"We didn't know what the heck we were doing," Randy Garutti, CEO of Shake Shack, says about the first year of the now-world-famous burger chain. "We were fine dining people. We didn't know how to handle volume. We didn't know how to move food. We had our managers running the bun station. We didn't even have a real fridge; we were using one of those Coke coolers."
In fact, the global powerhouse didn't even start as a burger joint at all. "The initial concept was a hot dog cart," Garutti tells us. They launched in 2001, selling Chicago-style hot dogs in Madison Square Park, with all profits going to the park's first art installation. All the food was being prepped at Eleven Madison Park, which at the time was part of Union Square Hospitality Group. That's right: It all started with this year's number one restaurant in the world according to The World's 50 Best awards churning out Chicago-style hot dogs. In 2004, they opened the first stand in the park, fitted with a griddle for burgers, and the rest is history.
So how did a hot dog cart turn into a burger empire with 131 locations all over the world? With the release of its first cookbook, Shake Shack: Recipes & Stories, available today, we speak with Garutti and Mark Rosati, Shake Shack's culinary director, to get the real backstory, along with the recipe for the one and only ShackBurger (see the recipe).
"It was a slow roll." Garutti tells us. "It took a few years to get the ball rolling, then something happened around 2006/2007 when it became an NYC icon." He recalls the days when the now-infamous line really started to take off, and the "Shack Sherpas" began lining up. They were interns at the neighboring Credit Suisse building who were tasked with picking up Shake Shack for lunch at their office.
It was this first location where the team perfected its execution of "fine-casual dining," a term coined by Shack founder Danny Meyer and one that's led to its global success.
The second location went up in 2008 on the Upper West Side. "With the second Shack, we thought we had everything ready on day one for an efficient kitchen," Rosati says. "However, over the next few months, we would finish service and tear everything down and change the layout to do it better." This mentality hasn't changed as the locations have multiplied and the menu has continued to expand over the years.
"In my office, there is a sign that says 'the bigger we get, the smaller we have to act,'" Garutti adds.
The Flavor Graveyard
Of course, it hasn't been just one hit after another. Part of the recipe for success is experimentation, and then knowing when to move on. So Rosati fills us in on the flavor graveyard, where menu items that just didn't work out go to die. "We have a menu divided by seasonally inspired flavors and comfort classics," Rosati explains. "One year, I had the idea to put together a raspberry-jalapeño shake. Too many customers complained their mouths were on fire. It was good at one point, but we could just never wrap our minds around that flavor."
Another questionable move has been immortalized in the cookbook: the peanut butter-bacon burger. As Garutti tells it, "Danny was on a tasting trip in Italy and heard about it somehow. He called me saying 'What are you doing? This isn't what Shake Shack is about.' I told him that we sold out of them so quickly we're running it again as a special the next weekend!"
The Anatomy of the ShackBurger
Peanut butter-bacon burgers aside, the recipe we're most excited about in the book is none other than the signature cheeseburger—which also happens to be Rosati's go-to order.
"We put so much time into developing the beef blend," Rosati says. "We took a fine dining approach." Though famous NYC butcher Pat LaFrieda, the gatekeeper of the famous burger blend, has been sworn to secrecy, Rosati offers two blending frameworks for making the burger at home. For a lighter blend (which he likens to a Pinot Noir), use 25 percent brisket and 75 percent chuck. For a beefier blend (closer to a Cabernet, he says), use 20 percent short rib and 80 percent chuck.
Once your blend is ready, the proper cooking technique is crucial. Place pucks of cold beef on a hot cast-iron skillet, and then smash them with a metal spatula. "It's an old Midwest/Cali technique. By smashing the meat on the griddle, it starts to caramelize instantly for a perfect sear," Rosati points out.
Throw some American cheese, lettuce, tomato and ShackSauce onto a potato roll, and you're set for the perfect cheeseburger.
But don't stop at the burger. The cookbook's got the recipe for those famous crinkle fries, too—and they're just as important. Because if you really want to be a Shake Shack insider, you'll follow Meyer's go-to move: dipping your crinkle-cut fries into a coffee shake.
This month, we're going Under the Hood and into the art and science of the culinary world to find the emerging designers, independent farmers and (spoiler) major corporations creating trends from the ground up.
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