At some burger chains, french fries are a side dish. At Five Guys, they’re an obsession for customers and employees alike. The Lorton, Virginia–based chain now has more than 1,300 locations around the globe, with rabid fans who swear by the savory burgers and that glorious single side item: hand-cut french fries.
“They’re our passion,” says Chad Murrell, one of founder Jerry Murrell’s five sons — the “five guys” in the name of the restaurant. “They are the hardest thing we have to do, but people think that it’s the easiest. If you don’t do them right, they’re still kinda good and people don’t complain. But that doesn’t cut it with us!”
When Murrell’s father decided to open up his first hamburger stand, he knew that the perfect burger needed a proper complement. “We grew up going to Ocean City [Maryland], where there were all sorts of stands that sold boardwalk fries. But we loved Thrasher’s the best,” Murrell says, referencing a three-location burger joint that dates back to 1929. “We decided that we had to do it like Thrasher’s.”
The Murrells also recognized that they needed a hook to distinguish their product from a great home-grilled burger. “You can cook your own burger in the backyard, but you can’t make fries like ours unless you buy the best ingredients and practice our methods. It’s a lot harder than just buying fresh potatoes. We call our fry cooks mad scientists.”
The vast majority of those potatoes come from Idaho, with the chain’s annual purchase of 140 million pounds representing more than 5 percent of the state’s entire output. “We’ve perfected the process now, so all our potatoes are Burbanks from Idaho except for two months of the year, when the Idaho potatoes are too soft for us to fry in peanut oil since they absorb too much. Then we use ‘gap potatoes,’ Norkotahs out of Washington.”
While other fast-food chains drop dehydrated frozen fries into hot oil to keep the baskets full, Five Guys soaks its potatoes in water after hand-cutting them. “You need to blanch the fries to rinse the starch off of them or else the the outside will burn up before the inside cooks. It used to take two hours to aggravate them enough to get rid of the starch, but now we’ve got it down to a three-minute power wash.”
That time savings is crucial because the fry production basically never stops at Five Guys. “You want to have as many fries ready to go before you open or you’ll never catch up. We never have an empty fry basket,” promises Murrell. “Every year we hold the potato race Olympics to see who can cut up a 50-pound bag the fastest. I used to be able to hang with anybody, but the record is now 50 pounds in 48 seconds, so I don’t mess with that anymore.”
There are no timers anywhere in the kitchen of a Five Guys, so the cooking process is still primarily an art. Fries are precooked for about two and a half minutes at 350 degrees until the outside of the fry is golden brown. Then the batch is allowed to cool for at least 10 to 15 minutes and as long as two to three hours. Murrell explains, “The benefit is that the waiting period allows the inside to cook slowly without burning the outside.” Then the fries are dropped in oil of the same temperature for another two and a half to three minutes à la minute before service.
Five Guys is also obsessive about its oil, using only peanut oil that is frequently changed and filtered throughout the day. Murrell is a staunch devotee of cooking tubers using these goobers. “Peanut oil is a healthier oil. Lots of people prefer to use hydrogenated oils for a crisper fry, but we want that melt-in-your-mouth buttery taste that nonhydrogenated oil offers. There are no trans fats or preservatives, and it’s the purest oil available. Since fries are all we cook in it, nothing touches our oil except for potatoes and our fry baskets.”
Another reason customers love Five Guys and its fries is the serving size, a 24-ounce cup that pretty much ensures there will be leftovers. “I won’t name names, but other restaurants just don’t give a satisfying amount of fries. We always give an extra scoop. I say load ’em up and make sure they get their money’s worth.” There is a downside for the restaurant, though. “Every time they do a calorie count on us,” Murrell admits sheepishly, “it looks pretty bad.”
Still, that doesn’t stop Five Guys from heaping on the frites. “[Some] people complain that they get too many fries. I just tell them to make hash browns with the leftovers. I teach my managers that if people aren’t complaining, then you’re not giving them enough.”