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Fast food is changing for the better. Every other Friday, I fly through Baltimore Airport, known to many as BWI, around 6PM after a long week of work. When I land, I am extremely hungry and ready for something good to eat. At most airports, I grab a granola bar and wait till I get home to eat because of the bad food.  BWI has the typical fast food choices: McDonalds, Quiznos, Subway, a sports bar with an overpriced burger, Dunkin Donuts, a tasteless pizza place and, of course, a Starbucks. BWI has something that most airports don’t have: a Chipotle. Chipotle is the only restaurant in the airport with any customers. Last Friday, I patiently waited in a 15 minute line for my usual, a steak burrito. There was no line at McDonalds.

Chipotle has changed the way consumers think about fast food. Chipotle has elevated the fast food experience through good food and natural ingredients at a fair price. As Joe from Chipotle tweeted “Its not easy to find good food in airports”. He’s right, but that shouldn’t be the case. Chipotle has successfully challenged many of the rules in the fast food industry. Consumers are willing to wait 15-20 minutes in line and risk missing their flight for the good food at a fair value that Chipotle is offering. Chipotle asked the question, “Why shouldn’t fast food and airport food be good and good for you?” They have changed the game and other fast food restaurants will need to change or risk major sales decreases.

Have you eaten at Chipotle?  

Boston Chicken was one of the hottest fast-food restaurant concepts of the late 80’s and 90’s. The chain experienced rapid growth. They offered a differentiated fast casual dining experience. Like many great ideas, the chain grew too fast and lost its sense of purpose and what made them successful in the race for quick profits. Under new leadership, can Boston Market become relevant again?

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Boston Chicken was founded in 1985 in Newton, Massachusetts by Steve Kolow and Arthur Cores. Not long after it opened, Boston Chicken was a smash hit. Consumers began flocking to the take-out chicken store and telling their friends about their discovery. Word of mouth helped fuel strong growth. Positive press from the Boston Globe also spread the word. For $5 to $7, a person could buy a relatively healthy, freshly cooked, home-style meal. The same plates would cost $10 to $15 in a sit-down restaurant and would take time to prepare.

During 1993, the chain tripled in size to 217 stores. Boston Chicken went public in November 1993. Enthusiastic investors bought heavily as Boston Chicken’s stock price soared. It had a larger first day price increase than Google. The aggressive expansion plan would prove to be the cause of the company’s financial demise. The name was changed to Boston Market in 1995 to reflect its growing menu. I don’t think this was the best decision. By 1997, Boston Market, had over 1,100 restaurants in operation and over $1 Billion in sales.

Poor employee training, high operating expenses, changing consumer tastes and a mediocre customer experience contributed to a declining sales trend. In 1998, Boston market declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy and closed over 400 stores as part of its re-structuring plan. In 2000, McDonald’s purchased the chain and began re-tooling operations. In the seven years that McDonald’s owned the chain it largely fell under the radar. In 2007, McDonald’s sold Boston Market to turn-around expert Sun Capital. Sun Capital specializes in fixing cultures of companies that are losing money.

Sun Capital has been working to revitalize the Boston Market Brand. One of the first steps was to go back to the original Boston Chicken format, neighborhood locations with a smaller footprint. The next step has been to engage employees in support of a common purpose of “Helping Families Eat Better.” Boston Market has also undergone a menu revamp dubbed “America’s Kitchen Table” as well as a shift to real plates and silverware and other enhancements to the guest experience. These improvements have led to 21 consecutive months of same store sales increases. They have fixed the core and have recently begun to introduce new products like ribs and have plans to open a limited number of new stores. After falling off the radar for years, Boston Market is attempting to make a comeback. It remains to be seen if they will be successful.

Have you eaten at a Boston Market recently?

Five Guys was founded in 1985 by Jerry Murrell in suburban Washington DC.  Murrell had four sons who didn’t want to go to college, so Murrell thought of using the money he had saved for college to start a burger business. He named it Five Guys after his four sons and himself. In 1987, a fifth son was born and the chain is now named for his five sons.

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When he developed the Five Guys concept, Jerry wanted to capture the authenticity of a burger joint in the small town in Michigan where he grew up. Five Guys created a new twist in the fast-food burger market. The burgers are not mass-produced, like they are at McDonald’s and Burger King, but are made to order and served with a large helping of hand-cut fries. Five Guys serves only hand-formed burgers grilled to perfection. The fresh-cut fries are cooked in pure peanut oil.

Five Guys has helped to build what has become known as the “Better Burger Category” of fast-casual restaurants. “Better Burgers” are hamburgers which sell in the $8 range. “Better Burgers” are now a $2.2 Billion segment of the hamburger market that grew 16% in 2011. Five Guys has nearly 50% of that segment. The entire fast-food burger category is a $40 billion industry in the United States that is dominated by McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s. Growth in this segment has been more modest at about 3%. Americans are falling in love with a better burger product.

Other “Better Burger” chains existed before Five Guys. In-N-Out Burger, which started in California was founded in the late 1940’s, Fuddruckers started in 1980. The category really took off around 2005 with the rise of Five Guys. Burger Lounge, based in San Diego, is offering a grass-fed beef in its burgers and has a unique place in this growing category.

Today Five Guys has more than 1,000 stores nationwide. The Murrell family runs 200 of them and the rest are franchises. All of the franchise territories in the United States and Canada have been sold.

Five Guys has built a strong loyal following through word of mouth. Five Guys has also benefited from some great press. In 2009, President Obama stopped in for a cheeseburger, with dozens of cameramen in tow.

Five Guys is a great example of brand that has been built by focusing on delivering a great product and an excellent customer experience. They have for the most part avoided traditional advertising.

As Murrell’s mother always told him, “if you can give a good haircut, make a good drink and make a good hamburger, you’ll be all right in life”.

Who makes your favorite hamburger?