Before Five Guys was a big burger chain, it was a small fry tucked away in a shopping center on Columbia Pike.
Today, Five Guys Burgers & Fries has more than 1,500 locations worldwide and grosses nearly a billion dollars in revenue. But 35 years ago, it was nothing more than a tiny beloved burger joint at the corner of S. Glebe Road and Columbia Pike in Westmont Shopping Center, a strip mall that’s now rubble and in the midst of redevelopment.
“It was the only place that would lease us space. Seriously, we were brand new, without any restaurant experience, selling burgers and fries,” Five Guys founder Jerry Murrell tells ARLnow via email. “They were willing to rent us space and it was also pretty inexpensive. We liked that it was tucked back and hard to get to. We knew that if we could survive and grow there, then we might really have something.”
It was 1986 and Murrell was struggling. Living in Alexandria at the time, he had tried — and failed — at several different business ventures. But, as he recollected to Guy Raz in a 2017 episode of “How I Built This,” there was one thing he knew how to do: Grill a hamburger.
So, he made the bold decision of using his children’s college funds (with their permission, of course) to open a burger and fry stand.
“Something was telling us it was the right thing to do,” he told Raz in 2017.
The banks wouldn’t lend Murrell the money, so he took the $35,000 cash meant for his kids’ education and rented the spot. He called the shop “Five Guys,” after his four sons and himself, with every intention of changing the name later. But Murrell never did.
Next door to Five Guys was what Murrell describes as “one of the best bakeries in Northern Virginia.”
“Janie [Murrell’s wife] and I had been going to Brenner’s Bakery for a long time,” Murrell says. “They baked what we considered to be the best bread, which was high quality and expensive.”
Brenner’s had been there since 1946 and was a beloved landmark itself. Despite paying about seven times more for a hamburger bun than McDonald’s, Murrell bought all of his buns from the Arlington baker. While Brenner’s Bakery went out of business in 2001, Murrell says that Five Guys still employs two of the shop’s bakers.
The fries were also what made Five Guys special. The trick, as Murrell described to Raz, was that they used the same small Idaho potato dealer that was used for the famous beach fries at Thrasher’s in Ocean City, Maryland.
When the doors opened that first morning in 1986, Five Guys had no customers.
“We opened at 11 a.m. and no one came in until 11:30 — that was a stressful half hour,” Murrell says. “However, once the first person came in, then everyone seemed to follow.”
By the end of that first day, there was a line out the door — though, that may have had more to do with how small the restaurant was.
Westmont Shopping Center was a perfect spot for Five Guys to grow: out of the way, next to a baker, and very well supported in Arlington. Murrell says that local press coverage was always positive and generous, to the point that he felt like everyone was “really rooting for us.” One local publication even called the burger joint “downright primitive.”
“We thought that was the best,” writes Murrell. “It made us feel like people understood us.”
Murrell and his other four guys — which, now, includes a fifth son and his wife, Janie — continued to grill up burgers on the Pike until 1998, when the original shop closed. But, by then, Five Guys had expanded to several other locations in the D.C. area.
Despite once insisting that he’d never franchise the restaurant, Murrell’s sons convinced him otherwise. By 2006, there were nearly 90 Five Guys locations, mostly still in the D.C. area. Two years later, that number nearly tripled, spreading up the East Coast. As the decade turned, Five Guys was deemed “America’s fastest growing restaurant chain.” Now, there are also hundreds of Five Guys outside the U.S.
Westmont Shopping Center changed too. After Five Guys left, Dave’s Seafood and Subs moved into the location. Next door, Brenner’s Bakery turned into an H&R Block tax prep office and, later, a CarQuest Auto Parts store.
In 2019, the old shopping center was approved for redevelopment forcing a number of longtime businesses to close. Then, late last year, the strip mall was demolished to make way for a six-story, modern mixed-use building.
Murrell says that the shopping center at the corner of Glebe Road and Columbia Pike will forever live alongside the grease in the heart of Five Guys.
“It is nostalgic for us,” says Murrell. “Westmont was where we started, we love the place.”
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