Five Guys targets Heathrow as UK boss defends ‘premium’ prices

CEO of Five Guys UK John Eckbert (Five Guys)
CEO of Five Guys UK John Eckbert (Five Guys)

Five Guys UKboss John Eckbert is mostly blasé about plans for new openings; he says the burger chain could open almost 150 more restaurants in the next few years.

But there’s one location that really does seem to excite him that he has not yet cracked.

“We’re desperate to be in Heathrow,” he says. “We know that the Heathrow customer would love our products.

“In fact, the transport hubs in general would be great. Big rail stations, we’d love to be there. We’d love to take care of customers at Victoria, Waterloo, Kings Cross, actually in the stations.

“Particularly at Heathrow and the airports, you get people on all kind of time clocks coming over and wanting a burger all through the day, so that’s perfect.”

It’s a model that has worked for other food services businesses such as Greggs, which has set out plans to expand further in airports and stations, and Wagamama.

A decade after launching in the UK, as a joint venture between the firm’s American owners and Carphone Warehouse founder Sir Charles Dunstone, Five Guys hasn’t changed that much. Opening an airport location is almost as big a twist on the formula as it gets.

“We’re not trendy. We’re not successful because we put an avocado on a burger,” Eckbert says.

A lack of big changes hasn’t stopped the business from performing well, especially in London where sales this year are back ahead of pre-pandemic levels, and up 12% from the year before.

That comes even as the cost-of-living crisis has squeezed the hospitality sector, hit especially hard by a surge in energy prices last year, and then by rapid rises in the cost of key ingredients like milk, eggs and flour.

“Just when we thought we were out of the black swan crisis of the pandemic, you get this kind of hyper energy inflation that casts right into energy and food,” Eckbert says. “So it feels like we’ve had back-to-back black swan events. In 2022, when we thought we were out of the woods, and then you get this second wave event, it certainly has put pressure on your ability to convert customers’ business into profit.

“And you can see that in the pressure on restaurants to raise their prices.”

The burgers certainly have built a reputation for being pricey (At some central London locations, Five Guys cheeseburger is £11.65 and a bacon cheeseburger is £12.65. Search results are flooded with articles professing to answer the apparently oft-Googled question, “Why is Five Guys so expensive?”), but Eckbert insists that the chain’s “value for money perception” has improved.

Some of that has been a more dramatic rise in the price of traditionally cheap lunches, from McDonald’s to Pret, as revealed by the Standard this month. Eckbert says Five Guys has raised prices around 7-10% in the last year, which would put it below most of the fast casual sector. And in London, lots more rivals have emerged offering their own burgers in Five Guys’ price range — and a fair few at levels well above.

“I just walked by Hawksmoor and you can get a burger for £19,” he said. “Five Guys is an important player in the premium burger space, but now there are lots of players in that market. And some are super fancy, some have a particular take on what makes a burger.”

But is there a price barrier that people simply won’t cross in a fast-food style setting? “We’re really careful about tripping some psychological barrier in pricing,” Eckbert says. “It’s not at all clear what these are. We’ve looked at it whatever way you slice it, but we haven’t found a threshold that makes us say ‘beyond this, you have a problem’. However, we do ask customers what feels like too much and we really try to tune into what that feedback is.

“But from our point of view at Five Guys, we’re an affordable luxury. And that’s a good place to be.”