Burger wars coming to Alexandria


Following in the footsteps of the wildly popular Five Guys, whose Alexandria founders made a mint franchising their no-frills concept of burgers for the masses, Falls Church-based Elevation Burger is bringing its organic “Big Phat Burgers,” grilled cheese sandwiches and chocolate chip oatmeal sandwiches to Alexandria.

Elevation Burger, founded in 2005, has signed three multi-unit franchising deals that will bring about a dozen new restaurants to the District, Northern Virginia and New Jersey. The new partnerships are in addition to five corporate-owned stores the company plans to open in the area by 2010.

Billed as “classy food for the masses,” the restaurants offer organic burgers using only organic, grass-fed, free-range beef and fresh cut fries cooked in olive oil. The menu includes hamburgers, cheeseburger with “real cheddar cheese,” and something called “The Big Phat Burger” with Double Meat.

There’s also the Veggie Patty #1, which Elevation Burger says “Tastes sort of like meat,” and the Veggie Patty #2, which “Tastes like veggies.”  There’s also a “Half the Guilt Burger” which includes one veggie and one meat patty.

The company embarked on a major expansion of its concept through franchises in January.  The seven new restaurants will be located in Old Town, Kingstowne, Shirlington, Arlington and Crystal City, as well a few around the campus of George Washington University.

Elevation Burgers expects their franchises to be up and running by the end of 2008 or early 2009.

Company officials hope to follow in the footsteps of Five Guys Burgers and Fries, which after a strong start in Alexandria 15 years ago, went nationwide three years ago and has sold out just about every franchise location available.

It all started in 1986, when Jerry Murrell, longtime Alexandria resident and father of the “five guys” for whom the eatery is named, had $70,000 in the bank. Murrell decided to offer his (then) three teenage boys a choice between going to college and opening a family business. They chose the latter.

And being a family that enjoyed a good burger, the sons convinced their father to try his hand at making burgers and fries. To find their niche in the hamburger market, Murrell and his family put their energies into creating the freshest burger in town.

Janie Murrell, business partner and mother of the “five guys,” said that, “We have always used fresh ground beef and real ingredients like cheese and bacon. We don’t believe in using anything that’s imitation. Even the potatoes we use are fresh-cut right in our kitchens.”

They also built a reputation for having the most reasonable price in town. “We’ve done this by keeping our overhead low. We use paper napkins, Styrofoam cups and brown paper bags. We’ve never been fancy. Our goal has always been to serve a fresh, tasty meal at a good price. It’s always been about quality. We even make our own buns.”

Public Relations Manager Molly Brown said that Five Guys has grown into a cult-like following. “People love Five Guys. Whenever I wear my company T-shirt, folks want to talk to me and tell me how much they love the burgers and fries. I’ve worked with other franchises and I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s amazing.”

Beginning in 1987, the fast-food restaurant expanded its chain to eight corporate-owned stores serving the D.C. metro area. In the past two years, Five Guys has opened 60 franchised stores on the East Coast.

Since the early days, the owners have been approached by many companies and individuals who had an interest in becoming a part of the action, but the family said it held out until the right opportunity came along.

“In 2002, the owners agreed to accept offers for franchising investors. Today we have more than 400 units already reserved nationwide,” said Brown. “When we opened the Tysons Corner location, it was a realization of how much the family has grown their business.”

Now, she said, “being able to drive outside of our immediate area and see a Five Guys restaurant has been exhilarating for the Murrells.”

However, she said, “we had a wonderful opportunity with a great group of people, so we went with it. This has always been a family business, focused on quality. We do everything for our franchise’s that we do for our corporate-owned stores, so the quality is always the same.

 Five Guys now operates as three separate companies: Five Guys Inc. (the corporate-owned entity), Five Guys Enterprises (the franchise group) and Five Guys Bakery (which distributes bread to all locations).

Because of the popularity of the Five Guys franchise, the group now has a presence in most of the major East Coast markets, with about 400 locations, from Florida to Maine.

“We never intended to grow the way we have, ” Janie Murrell said. “We were thinking we’d stay in Northern Virginia.”

Danielle Vendetti and Tina Games Evans contributed to this article.