My wife and I went to downtown Chicago for a weekend visit awhile back and one place that I've had on my "places to try" list was Shake Shack, a New York-based burger joint that has become somewhat of an interesting phenomenon on the burger joint landscape. Now, my wife had eaten there before when she was off on her own while I was working an event in Chicago a year ago. And I'd heard that lines to get into the place would stretch well down the block. But it was around 2 p.m. when we went to Shake Shack and we had a minor wait in line inside the building. Here's my first experience at Shake Shack.
Danny Meyer grew up in St. Louis, his father was an entrepreneur who owned hotels and restaurants before having to declare bankruptcy as he spread himself too thin. Meyer's father re-invented himself and became the owner of a travel agency while Danny was in high school. Danny Meyer eventually attended Trinity College in Connecticut, and while a student at Trinity he spent summers in Rome as a tour guide for his father's travel agency.
After graduation and a short stint in Chicago using his political science degree, Meyer ended up in New York in 1983 thinking that he was going to become a lawyer. He had taken the LSAT's, but the 25-year-old Meyer wasn't overly certain that he wanted to go down the legal pathway after he had taken a job as a host at Pesca, an upscale Italian restaurant in the Flatiron District of Manhattan. The restaurant bug bit him and he decided to go back to Europe and study culinary arts in Italy and in France.
Back in the U.S. and now 27 years old, Meyer opened his first restaurant - Union Square Cafe - a half block west of Broadway on 16th St. It quickly became a popular restaurant in New York - named by Zagat as the top restaurant destination for a number of years - and Union Square Cafe became a five-time James Beard Foundation award winner. (Union Square Cafe closed its original location in 2015 and is planning to move about three blocks away to open a new location sometime this year.)
But Union Square Cafe turned out to be the tip of an iceberg of multiple restaurant openings for Meyer - 28 in total over the years. Some of the other restaurants under Meyer's Union Cafe Hospitality Group umbrella include the famed Gramercy Tavern, the very popular Blue Smoke urban barbecue spots, North End Grill - a fine dining spot in the heart of New York's Battery Park, and Maialino - an Italian fine dining restaurant located in the Gramercy Hotel. In addition to the restaurants run by Union Cafe Hospitality Group, they also have a thriving catering business, as well as a concessions business with stands at Citi Field in New York and Nationals Park in Washington, D.C.
By the late 1970's, Madison Square Park - near where Meyer would later put his Gramercy Tavern location - was in deep need of a restoration. One of the oldest urban parks in New York, the seven acre tract of land had fallen into disrepair with many of the statues crumbling. Work began on restoration in 1986, but the lack of funding and vision caused work to start and stop on a regular basis. Finally in the late 90's, a combination of public and private funds - spearheaded by Danny Meyer - would lead to the creation of the Madison Square Park Conservancy whose mission was to protect, enhance and nurture the park to make it a beautiful and dynamic green space in the heart of Manhattan. By the turn of the 21st Century, Madison Square Park was well back to being a beautiful and vibrant green space.
In 2000, Eleven Madison Park - one of Meyer's restaurants - set up a food cart in Madison Square Park that sold hot dogs during the summer months. The little cart was quite popular with people lining up to get food for three years running. In 2003, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation sought bids on establishing a small permanent restaurant in the park. Meyer outlined his idea for what was going to be a small, one-off version of Shake Shack. Eleven Madison Park was ultimately awarded the rights to put up the Madison Square Park Shake Shack and it opened in June of 2004, located just inside the southeast corner of Madison Square Park.
From the start, Shake Shack was an instant hit. Long lines formed with people willing to stand in line for up to 30 minutes to get one of their delicious burgers. The meat used for the burgers at Shake Shack was a proprietary blend that was devised by Danny Meyer in conjunction with Pat LaFrieda, a New Jersey-based meat purveyor that supplies top-end beef to over 600 New York City/Northern New Jersey restaurants daily. In 2005, New York Magazine named Shake Shack the best burger in New York City.
In 2008, Meyer split Shake Shack from Eleven Madison Park as the Union Cafe Hospitality Group decided to grow the Shake Shack brand. (Meyer eventually sold Eleven Madison Park in 2011.) A second Shake Shack location opened on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 2008. and by 2010 there were four Shake Shack locations in Manhattan, as well as one at Citi Field Stadium, and another location in Miami Beach. Today, there are over 80 Shake Shack locations - nearly 50 in the U.S. and the rest scattered in countries such as the U.K., Russia, Turkey, Japan, and throughout the Middle East. Randy Garutti - whom Danny Meyer hired to work at Eleven Madison Park in 1999 - is the C.E.O. for the growing Shake Shack empire.
The first Chicago location for Shake Shack opened at the corner of E. Ohio and Rush Streets in September of 2014. (see map) Long lines instantly formed down the street and around the block to try their burgers. It was routinely a 45 to 60 minute wait to get into the first Chicago Shake Shack. A second Chicago Shake Shack opened in the Chicago Athletic Association along Michigan Ave. across from Millennium Park right at a year ago, and a third location opened in the Old Orchard Mall in north suburban Skokie in September of last year. It was the E. Ohio and Rush location that we went to for my first visit to Shake Shack.
As I said, my wife had already gone to this particular Shake Shack, breaking a marital agreement that we usually have in place when new restaurants open that we both want to try. I was in Chicago for a dealer event a year ago last March and she came in to stay with me and hang out in downtown Chicago while I was working the event. She went to Shake Shack for lunch, getting there early enough that she didn't have to wait that long. When we both went there it turns out that we didn't have to wait that long either
The menu board is on a wall where you come in to Shake Shack. Of course, they have burgers, but they also have flat-grilled hot dogs, a portobello mushroom burger, and a chicken sandwich on the menu. There's also a long list of frozen custard, shakes, floats, concretes, and cones on the menu. Shake Shack also has their own beer that's brewed for them by the Brooklyn Brewery in New York City. Wine is also available at Shake Shack.
When you order at Shake Shack, they have a unique and somewhat ingenious plan of attack. If you just want ice cream-based goodies, the have the "C-Line" that is just for those who want to bypass getting any food. On a cold afternoon, there weren't many people in the C-Line. Just beyond the order counter is the open kitchen.
The dining room at this particular Shake Shack is what I would categorize as modern industrial. It was also packed. But we had time to wait for a table to open up before they called for us to pick up our burgers. Cindy found a table along the east wall of the restaurant. Less than 10 minutes after we ordered, we had our burgers.
I ordered up a double Shack burger with fries. My wife got the single Shack burger. The burger patties were flat and mis-shapen with a crusty outer shell on the patty. It was topped with American cheese, lettuce leaves and a slice of a rather fresh tasting tomato. The buns were lightly toasted and the burger came in a small paper bag.
The taste of the burger was enhanced by the secret Shacksauce - a mayo-based sauce that was sort of sweet, sour and spicy all at the same time. I sort of wished I would have gotten a side of the Shacksauce to be able to dip the crinkle-cut fries. The fries were pretty pedestrian and while I don't usually like a mayo-based sauce on my burger, the sauce was a nice complement to the overall taste of the burger. The black angus blend of beef was very tasty.
For my first visit to Shake Shack, yeah, I liked it. It's certainly an interesting phenomenon that has gotten a lot of buzz through social media. But the burger that I had was worthy of the hype. Was it good enough to stand in line for up to 30 minutes to wait for a burger? Probably not, so - thankfully - we didn't have to wait that long on this visit. But Shake Shack is worthy of the accolades they've received for over 10 years. And the one in downtown Chicago was a great place to try my first one.