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Burger joints build on taste for quality

Published: Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, June 20, 2012 09:06

"They still want hamburgers, but they want them to be different than they had them back in the day."

Rensi said he talked with Ryan about a Smashburger franchise, but he and fellow McDonald's alumnus Tom Dentice started Tom & Eddie's instead.

The 3-year-old gourmet burger chain expects to open its fifth suburban restaurant, this one in Naperville, Ill., in September. At Tom & Eddie's, patrons can expect to pay between $6 and $9 for a burger depending on toppings, which include avocado, house-made potato chips, apple slices, brie and piquante peppers.

Chicago's Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises also has been getting on the better-burger bandwagon, with M Burger, a 2-year-old chain with four locations in Chicago.

"We opened M Burger because I love that old-fashioned grilled burger you used to find at roadside stands," said Divisional Chef Partner Tim Hockett. "It's what McDonald's used to be." The chain's name is a play on the French pronunciation for hamburger, which sounds like "emburger."

M Burger's menu features naturally raised beef, chicken and turkey. In addition to the namesake sandwich, the chain prides itself on homemade lemonade and milkshakes made from in-house, low-fat, soft-serve ice cream.

These burger chains appear to be building on a winning concept that Lorton, Va.-based Five Guys Burgers and Fries ushered in on a nationwide level when it began franchising in 2002. It's been the fastest-growing restaurant chain in the U.S. by sales since 2008, up 32.8 percent in 2011, to $951 million, according to Technomic.

Five Guys has 1,035 locations, founder Jerry Murrell said.

While new burger concepts are "popping up all over the place," Murrell said, "there's plenty of room for competition." But he had words of caution for competitors that are building out the menu beyond burgers and fries.

"When you open a place up you have a tendency to start adding things and get away from the burger (and fries)," he said, adding that he's seen competitors "start having a little trouble with quality."

"We can't even make coffee right," Murrell said.

He's determined to keep things simple and not try to please everyone. That includes being more concerned with getting the burger right than having it arrive fast.

"We have a sign in some of our restaurants that says, 'If you're in a hurry, there are a lot of really good hamburger places close to here,' " Murrell said. "Some of our franchisees are afraid to use it."

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