French fries have become a constant companion with hamburgers — and with good reason: they are perfect together! Such is the case at Five Guys. We are a fast-casual burger concept with more than 1,450 locations spanning 49 states and nine countries.

IMG 9889Brian Gill Equipment and Smallwares Specialist Five Guys Lorton, Va.A typical Five Guys location will prep between 5 and 7 bags of potatoes every day, which is between 500 and 600 potatoes. Our 50-pound bags of potatoes arrive from Idaho at each store.

When it is time to prep another bag of potatoes, we bring them to the drainboard-mounted fry cutter to begin the process. Given the volume and frequency with which our crew prepares fries, our potato cutters and sinks would often require repairs. Welders were constantly in our stores repairing mounts, drainboards and more.

Over the years, we had been wondering if there was a way to better handle this aspect of our operation. We were looking to improve our fry cutting and washing process. We definitely wanted to get more consistent results with our potatoes, and we had been wondering for some time if we could also reduce our water usage as well as our labor. We looked at large commercial potato chip manufacturers and found they use a large centrifuge to clean and prepare their product. Someone even pitched us a centrifuge
to put in our stores. It was not until the
National Restaurant Association show in 2013, though, that someone pitched us an idea that was foodservice friendly.

We entered the manufacturer’s booth to find them washing blueberries and strawberries in a continuous motion sink. We asked the company rep working the booth if the sink could wash potatoes and he said, “Sure!”

After “Sure!”

Of course, developing the final solution was a little more complicated than that.

Most manufacturers are volume driven, and when you approach them about custom solutions the first thing they always want to know is, “How many are you going to buy?” When the salesperson goes back to the engineering and corporate teams the project will often die if the company feels you are not going to buy enough. Most manufacturers maintain the mentality that custom is just not their business.

In this instance, they told us yes from day one and then they figured it out. I was attached at the hip with their lead product innovation guy for two years. Having a manufacturer with a customer-centric attitude toward product development will really make the process work. The innovation manager and engineers came into our Five Guys locations and spent lots of time understanding what was and was not working for us.

There was a lot of engineering around the potato cutter and drainboard. After developing the prototype, the manufacturer made use of Accelerated Durability Testing to simulate 10 years of use on the cutter mount, support and anything else that might experience fatigue from our potato cutting process. Their desire to provide us with a durable product was evident.

What attracted us to the possibility of developing this equipment was that we saw in the proof of concept that we would be able to make the process more consistent. Reduction of our water usage and labor were just an added bonus for us.

The Result

As a result of implementing this solution, Five Guys has realized a much more consistent process when it comes to preparing our potatoes. We’ve also reduced water consumption by 50 percent for the whole store. Time required to complete the process of washing a bag of potatoes has dropped by about 50 percent.

In some instances, the water would run over the potatoes all day, and that led to pretty heavy water consumption. With this new product, it’s all about filling that powered washing bay once. We’ve taken the water needed for prepping one bag of potatoes from 150 gallons to a max of 40 or 50 gallons to get it clean. While the potatoes are cleaning, staff can do something else, which further maximizes labor. And because this represents a more durable solution than before, our costs associated with repairing the potato cutter and sink have declined.

We’ve retrofitted all 450 Five Guys corporate locations, first targeting water-sensitive markets, like Southern California, Phoenix and even Georgia. In reviewing our bills from the stores we saw a steady and consistent decline in water consumption. As a result, payback on these units is better where water, labor and potatoes are more expensive. For markets such as California and Arizona, we were at a 14- to 16-month payback. On the East Coast, the market dynamics were slightly different but the payback was the same.

New Restaurant Protocol

We have also come to realize that the water savings has made it more cost effective for Five Guys to open new restaurants. In many markets, the municipalities will ask to review existing restaurant’s water and sewer bills. This used to lead municipalities to assess large impact fees. This solution has really helped negate that issue for us given that our impact on the water and sewer system has been reduced by half.

Given that our network includes plenty of franchisees, adding a new piece of equipment and cost to the store package will always be a sensitive issue. Once franchisees were able to try that first sink, they quickly climbed on board. One franchisee tested the sink and converted all 22 of his stores immediately. At first it was all about consistency of the product. They called months later when the bills came in to confirm that they were definitely happy with the water savings, too.

Developing custom solutions offers great potential for concepts like Five Guys, but success in a project like this really is all about the people. In this instance, we were able to realize even more success than we had originally envisioned, thanks to the skilled, driven and organized team that the manufacturer formed with us.