August 20, 2014

THE HUB: Burger bash

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Five Guys gives Al’s French Frys a run for its money

Jan. 19, 2012

By Luke Baynes

Observer staff

 

Al’s French Frys (top), a Williston Road fixture since 1946, faces new competition with the arrival of Vermont’s first Five Guys Burgers and Fries (bottom), which opened in South Burlington’s Gateway Shopping Center on Jan. 9 to large demand. (Observer photos by Luke Baynes)

The British are nuts about their tea, Italians are the authority on pasta, but Americans are the experts when it comes to burgers.

Apple pie and ice cream aside, is there anything more American than burgers and fries?

Throw in a Coca-Cola and you have the All-American trifecta.

So it came as no surprise that the opening of a Five Guys Burgers and Fries in the greater Burlington area on Jan. 9 was a gala occasion for Chittenden County residents.

Five Guys, a Virginia-headquartered fast casual chain, has developed a cult following since expanding from a family-run business to a franchise in 2002. Although it has branched out to the West Coast and now has a presence in more than 40 states, Five Guys is predominantly an East Coast phenomenon — the Atlantic equivalent of the California-based In-N-Out Burger, which was immortalized by the cult classic movie “The Big Lebowski.”

The newest Five Guys, located in South Burlington’s Gateway Shopping Center on Shelburne Road (U.S. 7), is the franchise’s first store in Vermont.

“There isn’t a Five Guys within 100 miles of here, so there’s a lot of pent-up demand,” said Greg Vasey, owner of the South Burlington Five Guys and the Vermont franchise holder for the chain.

On Jan. 9, a Monday, the lunch hour lines were backed up to the door of Vasey’s newly christened store. Patient patrons chewed on complementary peanuts as they waited — some anticipating their first taste of Five Guys; others familiar with the burgers via airport layovers.

“I get my haircut next door (at Supercuts), so I was excited to see this open up,” said Aaron Reiter, a South Burlington resident. “I think they’re going to do well, with all the commuters coming off of (Interstate) 189.”

Vasey noted that the South Burlington location will likely be the first of several locations in Vermont, which could include Williston.

“We’ve looked in Williston, and we’re taking it very seriously,” said Vasey. “We’re looking around the Taft Corners area, probably, but we’ll eventually want to be close to the highway if not on the highway. We want to be close to the big box shopping center draw, but certainly not in their parking lot, either.”

But Vasey added that any expansion into Williston would be secondary to locating a store in downtown Burlington.

“I would expect Church Street to be our next move,” he said.

FIVE GUYS VS. AL’S FRENCH FRYS

For some locals, there’s one — and only one — burger and fries joint: Al’s French Frys, a Vermont staple since the 1940s.

“Definitely Al’s — it’s a local tradition,” said Georgia resident Steve Minor, when asked if he prefers Al’s or Five Guys. “I think people come here because it’s good value for the money, and it’s a tradition, too.”

Hingham, Mass. native Maggie Ryan, a senior at the University of Vermont, dined at Five Guys in high school, but said she prefers Al’s, located on Williston Road in South Burlington.

“Al’s isn’t a chain,” Ryan said. “I like that — especially in Vermont.”

A cash-only establishment with a sound system that croons doo-wop oldies, Al’s is definitively “old school,” maintaining a loyal customer base that spans generations.

Yet for some burger connoisseurs, quality trumps tradition.

“Al’s is a landmark, but the burger here (at Five Guys) beats any burger I’ve ever had,” said South Burlington resident Evan Nolting.

Jason Burachowski of Richmond agrees.

“It’s a similar atmosphere to Al’s, but I think the food is better (at Five Guys),” Burachowski said.

Al’s co-owner Bill Bissonette conceded that Five Guys is likely to cut into his business to a certain extent.

“They’ll grab some sales — there’s no question. They do a good job at what they do,” Bissonette said of Five Guys. “But I guess you have to remember that we’re next door to the biggest food empire in the world with McDonald’s, and you know what? We’ve been plugging right along just fine.”

Vasey, who owns several Five Guys stores on the North Shore of Massachusetts, downplayed the burger rivalry with Al’s.

“Actually, I’ve eaten at Al’s 10 times or more,” Vasey said. “We don’t see ourselves as any sort of a challenge to Al’s. We think that we can both drive business together. If people start talking about Five Guys and Al’s — if they want to have that conversation — at least they’re talking about the both of us.”

Although Bissonette referred to Five Guys as “kind of like a knockoff of Al’s at the end of the day,” he also had positive things to say about the new guys in town.

“You know, I’m happy to just be put in the same page as (Five Guys),” said Bissonette. “They’re a national chain, they do really well, and hey, it’s nice to be even compared to them.”

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