A couple weeks ago, I found myself at Five Guys staring forlornly at a sad, almost not-there, little bacon cheeseburger patty blanketed by a distinctly unmelted slice of cheese product. I was disinterestedly making my way through a pile of dark scorched fries and wondering just why I spent twenty minutes waiting for this meal when I caught sight of the “Voted Best French Fries” award on the wall from the Colorado Springs Gazette (formerly the Gazette-Telegraph), one of – if not the – worst, most hyper-partisan and juvenile excuses for a media outlet in this entire great country. Just the reminder that the newspaper is still in business put me in a lousy funk, which wasn’t helped by the fact I felt like I had just ingested a brick. And don’t even get me started on the whole absurdity of the not-a-town, not-a-center-of-anything trainwreck of a development called Peninsula Town Center that has taken root in a Target parking lot …
See, I hadn’t been to a Five Guys in a while, and a late weekend lunch there on that particular day seemed like a good fit. I really used to enjoy Five Guys’ burgers in a guilty pleasure sort of way, thinking of the restaurant as an east-coast version of In-N-Out Burger that was almost as good and cost just a little more (sort of like when you look at an iPad versus a laptop … but I digress). When Five Guys opened up in Hampton last year, it was like the Pope showed up everyday to offer mile-long lines of the faithful a greasier version of the communion, so I kind of waited for the fervor to die down. You can imagine my disappointment when I sat down to my pathetic little burger and fries that I’d just parted with $8.61 for (tax in the “Town Center” is a whopping 12%) only to be mocked by those idiots running the Gazette.
So when I was driving down King Street a couple days later, and I saw Smitty’s Better Burger, I realized this was a sign. It was if the heavens had opened up and said, yes, there is something more to a fast-food burger than Five Guys’ half-hearted attempt.
“Yes, there IS a better burger,” the voices said to me … “if you can find the guts to step out of your slick brand-name, franchise, must-support-out-of-state-businesses-in-stupid-developments rut, you too can have a better burger.”
Which, naturally, sounded like a challenge to me.
Does Smitty’s have a better burger? Surely, I need to find out. But I need to do it in a scientific-y sort of way, so I need some criteria and stuff like that.
Since we’re talking fast-food here, let’s focus on value first. That means we should look at how much burger you get per buck. Since time is money, how long you have to wait is key, too. Next up is the burger. We know the E. coli scare brought on by the USDA’s regulatory impotence means we’re going to get hopelessly overcooked (i.e., “well-done” which is plainly not the same as “done well”) patties, so there are points for any remaining moisture at all in the category of “overall taste.” So that’s, what, three categories? Four is toppings, and five is employee friendliness, since smiles are free and leaving a fast-food joint feeling at least a little connected to it is priceless. Lest this get too complicated, let’s give each category 20 points for a grand total of 100 and get on with the burger eating part of this.
Once upon a time, Five Guys was a family-run burger joint – the first restaurant opened in Arlington, Virginia, in 1986. The Murrell family opened up five more locations in the Washington, D.C., area over the following 15 years. In 2002, however, they apparently decided that amassing piles of cash was more of an honorable calling than running a small local burger chain, so they started selling franchises at such a frenetic pace that they now boast 750 stores in 40+ states as well as four Canadian provinces, with another 200 stores slated open this year. So, mom-and-pop joint? Not so much. On their website, you can buy everything from hoodies to license plate holders, learn how to open your very own Five Guys franchise (although they report that all the markets in the U.S. are “sold out”) and use their on-line ordering system. They even have a mobile app so that you can order from your phone.
I went back to Five Guys around noon on a Friday and waited a tolerable seven minutes in line to give my order to an employee exhibiting that characteristic dull-eyed, beat-down and soulless fast-food exuberance, which is to say she was focused on something over my shoulder as she mechanically rattled off, “WelcometoFiveGuysmayItakeyourorderplease?” She yelled “one patty!” over her shoulder, and that was that in a I-feel-a-little-dirty-one-night-stand sort of way. Another seven minutes went by while I waited for the gaggle of cooks to put the burger together, and the guy who handed my order to me almost seemed like he meant it when he looked at me seriously and said sternly, “Enjoy.”
This time, the cheese on my “little cheeseburger” was actually melted, and the burger seemed a little more substantial. Since trying to gauge the size of the burger by eyeballing it seemed to be a little less than scientifical, I decided to put the thing on a scale. The whole burger, which I ordered “all the way” came to 9.75 ounces. The meat and cheese (I couldn’t separate the two, so I weighed them together) weighed in at 2.63 ounces. Most readers would say of this information: “And this means what to me?”
For you metric folks out there, four ounces is a quarter pound, so obviously, Five Guys’ burger patty came in well short of that mark (I know the uncooked weight was more than 2.63 ounces, but until Five Guys will serve me my burger tartare, I could give a rip what it weighed before it hit the grill).
Pre-tax, the little cheeseburger will set you back $4.29. Note that Hampton charges something like 11.5% sales tax, and Peninsula Town Center adds an extra .5% on top of that just for kicks (actually, it’s part of yet another welfare program for corporate entities to ensure Peninsula Town Center’s upper-level management gets fat bonuses every Christmas). Anyway, pre-tax, the whole burger comes to 44 cents an ounce, while the beef and cheese comes to $1.63 per ounce – in other words, the beef patty and slice of American cheese clocks in at $26.08 per pound. That’s a pretty hearty profit margin, considering ground beef is going for about $2.50 a pound at the local grocery store.
Toppings-wise, Five Guys has a lot going on. Ordering the burger “all the way” gets you a veritable smorgasbord of accoutrements: mayo, lettuce, pickles, tomatoes, grilled onions, grilled mushrooms, ketchup and mustard. If that’s not enough for you, you can get relish, onions, jalapenos, green peppers, A-1 steak sauce, barbeque sauce and hot sauce thrown at the burger. At some point, you might find yourself wondering whether the toppings are a bigger deal at Five Guys than the burger itself, and I would say you just hit on the main problem with Five Guys’ burgers: they are basically swimming in the condiments. In fact, Five Guys should probably list the burger patty itself as a topping and go from there, because the meat is hardly playing the leading role.
Shoving all the toppings to the side, Five Guys’ burger was tender, but pretty dry. I’d say it was mere seconds of griddle time away from being jerky tough. With the toppings, the sandwich is a sloppy, drippy affair with way too much mayo, ketchup and mustard. Although I’m a devoted fan of grilled onions, they just add more moisture to the already saturated glob of toppings. I want to say Five Guys used to use whole, crunchy lettuce leaves on their sandwiches, but mine came with chopped iceberg that seemed an awful lot like it arrived pre-cut in large plastic bags.
All in all, the Five Guys burger is tasty enough, but the taste is all toppings and no burger. In other words, you could replace the burger patty with a slice of leftover Tofurky, and you really wouldn’t notice any difference.
Smitty’s Better Burger
Unlike Five Guys, Smitty’s is an actual mom-and-pop joint, opened by Paul and Edith Smith in 1956. According to their website, Paul still owns the place (no word on what became of Edith, though), and the restaurant remains family-run. To give you a sense of Smitty’s ties to the local community, their website is hosted by PC Doctors, a hole-in-the-wall computer joint just a couple blocks down the road.
The restaurant itself is a drive-in style place – the kind that ushered in the fast-food movement in the U.S. The concept is that you pull up, a carhop comes out and takes your order, and you eat in your car with a shelf attached to your window for condiments and whatnot. Or you just tell them you want it to go, and you get your food in a bag like any other fast-food place.
Smitty’s physical structure is showing its age. From the peeled-up tin roof to the flaking paint and what appears to be a completely dysfunctional neon sign, Smitty’s is screaming for a little TLC (if not an outright overhaul). Judging by their rock-bottom prices, I can see how they might not have much in the way of cash reserves for capital improvements, but perhaps the new apartment complex down the way will become home to a larger customer base.
Trying to keep the two restaurants on a level playing field, I went to Smitty’s on a Friday at noon. Six minutes passed from the time I drove up to the time I drove away (versus the 14 minutes at Five Guys, which didn’t take into account the time it took me to park and walk in and out of the restaurant).
As soon as I pulled up, a cheerful waitress – I mean, carhop – bounded out to the car to take my order, throwing at least one “sweetie” my way. When my burger came out, she made change on the spot and smiled as she told me to be careful pulling out onto King Street.
My “all-the-way” Smitty’s better burger (plus cheese) came with a thin layer of mustard, two slices of tomato, two pickle slices, chopped onions and chopped iceberg lettuce. For an extra 35 cents, I could have added hot peppers, fried onions or green peppers (or chili for 40 cents). The patty at Smitty’s, while still well-done, was closer to medium-well and was both slightly moist and tender. The bun was fresh and not smashed, unlike Five Guys’ which seemed to involve employees trying to fit the sandwich in a too-small wrapper.
Pre-tax, Smitty’s better burger clocks in at $2.70 for the burger, plus 40 cents for the cheese. The whole sandwich weighed 9 ounces (versus 9.75 at Five Guys), which means Smitty’s came in at 30 cents an ounce (as opposed to 44 cents at Five Guys). Smitty’s beef and cheese weighed 3.125 ounces which amounts to 86 cents per ounce, or $13.76 per pound – essentially half the price of Five Guys.
Here’s how I figured the points. 20 points per category for a total of 100.
1. Value: 1 point for every nickel under $1.00 per ounce (based on the entire sandwich)
2. Wait: 1 point for every minute under 20 it took to get the burger
3. Overall Taste.
Five Guys score:
- Value: 11 points
- Wait: 6
- Taste: 16
- Toppings: 20
- Friendliness: 5
- Value: 14 points
- Wait: 14
- Taste: 17
- Toppings: 15
- Friendliness: 18
So, through careful analysis, I have determined that, yes, Virginia, there is a better burger. If you go to Smitty’s, you get a good sandwich, you support a real local business, and you don’t have to think about the pretend newspaper Gazette at all. It’s a win, all the way around.
And even though I didn’t factor it in for points, it’s worth noting that Smitty’s makes some killer tater tots.
Grade (for Smitty’s): B
Address: 1313 N. King Street, Hampton
Phone: (757) 723-0661
Urbanspoon patrons seem to agree: