Burger War as Five Guys, Shake Shack to Open in London

A burger war is about to break out in London with the arrival from the U.S. next week of two of the most successful and respected companies in the business.

Five Guys, which opens in Covent Garden on July 4, is a family outfit that started in Washington, D.C., in 1986. It has expanded to more than 1,000 locations in the U.S. and Canada. Shake Shack, also in Covent Garden, holds its opening party the same day.

Both plan to expand and will compete with homegrown burger chains such as with Byron, as well as with each other and with giants such as McDonald’s Corp. and Burger King in the U.K. market.

“We’ve set up a British company and we would never have decided to come here if we didn’t believe that if we do our job, the market could support a minimum of three,” Danny Meyer said in an interview. He created Shake Shack at a hot-dog cart in New York’s Madison Square Park before winning approval for a permanent kiosk in 2004.

It will be the first U.K. outpost for Meyer, whose Union Square Hospitality Group owns venues across Manhattan, including Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern. Shake Shack has outlets in six U.S. states as well as in the Middle East and Turkey.

As in New York, customers will be given a beeper and called when their food is ready. The outlet is right inside the market at Covent Garden.

Burger Market

“I heard a statistic recently that the total burger market in the U.S. -- and I don’t know who did this measure -- is about $7 billion a year,” Meyer said in an interview. “Of that, the better-burger category is at roughly $2 billion, of which probably half is Five Guys and the rest is a bunch of us.

“What’s exciting about it from our standpoint is that while eating a burger is not a new trend -- it’s been going on since the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s -- people are now saying when I want a burger, I want it to be a good burger.

“People used to be in a position where they had three choices: McDonalds, Burger King and Wendy’s. People picked a favorite and that’s where they ate. Now what we’re seeing is that because every burger place is doing it slightly differently, when I want a burger, I can pay a little bit more but it will be better and it will be different.”

Five Guys is situated on Long Acre, a five-minute walk away. The initial plan is for five outlets in and around London before expanding across the U.K. Charles Dunstone, who founded Carphone Warehouse Group Plc, is a 50-50 partner in the U.K., according to the Evening Standard. The second site will be in Reading. Last July, Forbes profiled Five Guys as the fastest-growing restaurant chain in the U.S. and said it had doubled its number of stores since 2009.

From the customer’s point of view, one of the pleasures of Five Guys is that there is no charge for the toppings. There are about 15 and you can have as many as you want.

(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. He is U.K. and Ireland chairman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Catherine Hickley on German art, Zinta Lundborg’s interviews, Richard Vines on food and John Mariani on wine.