The rise of fast casual has changed the fast food industry forever. Restaurant chains like Panera Bread are becoming as big as longstanding fast food stalwarts like Arby's and Domino's Pizza.
Amongst the fast casual pack are a breed of upscale burger brands — generally known as "better burger" chains — which cost more, but are better quality. These specialty chains are taking off, led by the rapid ascent of Five Guys Burgers and Fries.
We asked the folks at food industry research firm Technomic to figure out which "better burger" chains are spreading quickly across the country.
Number of U.S. stores in 2011: 32
% change: +23.1%
The Counter Custom Built Burgers, founded in 2003, has over 312,120 unique burger combinations for customers to choose from in restaurants that span nine states and three continents.
[Related: Over the top burgers]
The restaurant is known for its fresh, creative toppings and ordering style — customers are handed a clipboard when they walk in where they can choose everything from the type of bun to the sauce and cheese.
In the last year, The Counter saw a 22.4 percent rise in sales, generating $60 million, and now has over 30 locations open nationwide.
The Habit Burger Grill
Number of U.S. stores in 2011: 46
% change: +39.4%
This west coast-based chain has made quite a name for itself in California and Arizona but has yet to expand east.
The Habit Burger Grill is best known for its smokey flavored charbroiled burgers, friendly service, and, more recently, for its sleek black Habit Truck that die-hard fans can rent out for parties and events.
In the last year, sales at The Habit skyrocketed by a whopping 41.1 percent and it raked in $59 million, making it a tough competitor in the emerging fast food burger chain industry.
Freddy's Frozen Custard And Steakburgers
Number of U.S. stores in 2011: 58
% change: +26.1%
This Kansas-based burger chain is named after WWII veteran Freddy Simon and is famous for its 1950s style atmosphere, all-beef steakburgers, and creamy frozen custard.
Since it's start in 2002 in Wichita, Freddy's has expanded to 20 states, and last year the company saw an astonishing 40.7 percent increase in sales. Sales exceeded $70 million.
[Related: Most Popular Fast Food Restaurants in America]
Number of U.S. stores in 2011: 68
% change: +7.9%
Farmer Boys opened its first restaurant in 1981 in Perris, California but didn't increase in popularity until the late 90s.
Known for its gigantic portion sizes, classic onion rings, burgers, and breakfasts, Farmer Boys continues to expand all over California and into Nevada.
It saw a 0.5 percent increase in sales last year and made more than $95 million.
Number of U.S. stores in 2011: 143
% change: +53.8%
Smashburger was founded in 2007 by the guy who thought up the stuffed crust pizza and McGriddles, Tom Ryan.
It was originally named IconBurger, but the management team eventually changed the name to more appropriately describe how they actually create their burgers — smashing them into a grill with a metal plate.
The chain is killing it right now. A 71 percent surge in sales last year generated upwards of $118 million for Smashburger.
Number of U.S. stores in 2011: 266
% change: +5.6%
In-N-Out Burger has positively exploded on the west coast in the last 30 years but remains relatively small in terms of unit size and geographic location. Unlike its competitors, the company has actively resisted expansion, choosing to focus its energy to quality products and customer rapport.
In-N-Out has hundreds of units but it's still only present in five states. In the last year, the burger joint known for its Double Double and irresistible grilled onions, saw a 5.5 percent increase which brought it to $500 million in sales.
Number of U.S. stores in 2011: 444
% change: +4.7%
Culver's first opened its doors in 1984 in Suak City, Wisconsin and has since gone on to establish hundreds of restaurants that span as far west as Arizona and as far east as Ohio.
Known best for its ButterBurger, named for the lightly toasted and buttered bun, and for its fresh frozen custard, this family-owned business saw sales increase 8.5 percent to $747 million last year.
Five Guys Burgers And Fries
Number of U.S. stores in 2011: 918
% change: +24.7%
Five Guys Burgers and Fries got its start in Alexandria, Virginia in the late 1980s when four brothers decided to open a burger joint instead of going to college. It's best known for its creative toppings and prides itself on having over 250,000 unique burger combinations.
As the business gained popularity and brother number five was born, units began popping up in some 40+ states. Last year, Five Guys saw a 33 percent increase in sales nationwide, earning a total of $950 million.
It's now the ninth largest burger chain overall (by revenue) in America.
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