamboo, sorghum, compact fluorescent bulbs, and other energy-saving/easily renewable materials that have scored many locations a LEED certification. (Photo: Elevation)
Number of locations: 39
Growth spurt: Since the opening of its first location (Santa Monica, 2003), The Counter’s moved slowly and steadily on the franchise front. Expansion began in 2006, reached New York in 2011, and has reached both Dublin and, of course, Dubai.
Claim to fame: Customizing. Burgers range from the standard beef and veggie to more out-there picks like bison; brie, manchego, and gruyére cheeses are available on request; and topics run the gamut from guilt-mitigating fare like kale and quinoa to more over-the-top picks like smoked jalapeños and hard boiled eggs. With over 300,000 potential burgers, The Counter’s schtick is essentially “have it your way” to the Nth degree. (Photo: Flickr)
Number of locations: Over 150
Growth spurt: Dating back to 1947, Fatburger has the longest pedigree of virtually any burger chain out there—the big Expansion didn’t begin until the late ‘90s, though, and a $7 million investment kicked things into overdrive in 2003. Compared to ten years ago, Fatburger now skews heavily interational, with franchises opened or planned on every continent except Antarctica.
Claim(s) to fame: Briefly and unsuccessfully partnering with Kanye in Chicago; more fruitful celebrity relationships with Pharrell (China franchisee), Cher (investor), and Janet Jackson (ditto); opening its biggest location worldwide in Pakistan; having a strict order of toppings (tomato on bottom). (Photo: Fatburger)
Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers
Number of locations: 115
Growth spurt: Brothers Bill and Randy Simon opened up the first Freddy’s in Wichita, Kansas in 2002. Ten years after franchising, the chain is now in 17 states, reaching coast to coast. Ten years from now, the Simons plan on nearly tripling their enterprise with 400 new stores.
Claim(s) to fame: Bringing frozen custard to the Shake Shack-less masses; vintage/old-school vibe, possibly a tribute to the chain’s namesake—the owners’ dad, a World War II veteran. (Photo: Freddy’s)
Steak ‘n Shake
Number of locations: Over 500
Growth spurt: The Midwest’s answer to In-N-Out has roots stretching back way into the 1930s, when founder Gus Belt opened the first location in a town with the supremely Middle American name of Normal, Illinois. The chain went international in 2012, announcing dozens of planned locations in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and bicoastal just last month, with its first California location.
Claim(s) to fame: Making burgers with T-bone and sirloin, hence the name; cooking ‘em in plain view with a semi-open kitchen; using the “smash” technique long before Smashburger came into the picture; inspiring rabid dedication from native Midwesterners. (Photo: Liz Barclay)
The Habit Burger Grill
Number of locations: 106
Growth spurt: Yet another California native, Habit began in Santa Barbara in 1969. Since franchising last year, it’s expanded all over the Golden State, but with just one location out east (in New Jersey) and a few in Utah and Arizona, its reach remains limited outside the East Coast.
Claim to fame: Beating In-N-Out by a hair in Consumer Reports’ burger rankings a few years ago; its signature “Charburger,” cooked via—you guessed it—chargrilling. (Photo: Flickr)