LOCATIONS: 34; 21 planned
TWIST: Customers use a clipboard to pick a bun, meat, cheese, sauce, and up to four free toppings. The idea stems from founder Jeff Weinstein's belief that standard pickles, tomato, and onions are often wasted.
INSPIRATION: "I wanted to modernize burger joints," says Weinstein. "Not everyone relates to doo-wop. The '50s diner was not our model."
MENU CURIOSITIES: Garnishes include dried cranberries, Black Forest ham, and tzatziki sauce.
AESTHETIC: Initially, a modern industrial loft-type look with retro accents. The design has since evolved to a warmer feel.
BOOZE: Yes. "Chains like Five Guys have turned burgers into snacks. We want customers to have a meal, where you can sit and enjoy yourself."
AVERAGE PRICE FOR BURGER, FRIES AND SODA: $13-$14
LOCATIONS: 13; 37 planned
TWIST: The menu features items rich in umami (Japanese for "savory"), which is one of the five basic tastes (with sweet, salty, bitter, and sour). Amino acids called glutamates endow foodstuffs with the trait.
INSPIRATION: Owner Adam Fleischman learned of umami while working in the wine biz. "Industries were built around the other tastes," he says, "but not umami."
MENU CURIOSITIES: A bacon-wrapped scallop burger, served only at Umami's San Francisco location.
AESTHETIC: Locations are tailored to communities. Exposed brick, a wood beam ceiling, and hanging lights give Hollywood's a warehouse feel.
BOOZE: Yes. Try pairing an Umami burger with a Bourbon Pig (bacon-fat-washed bourbon).
AVERAGE PRICE FOR BURGER, FRIES AND SODA: $14-$15
LOCATIONS: 166; 34 planned
TWIST: Smashburger built on the Five Guys model with better buns and local ingredients, says Hamburger America author George Motz. "By using, say, Cajun sauce in Louisiana," he notes, "it regionalized burgers."
INSPIRATION: Founder Tom Ryan set out to lure patrons not from McDonald's or Five Guys but from casual restaurants lacking good burgers.
MENU CURIOSITIES: The "Miami" is grilled Spanish chorizo with frita potatoes, Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato, and spicy chipotle mayo on a roll.
AESTHETIC: A red and white color scheme seems Five Guysian, but Ryan says the design is a "next-generational concept" that changes moods depending on the crowd.
BOOZE: Local craft beers, wine, and other coolers.
AVERAGE PRICE FOR BURGER, FRIES AND SODA: $9-$10
LOCATIONS: 33; 200 planned
TWIST: The nation's first organic burger chain, it uses only 100% USDA-certified organic, grass-fed, free-range beef
that's ground and hand-formed into patties on-premises. Also, the fries are cooked in olive oil that is later converted to biodiesel, and the menu has vegetarian and vegan options.
INSPIRATION: Founder Hans Hess sought to eliminate the "fast-food feeling" that results from "beef full of chemicals, hormones, and antibiotics."
MENU CURIOSITIES: The Half the Guilt Burger includes one beef patty and one veggie patty.
AESTHETIC: Elevation's LEED-certified stores have such eco-friendly features as reclaimed wood, bamboo flooring, and LED lights.
AVERAGE PRICE FOR BURGER, FRIES AND SODA:: $12
A version of this article appeared in the October 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.