Iain Ross-Mackenzie of Five Guys shares the secret recipe behind the global burger business

A cheeseburger is a creation so perfect in its simplicity that it barely needs any embellishments. But a stellar one, packed with patties that extend past the perimeter of the bun, melting cheese and a smattering of pickle coins, is a miniaturized festival. Jerry Murrell’s mother was right all along: “If you can give a good haircut or if you can serve a good hamburger, you can always make money in America.”

The CEO of Five Guys Jerry Murrell built a cult burger empire alongside his four sons (hence, the name of the brand), who were told to choose between starting a business or going to college. The business route was obviously more enticing, prompting the family to open their first burger joint in Arlington County, Virginia in 1986. Fast forward three decades later, Five Guys has over 1,600 locations across North America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East, with another 1,500 stores in the pipeline. The Pavilion KL outlet was opened recently, following the success of its second outpost in Malaysia at Resorts World Genting.

But how does Five Guys, which boasts 250,000 possible topping combinations and 1,000 different Shake mix-in choices, stack up to the rest? If you find yourself eating silently with your eyes closed while ignoring the inevitable burger-joint din, you have perhaps found yourself a winner. We speak to Senior Director of Operations for APAC, Australia and New Zealand Iain Ross-Mackenzie on the brand’s ethos, why a bun is more than just a toasty vehicle for your hand-crafted patties, and how a triumphant burger is more than just the sum of its parts.

Founder Jerry Murrell built a global business with a cult following around the world, proving that flipping burgers does not have to be a dead-end job. Were you part of that following?
Definitely. My wife and I were customers of Five Guys even before I landed a job with the brand in 2015. Since we like the burgers so much, I told her, “Why don’t we go work there?” Both of us have successful careers separately, but I dabbled more in the F&B industry such as catering and setting up a few dining establishments and bars on my own. Right after I interviewed with Five Guys, I opened its first store in the Middle East at Dubai Mall. So there I was, taking in the view of the Burj Khalifa while enjoying the outdoor seating, and thought to myself, “Wow, this is amazing!”

Early 2003, Murrell and his wife Janie began offering franchise opportunities, striking the grill when it was hot. In just under 18 months, more than 300 units were sold. Why did it take so long for Five Guys to arrive in Malaysia?
Well, Five Guys is a brand with an established history so finding a strategic partner in Malaysia, or any location for that matter, is difficult. It really is not just about the money because we want to enter the [burger] market and be able to open stores that last. The partnership with Zouk Group, which has a growing food and beverage portfolio in Asia, was great because it gave us an insider view into the F&B industry in Malaysia, which we are not exactly familiar with. Zouk Group shares the values ​​we uphold and appreciates the effort we invest in growing our people and maintaining food consistency. In fact, Zouk’s CEO Andrew Li spent a month with us in the kitchen, learning all the ropes of creating the perfect burger and fries, so he could understand the DNA of Five Guys better.

Being a food nation, Malaysia has a growing appetite for quality burgers, especially when we have cultivated a few homegrown brands in our backyard. How does Five Guys stand out among a sea of ​​fast food chains and burger joints?
I think there is a common misconception among customers about what Five Guys is. We do not consider ourselves a fast food joint but a quick-service restaurant, which prepares and assembles meals just like a chef would at a restaurant. There will always be competition, but our competitors are not brands or businesses — we are constantly competing to provide great service, engage with our customers and ensure that every meal we put out is absolutely consistent. To achieve that, we adopted technology that allows us to drive more actionable insights to further a customer’s journey, improve our automated inventory systems and POS, etc. But of course, you can never beat crew-to-customer service. We train our managers to be leaders, and educate them on food quality and safety. Our kitchen line is as clean as a hospital operating room because we strive to be the safest food restaurant in the world.

Speaking of contenders, Shake Shack is aiming to open ten stores in Malaysia. The first one is slated to open in 2023. Are you — pardon the pun — shaken by this friendly competition?
We always welcome anyone who comes into the burger market because there is always a demand for burgers. And we wish everyone the best. As mentioned, we just want to focus on our products as well as consumer choice, which is our utmost priority. I am sure people will appreciate our history of 36 years, which is built on nothing but authentic cheeseburgers.

Not many people know there are no freezers in your outlets but only coolers since most ingredients are freshly prepared daily. Are you also as meticulous and selective when sourcing potatoes for your popular fries?
Absolutely. Our fries go through a “mush test” to determine if they have been undercooked. But more crucially, our fries, as well as our patties and toppings, are made in-house everyday. Previously, we only used farm potatoes in Idaho that are grown north of the 42nd parallel because that area produces denser and higher quality spuds. But we have been researching for one to two years to bring in potatoes from other countries such as the Netherlands and Japan.

You have been living in Hong Kong for years, and helped to open several Five Guys outlets too. How does the fast-serve food culture or dining habits there differ from Malaysia?
Our Hong Kong stores are mostly corporate stores. So unlike franchisee stores, we handle contracts from suppliers and hiring of employees while overseeing their day-to-day work. What we have done for the outlets in Malaysia is to provide support to Zouk Group, helping the team make operational, tactical and strategic decisions. In other words, we preempt and anticipate pitfalls by using our experience of owning more than one thousand stores in the world. But we will never tell our franchisees what to do because they have the local knowledge.

Having said that, understanding the locals is crucial to any business. In Hong Kong for example, unless you get on the subway and ding ding everyday or walk around by foot, you will not truly know the place. I live in Tai Kok Tsui in Hong Kong, and I am glad to say that as an expat from South Kensington, I have slowly gotten used to the lifestyle there. I had a bit of a shock when I first moved to Hong Kong, especially when I used to live in a 2,000 sq ft home in Dubai. Initially, I thought I would buy a place in Hong Kong but the real estate agent told me, “You can have this lovely 400 sq ft for HK$20 million.” I was like, “Is that the price of the building? Where is the rest of the house?”

Where do you dine out in Hong Kong when you are not eating burgers, well, for research purposes?
You saw right through me [laughs]. If I see a burger I haven’t tasted or seen, I will definitely try it because that is, like you said, R&D. But on days when I just want a break, my first port of call is definitely a good Chinese restaurant or a reliable one chaa chan teng. I love and good char siew pau semi pau and roasted pork. Malaysia has similar offerings too — the char siew is different from Hong Kong but I really thought it tasted better.

For more information on Five Guys Malaysia, see game.

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