It’s around 3 p.m. on a Monday, a time when most restaurants see a lull between lunch and dinner. The temperature is in the fifties—mild for late October, but not weather that encourages outdoor dining. Still, the line at the Shake Shack kiosk in Manhattan’s Madison Square Park is at least thirty people deep, creating a twenty-minute wait for what would traditionally be considered fast food: a burger, fries, and a shake. There are only a few free seats at the small metal tables, jammed with a mix of students, tourists, office workers, and sundry other New Yorkers. When Shake Shack CEO Randy Garutti ’97 shows up—clad in a sporty fleece vest emblazoned with the company logo—he notes that as crowds go, this is nothing. “You’ll come out in here in January, it’ll be five degrees, and it’ll look like this,” Garutti says. “Pretty much every day in the summer, the line goes to what we call the fourth tree, and the wait is forty-five minutes to an hour.”
Like the queue for Space Mountain, the wait to get to the Shake Shack window is part of the experience; there’s even a live video stream of the Madison Square Park line, so diehards can plan their strategy. Neither has the expansion to a half-dozen locations around the city—including Times Square, Grand Central Terminal, JFK Airport, and the Upper West and Upper East Sides—lightened the load at the park, where Shake Shack was born as a hot dog cart in 2001. According to Garutti, each Shack has gotten busier every year.
What’s all the fuss about? Fans go gaga for the burgers, which are cooked to order from Angus beef raised without hormones or antibiotics, ground fresh daily. The shakes’ base is frozen custard, made on site from hormone-free milk. The hot dogs, which are served split, are either all beef or a sausage made of chicken, apple, and sage. Vegetarians can opt for a battered and deep-fried portobello mushroom, served on a bun with melted cheese. There’s beer brewed in Brooklyn, wine from the Napa Valley, even a concoction for canines—the Pooch-ini, vanilla custard topped with peanut butter sauce and dog biscuits from a local bakery. “We asked, ‘What did fast food ruin over the past fifty or sixty years?'” Garutti muses. “It used to be the place to hang out. Fast food used to be fresh. And then it became, ‘How fast can you go in and out, how many calories, how cheap, the worst possible everything—and we’d love it if you just drove through and didn’t even come in.’ We turned that on its head.”
With nearly 4,000 reviews for the Madison Square Park location alone, Shake Shack has a four-star rating on Yelp. The chain was less popular with New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells, who slammed it for inconsistency in a February 2012 review, though he awarded it one star. “I ate at the Shake Shack in Brooklyn and others around the city more than a dozen times recently,” Wells wrote. “After about a third of those trips, I walked away thinking, ‘Wow, that was an awesome burger.’ The other times, the food generally wasn’t worth the wait. Finally I understood that the people in line were looking for something that doesn’t come in a wax-paper wrapper.”
For Garutti, Shake Shack is the latest chapter in a hospitality career that began with a job in a New Jersey bagel shop at age thirteen. He interned at Chili’s and Marriott during his years at the Hotel school and went on to restaurants in Aspen, Maui, and Seattle before moving back to New York to work for legendary restaurateur Danny Meyer, who made him general manager of the upscale, Indian-inspired Tabla at age twenty-four. After running Union Square Café and heading up operations for Meyer’s company, Garutti took over Shake Shack six years ago. The company has been expanding in recent years, with locations in New Jersey, New England, Florida, and Washington, D.C., as well as international spots like Istanbul, Moscow, Beirut, and Kuwait City. “We don’t just parachute our idea into your neighborhood,” Garutti says. “Every one is different and designed to fit the place. We always tailor a few things so it feels like Shake Shack, but it tastes like where it is.”
The London restaurant, which serves a pork sausage from a small farm in Sussex, is in a centuries-old market building in Covent Garden. In Dubai—where no liquor is served and the meat is halal—two locations are in glitzy malls. In Chestnut Hill, outside Boston, the walls are made of wood sourced from an old mill. The King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, restaurant gets 10 percent of its power from solar panels on the roof. When a Shake Shack has indoor seating, odds are that the tables were made by an artisan in Brooklyn from reclaimed bowling lanes. “Hanging on my office wall is a sign that says, ‘The bigger we get, the smaller we need to act,'” Garutti says. “Every time we come up against a choice, we run it by the filter of, ‘Would we have made that same decision when we had one restaurant?'” Garutti cites the Fair Shake, made with fair-trade Arabica beans. “Most people would say, ‘We want to do a coffee shake; let’s find a really cheap coffee that we can get anywhere,'” he says. “And we said, ‘Let’s find a really great one, and figure out how to get it all over the world.'”
While the core menu has stayed roughly the same over the years, Garutti says, the company has made some improvements, like replacing the corn syrup in its custard with real sugar. The original crinkle-cut fries—which came frozen, and which Wells decried as “pretty awful”—are in the process of being switched over to being hand-cut from fresh potatoes. “I’m the person who doesn’t eat fast food, but I still want to eat a burger—and when I do, I want it to be good,” Garutti says. “And that’s Shake Shack. We take the classics and make them better.”