LOS ANGELES — Jessica Gueghlein never used to give it a second thought when she wanted a good hamburger — she headed to In-N-Out, a drive-through icon of the western United States.
But her affections have strayed. Lately she's been hitting an East Coast upstart aggressively expanding westward — Five Guys Burgers and Fries.
"We chose this over In-N-Out," said Gueghlein, chowing down with family members at the Five Guys in Valencia, Calif., that opened in January. She liked the fresh, flavorful burgers and hand-cut fries at Five Guys — as well as the novelty of trying something new. "It's the fourth time we've been here since they opened."
Five Guys executives insist they're not out to compete with In-N-Out, which started in Baldwin Park, Calif., in 1948. "We're not hurting them," said Five Guys spokeswoman Molly Catalano, "but we're glad that people are open to having another option."
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But the two chains are clearly going after some of the same customers.
"They will definitely be a competitor to In-N-Out," said Steve West, restaurant industry analyst for Stifel Nicolaus & Co. in St. Louis. "The prices are comparable, and the product is comparable."
Like In-N-Out, Five Guys' menu is focused on single and double hamburgers and cheeseburgers, along with hand-cut fries. And like In-N-Out, Five Guys restaurants are red and white, with perky employees in red-and-white uniforms.
And Five Guys is coming on strong. The privately held chain, which has 770 locations in the United States and Canada, including a handful in Kentucky, began moving into California two years ago.
Now there are 27 locations in the state, but Five Guys has sold the rights to open 200 more in Southern California alone — nearly double the number operated there by In-N-Out.
But to really make inroads here, Five Guys will have to get past a major hurdle: the intense loyalty of In-N-Out customers.
"They're going to probably take market share from In-N-Out," West said. "Will they supplant In-N-Out? I don't think so. ... In-N-Out is so cultish in Southern California, it's going to be hard to break that habit."
Five Guys, based in Lorton, Va., outside Washington, D.C., was founded in 1986 in nearby Arlington by five brothers in the Murrell family. They opened five of the restaurants and then started franchising. Last year the privately held chain had sales of $721 million.
In-N-Out, now based in Irvine, Calif., was founded in 1948 by Harry and Esther Snyder and has about 250 locations. The privately held chain does not give out sales figures, but trade publication Restaurants and Institutions estimated that in 2008 it took in $466 million.
In-N-Out executive vice president Carl Van Fleet said the company is not planning to make changes to meet the Five Guys expansion.
"We've been focusing on the same thing for 62 years," Van Fleet said. "Freshness, quality and cleanliness in our restaurants. We're just going to continue doing what we do."
In-N-Out locations are famous for their busy drive-through lines, with uniformed attendants sometimes going from car to car to take orders. Five Guys restaurants do not have drive-throughs, and most of the locations are in shopping malls.
Both chains are growing, but In-N-Out is expanding much more conservatively. With 200 locations in California and about 50 more in other Western states, In-N-Out plans to open eight new restaurants in the Dallas-Fort Worth area by the end of this year.