Red-and-white tiles line the walls under framed reviews from around the country. An army of 20-somethings stands behind the counter sporting matching red-and-white T-shirts, and sacks of potatoes and boxes of peanut oil rest near the register, looking almost forgotten in the middle of the room.
It’s Wednesday, April 20, opening day for the Five Guys restaurant on Pacific Avenue. Only a half-dozen tables in the 2,500-square-foot space are taken. It would appear to be an inauspicious debut for a burger joint on what happens to be stoners’ biggest weed-smoking celebration of the year. But Malav Patel, one of the franchise owners, says the chain never promotes the opening of new locations, hoping instead to spread the news through word of mouth.
Today is something of a “soft opening,” he says. Five Guys likes to open a location on a Tuesday or Wednesday, and by Saturday night, Patel says, a line will be out the door. “It just happened to be Wednesday. Nothing to do with 420,” he says.
The atmosphere that Patel and his cohort are going for is “fast-casual,” a dining experience that’s slightly higher-end than traditional fast food, and a term that’s come to be the latest buzzword in the American food industry.
Around the U.S., there is a growing number of chain restaurants itching to cater to the fast-casual crowd, including Shake Shack, the Habit, the Counter, and Blaze Pizza. Then there are the local eateries like Santa Cruz’s the Picnic Basket, which opened in 2011, and India Joze, which re-opened after a 10-year hiatus in 2010, and even a rotating slate of pop-up restaurants, like Lawman Ramen, which are only open a few hours a week.
The arrival of Five Guys as Santa Cruz’s first major chain in this category raises some questions, starting with whether or not Five Guys is fast-casual at all.
“They’ve got hamburgers, hot dogs and fries—and nothing else. How do you call that fast-casual?” asks Jozseph Schultz, chef and founder of India Joze, who suggests fast-casual dining is something closer to Chipotle Mexican Grill.
Patel, though—who for his part refers to the chain as the “Chipotle of burgers”—says it takes them just a little longer to prepare a meal than it would at a typical fast-food joint. “We don’t do fast food,” says Patel, who owns two other Five Guys locations, one in Salinas and the one in the Capitola Mall that opened last fall. “It takes up to seven minutes to get the burger and the fries and the shake. So, it’s different than In-N-Out or somebody else, which has drive-through. We can’t do drive-through, because our food takes longer.”
Patel, who prefers not to say what he did before coming to Five Guys, is wearing a McAfee anti-virus polo and light-blue jeans. He says that with 1,350 locations worldwide, Five Guys is on the cutting edge of the fast-casual trend. Shake Shack, an East Coast-based burger chain with more than 80 locations, made a splash of its own two years ago when it went public on Wall Street, where its stocks have performed well. After McDonald’s launched its “premium” burger line in the United Kingdom last year, many interpreted it as a response to the growth of chains like Five Guys and Shake Shack.
“It’s an interesting time when people are thinking, ‘Let’s try something really new and daring. How about … hey, hamburgers! Now there’s something we haven’t ever had,’” says Schultz, who worries that the efficiency and simplicity in a chain like Five Guys leaves out what’s best about restaurants.
“It started about 10 years ago that people started to do this, ‘Whoa. Let’s be really transgressive. Let’s have a burger,’” Schultz says.
The fast-casual trend appeared to secure its footing in the Great Recession’s aftermath, as wages were slow to recover, prompting Americans to be more conscious about their dollars. (That may help explain why more expensive chains like Red Lobster and Olive Garden have suffered major losses in the past few years, forcing sales and restructuring.) Particularly in Santa Cruz, Schultz says he doesn’t know how young people survive with living costs so high, insisting that 20-somethings pay 20 to 50 times what he paid when he moved here over 40 years ago.
Zachary Davis, who helped create the Picnic Basket and other “it” Santa Cruz dining destinations, says that after the recession, people have been more concerned about value than ever before, but that people are valuing more than just a great deal—they crave authenticity and want to know the story behind what they’re eating. That, he suggests, is why many chain restaurants have suffered.
“People want to understand their food in a way that never concerned us before,” explains Davis, a fresh order from the Kickin’ Chicken lunch popup in front of him. Davis and his business partner Kendra Baker run HEY POPUP, a space right next to their restaurant Assembly which can be rented by culinary upstarts like Kickin’ Chicken.
Patel has also seen a shift in people wanting to know more about their food, and he says that’s why they leave containers of peanut oil and potatoes out in the open. “We want to convey the message of fresh. Those ones, those exact ones—that’s the oil that we’re going to fry them in,” he says.
Patel says part of what customers love about Five Guys is that the food is healthier than typical fast food. But with a $8.29 bacon cheese burger coming in at 925 calories before adding any toppings, eating off this menu doesn’t exactly scream healthy. And for years red meat has been linked to heart disease.
Still, Patel says that Five Guys is selective about its meat, which is never frozen and doesn’t come pre-cooked. Typical customers, he adds, only eat at Five Guys once every week or two, maybe after a good workout. “When I work out, I don’t mind eating whatever I want, because I feel that as a reward for my workout,” he says. “A lot of our customers eat here every week, every two weeks. They have planned it in their schedule—every Saturday I’m going to eat here, or every Sunday, I’m going to eat here, or whatever. They have a full schedule worked out.”
Davis, who can see Five Guys from Assembly’s patio across the street, says he’s curious to see how the chain does in Santa Cruz.
“I wouldn’t want to be a burger shop next door to them,” Davis says, his voice trailing off. “But you know, I don’t know if that’s true. Like, if I was Verve [Coffee Roasters], I would be tempted to open up next to Starbucks and steal their customers, because I think Verve is better than Starbucks. That was the Starbucks’ model for a long time—open up next to a local business and take their business. But I feel like if you’re doing something well, you can put the shoe on the other foot.”