The Burger Maker plant is supplied by most of the major processors. (Photo by George Motz)

It was a case of blissful unawareness: During the keynote presentation at the 2014 North American Meat Association’s Management Conference, Mark Mosely was speaking to a packed roomful of attendees about the meteoric success of Five Guys Burgers and Fries. Jamie Schweid got a very pleasant surprise as Mosely, the NFL Hall of Famer-turned director of franchise development for Five Guys, heaped praise on Schweid’s family-owned business and one of the chain’s star suppliers, Burger Maker.

During the address, Mosely gushed about the valuable partnership forged between the two companies by the business patriarchs of two families who made the deal official with a simple handshake. As Five Guys expanded into Canada and later into Europe, the principals continued to lean on Burger Maker to help source new suppliers, a fact Mosely also touted and helped explain the longstanding bond that remains solid today.

“I had no clue any of that was going to come out,” says Schweid, Burger Maker’s executive vice president, during an interview and tour of the company’s Carlstadt, NJ-based ground-beef plant. The partnership between the companies, led by two like-minded businessmen whose sons are taking their respective companies into the future, has proven to be a burger-based match made in heaven.

Opening its first store in 1986, the iconic Five Guys enterprise consisted of just five stores in northern Virginia, when its founder, Jerry Murrell, began franchising stores in 2002. To keep up with the growing demand, Murrell forged a partnership with Burger Maker owner, David Schweid, back in 2004. Five Guys now has more than 1,500 locations around the globe and, thanks in large part to that partnership, Burger Maker is now churning out 1.5 million lbs. of ground beef per week and has commissioned an unnamed West Coast ground-beef processor to co-pack products to help keep up with the growth of Five Guys. An unaffiliated processor in Michigan supplies stores in the Midwest.

While Murrell’s succession plan included bringing his five sons into the business, David Schweid has brought on two “guys” of his own, with sons Jamie and Brad, executive vice president of operations, now carrying the torch as fourth-generation owners. Jamie relishes his position as the face and voice of the company, while Brad thrives in his behind-the-scenes role, spending much of his time on the processing floor clad in a hardhat and white smock.

Jamie Schweid (left) and his older brother, Brad are pushing Burger Maker into the future. (Photo by George Motz)

The Murrells were referred to the Schweids by a distributor a couple years after Jerry’s sons finally talked him into franchising the Five Guys concept. The plan at the time was to expand to 50 locations. During a meeting at Burger Maker’s office and tour of the plant, Jerry told David they really wanted a solid partner, and weren’t interested in any lengthy or formal contracts to do business together. The two shook hands, solidifying a deal that is still rock-solid today. After that first meeting with the Murrells, Jamie admits he was more skeptical about the business potential than his father was. “My dad said, ‘There’s something different here. I’ve got a hunch.’”

That hunch was apparently on-target from the get-go, Jamie adds. “They ended up opening 100 stores that first year, which was great for us.”

All about the meat

Five Guys adamantly touts their 80-percent lean burgers are made from fresh, refrigerated, never-frozen- ground beef and are cooked to order from patties that are hand-formed at the store. This is where Burger Maker comes in. Its 40,000-sq.-ft. plant, which supplies most of the Five Guys stores in the Northeast, has dedicated lines for this coveted customer, where bulk ground beef is pillow-packed by hand, ready for patty forming at the stores. The plant also processes loaf packs that use vacuum technology prior to sealing, which other customers request. The plant is supplied by most of the major processors as it requires everything from whole-muscle products for its grinding operation as well as trim, depending on the specifications of customers.

Burger Maker produces 1.5 million lbs. of ground beef per week and has commissioned a West Coast ground-beef processor to co-pack products to help keep up with the growth of Five Guys.

Brisket, hangar steak and short ribs have become common components of many of the blends made at the plant as foodservice operators are always looking to distinguish their products. For Five Guys and most of their foodservice customers, what they expect from Burger Maker is freshness. Brad, the director of operations, points out that all of the ground beef that is produced at the plant has a 21-day shelf-life.

“Time is your biggest enemy,” says Jamie, adding that raw material arriving at the plant is typically less than five days old and is in the grinding process either the same day or the next day.

“Pricing is important in sourcing raw materials, but we look first at sourcing the raw materials from the best quality packers,” he adds. When it comes to procurement, Jamie and Brad lean on their father, whose primary role these days is in raw-material purchasing, but he still holds the title of CEO and is in constant communication with his sons regarding the business. His industry background goes back decades and he still relies on relationships established many years before Excel became a part of Cargill and back when IBP and Tyson were unaffiliated. While there are approximately 50 different grinded products being produced at the plant, those extrapolate to about 1,000 SKUs using various forming technologies. These days, of the 1.5 million lbs. of product that the plant manufactures each week, about half is ground beef made from trim and the other half is derived from whole-muscle cuts. And fresh product is still the company’s bread and butter despite Burger Maker’s expansion. “There will always be a place for frozen, but in the past 10 to 15 years, the growth has only been in fresh,” according to Jamie.

“There are customers that are specific in their request for whole-muscle product, but then we have customers that are interested in a trim product,” Jamie says, and raw materials are purchased on what customers want, not what the Schweids think they want. They began offering a Wagyu burger about seven years ago, for some higher-end foodservice customers. More recently, they’ve launched a grass-fed burger as well as patties made from Certified Angus Beef in addition to Certified Hereford as well as a program carrying the Certified Humane label.

Burger Maker's patties are made from 80-percent lean, fresh, refrigerated, never-frozen ground beef. (Photo by George Motz)

Flexibility is the key for the plant operations and lines are routinely adjusted to accommodate volume-based, long runs of patties, while a slower line uses technology to form and flatten patties designed to look like hand-formed patties, each one slightly different from the next. These are for the Schweid & Sons premium burgers recently introduced to retail customers.

Other production lines are designated for producing short runs or small-batch boutique products. During the plant tour, Brad stops at a line where 2-oz. sliders are being formed and individually quick-frozen as part of a very small batch run. Brad points out these are the types of specialty products many larger processors can’t feasibly produce because of their limited volume. “This is the essence of what we do,” he says. Burger Maker makes it a point to take care of special requests. “We’re a custom grind house on a grand scale,” he says.

Hitching a ride on an ascending company like Five Guys was an unexpected shot in the arm for Burger Maker. “To see it grow to where it is now,” Jamie says, “it’s a once in a lifetime journey for us.” The company works with broad-line distributors and supplies beef to other foodservice operations, such as Fuddruckers, The Cheesecake Factory and Bobby Flay’s burger chain, Bobby’s Burger Palace.

Schweid’s five guys

The Schweid family’s business dates back to the late 1800s, when Jamie’s great-grandfather, Harry, a butcher by trade, immigrated to the US from Poland and worked at a butcher shop in New York’s Lower East Side. After serving as a cook in the US Army, his son, Sam, continued the business and opened a butcher shop in Harlem. While fabricating there, Sam teamed up with a retail partner to open a slaughtering and packing house in Nebraska. Moving west, he worked there and developed a cattle program, shipping primals to butchers in the Northeast. His son, David, joined his dad in Nebraska after earning a master’s degree in accounting in the mid-1960s.

“He was an accountant by trade and when my grandfather needed some help with the joint venture in Nebraska, he decided to join the family business,” Jamie says of his father. The venture was viable until the advent of boxed beef. Realizing that ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,’ Sam and David, started a boxed-beef business of their own.

The new Schweid & Sons retail line is targeting an underserved segment — premium fresh burgers for supermarket customers. (Photo by George Motz)

David and his father’s next evolution was unlikely and totally unexpected. One day, a customer came to David and told him he could not pay his bill, “But he did have a cooler on 14th Street,” recounts Jamie, and the customer offered him ownership in his company in lieu of payment. “Do you want to go into the burger business?” he asked the elder Schweid, who eagerly accepted because he already had a patty machine and a grinder at the shop he and his father had operated. And so it was that the Schweid family began in the hamburger business.

After just a few months of the joint venture starting, the former customer/partner bowed out of the business and Burger Maker was born – in 1978 in the 14th Street meatpacking district in a 2,500-sq.-ft. shop.

Many of the relationships they forged during the years of fabricating paid off as many of those turned into business relationships, sustaining the company into the 1980s. Next, the company moved to its present location in Carlstadt in 1994. The move became necessary after the company partnered with distributors in the late 1980s. Increasing demand and the logistical challenges of manufacturing food products from the Manhattan facility warranted the company’s building a new facility outside the city, in New Jersey. Expansions followed in 1997 and 1999 – and in 2003 the plant doubled in size with the purchase of the adjoining property.

Like their father, the Schweid boys graduated from college before joining the business. Now 35 years old, Jamie got a finance degree in 2001 before coming on board after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 altered his original career aspirations as an investor and made the prospect of working in the family business an appealing alternative. Brad, who is now 38, was an established mover-and-shaker on Wall Street until the stock market crashed and burned about seven years ago and he made the leap to keep the business all in the family. While Jamie would move up through the ranks focusing on sales and marketing, Brad was content to work behind the scenes and today he spends his time focused on operations.

“We’re a hamburger company, so in the beginning I didn’t really know all the parts of the animal,” Jamie says, but his dad did and passed on what he learned dating back to his days working at the slaughter plant in Nebraska. “That’s where my dad got such great experience.”

“At the core, though, this business hasn’t changed,” Jamie says, adding that maintaining positive relationships with customers is still the foundation. That was the basis for growth in 1978 and continues to be the push today.

“My brother and I are young,” Jamie says. “We’re looking to grow the business and the way that we see it there’s still a lot of capacity in our industry,” he adds, and the Schweids plan to utilize the available capacity at other facilities to grow their market share, by way of a joint venture or possibly through acquisition. They also are looking beyond ground beef offerings and they have some ideas to bring some unique new products to the chefs and foodservice operators that they already count as customers as well as prospective customers.

Retail debut

We don’t do market research, Jamie says. “We go to our customers and say, ‘let’s figure out how to make a great burger. We sit down with them and ask: ‘What do you want?’”

One line at the Burger Maker plant is designated to produce its new retail product. (Photo by George Motz)

Retail, foodservice and national accounts are the three business segments the company operates in. The bulk of its business is foodservice and national accounts. The retail segment shows the biggest opportunity for growth. This is why the Schweids have introduced a new line of premium fresh patties for the retail market under the Schweid & Sons brand. So concerted is this campaign, this brand will become the company’s new identity in January 2015.

The new Schweid & Sons retail line is targeting what Jamie says is an underserved segment. “While foodservice has seen this huge growth in the better-burger market, you walk into the supermarket today and you see the same old products. There’s nothing different; there’s nothing premium,” he says. Currently, only ShopRite grocery stores carry the new product, but that will change in the near future. The next frontier will be supermarkets in the Southeast and then the Midwest. Ultimately, they would like to have a nationwide reach.

Naming the burgers destined for retailers’ cases was an important part of the marketing rollout. For example the CAB burger made with Prime beef is known as the “1 Percenter.” They also offer retail customers the CAB “Custom Blend” and its grass-fed burger is known as “The Grass-Fed Standard.” The natural Angus product is known as the “Angus Heritage” blend. There’s also a Signature Series that includes a chuck-brisket blended burger. “We’re taking the quality products we offer to the foodservice side and bringing them to retailers,” the Schweids say. The premium experience even extends to the careful development of the packaging.

Operating in the very vulnerable ground-beef segment requires vigilance and a commitment to food safety throughout the company.

For Burger Maker’s part its food- safety efforts have recently been enhanced with the addition of a new head of quality assurance, Ali Hakimi, who has a Ph.D. in food science and a food-safety background having joined the company after working with Smithfield Foods. Hakimi’s hire was part of a management restructuring that began two years ago, including the appointment of senior department heads across the company in an effort to prepare for future growth and expansion. Jamie admits it’s part of the approach that his dad started – stocking the company “with people that are smarter than us.”

They have also invested in technology that includes cloud-based software to monitor quality assurance. This allows for workers on the floor to more accurately monitor food-safety trends and take proactive steps to prevent problems. “Aggregating all of this information allows us to make informed and accurate decisions,” Jamie says.