1980s: Burger Queen

Businesswoman finds juicy opportunities in Northern Colorado

Robin Karst
Robin Karst, pictured with crew members, opened the first Five Guys restaurant in the state of Colorado in 2008; it's on Elizabeth Street near campus. She owns a Five Guys franchise with eight sites in Northern Colorado. Photo: Chris Cutting / Five Guys

Story by Bruce Horovitz

Some people indulge in fancy Sunday brunches, but Robin Karst opted instead for burgers and fries – and often waited in lines that stretched out the door at a Five Guys joint near her home outside Washington, D.C.

That was around 1995, when the popularity of the fast-casual restaurant chain was exploding across the Capital Beltway. Five Guys had begun there a decade earlier and gained a fanatical following with its hand-formed hamburgers and fresh-cut fries cooked in peanut oil.

Those Sunday outings sizzled in the back of her brain: Ten years later, Karst scrapped her impressive career in the hospitality industry, invested her life savings, and opened her first Five Guys franchise in Maryland.

A few years after that, she jumped into the Colorado market and opened the state’s very first Five Guys restaurant on Elizabeth Street in Campus West, just a couple blocks from Colorado State University. Karst is the only Five Guys franchisee in Northern Colorado, with seven bustling locations and another on the way. Her restaurants employ some 200 people and serve nearly 20,000 burgers weekly.

“I never thought I’d end up back in the place I left, but everything felt right,” said Karst, who graduated from CSU in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in marketing. “I also never thought I’d own a company that does over $10 million in sales each year.”

A taste for change led the way. In 2002, Karst worked as director of sales at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown; she habitually read the Washington Business Journal to scout for potential guests for the luxury, five-star hotel.

One day, big news in D.C. business circles grabbed her attention: Five Guys, her favorite burger place, was expanding beyond its original turf, with franchise opportunities in Virginia and Maryland. Karst bit, first investing in locations in Maryland. “I didn’t look at it as risky,” she recalled. “I believed in the product. If I worked hard, I knew it would be successful.”

In fact, hard work comes naturally to Karst. She graduated from CSU in just over three years, even while working two retail jobs. While establishing her Five Guys stores, her workdays at times run to 15 hours.

As the company’s franchises expanded westward, Karst decided to return to Fort Collins, where her family has notably strong ties. A remarkable 21 members of the Karst family – spanning four generations – have attended CSU.

Here, Karst also had the chance to team with her sister, Sherri Eret, who likewise graduated from CSU in 1986, with a business degree focused on computer information systems. Eret is chief financial officer for Five Guys Colorado, an eight-unit operation and the only franchise group with restaurants in the northern Colorado territory. Karst and her crew run stores in Fort Collins, Boulder, Broomfield, Greeley, and Longmont, with another planned in Loveland.

“I pinch myself daily,” Karst said of the rewards she finds in work and ties to her colleagues, including her older sister.

“We really are the perfect team,” Eret agreed. “I am ultraconservative financially, but Robin leans in and we find a happy balance. I find this all hilarious because we couldn’t even live with each other in college. Age brings wisdom.”

Karst said she views each of her business locations almost as a child to be nurtured. “I get energized by working with the crews,” she said. “I love watching the growth of people, which is really why I’m in this business. What matters most is that my people are happy – after that, everything takes care of itself.”

As Karst pondered her second career in the burger business, she realized it, too, runs in her blood: Her paternal grandfather, Kermit Karst, was a member of the CSU livestock judging team and graduated in 1937 with a bachelor’s degree in animal husbandry; he worked many years for the Hereford cattle industry association. (Cattle of this breed are characteristically red and white, not unlike the Five Guys brand colors.) Her grandmother, Betty, meantime, studied home economics and graduated in 1939; she became a writer for the Hereford industry journal, likewise working to support and expand the beef cattle industry.

As Karst noted with a laugh, “We have lots of beef in our family history.”

Bruce Horovitz (B.A., ’75) is a freelance writer and media training consultant who has worked as a marketing reporter at USA Today and a marketing columnist at Los Angeles Times.