Five Guys: an America's Hottest Brands Case Study

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Five Guys
Tony Pettinato
Sometimes the best marketing is no marketing at all -- at least if you're Five Guys Burgers and Fries. The 30-year-old Lorton, Va.-based chain, which began franchising in 2002, has developed a cult-like following along the Eastern seaboard and into the Midwest, for its juicy, greasy burgers and friendly service. They round out the sparse menu with hot dogs, mini burgers and grilled cheese or veggie sandwiches. And that's all, except for a range of free, beyond-the-norm toppings such as grilled mushrooms, green peppers and jalapenos. The chain is one of the fastest-growing in the fast-casual category, opening 140 locations so far this year. Sales grew 59% in 2008, when Five Guys also opened 118 restaurants.

Instead of advertising, spokeswoman Molly Catalano said that the company invests in an intensive secret shopper program. Restaurant crew members can earn additional pay by getting high scores from secret shoppers. Five Guys invests up to $4 million per quarter, but it's up to $8 million so far this year. And the investment adds up for Five Guys employees at its 500 restaurants. Ms. Catalano said that some of them can add hundreds of dollars to their pay in a given month.

"And if you're an hourly employee making $7 to $10 an hour, that can make a big difference," she said.

Because the chain has seen the shopper bonuses as its marketing, it's been difficult to divert the funds to traditional initiatives. "Whenever people call us with opportunities, we have to ask if it's worth taking money away from our employees," she said. "It's hard to take money out of that kind of program."

The chain has not hired an outside PR agency, and it declines most interview requests. Five Guys President Jerry Murrell, for example, declined an interview for this story.

"Our PR is similar to how we market," Ms. Catalano said. "We're not very proactive. We don't really pitch stories and we don't really send out press releases either."

But that hasn't kept good press at bay. Five Guys scored an unsolicited endorsement from President Obama, who came in while filming a day-in-the-life interview with Brian Williams. He had a cheeseburger with lettuce, tomato and jalapenos.

Five Guys saw a nationwide traffic bump after the presidential pit stop, but didn't issue a release, or mention it in any social media. "We figured there was so much buzz anyway," Ms. Catalano said. "We wanted the president, or any celebrity or official, to feel they can come in and we're not going to exploit it."

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