Shake Shack Brings Drive-In to City Park

What do you get when you plop a mom and pop roadside burger stand in the center of a Manhattan park? A thriving dining concept that could be on its way to a town near you.

Shake Shack began as a humble hot dog cart in Madison Square Park. Union Square Hospitality Group, the team behind Zagat Survey favorites like Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern and other hard-to-reserve restaurants, created it to help fund an art installation for the park. Lines formed, and soon another culinary star was born.

Shake Shack became a permanent kiosk in 2004. A second Shack opened at Columbus Ave. and W. 77th St. last October; a third will debut at the Mets’ new baseball home, Citi Field, in April.

Do people know there’s a link between these top eateries and Shake Shack? Probably. “I think people know if we’re going to do something we’re going to take the quality of the food seriously,” said restaurateur/USHG president Danny Meyer, whether that’s a milkshake or a Milk-Braised Berkshire Pork Shoulder Chop.

With its Shack Burgers, Shack-Cago dogs, frozen custard and other no-frills food, Shake Shack seems to strike an emotional chord in all types of people. Meyer  has spent 24 years in the restaurant business, and sees this as his first concept that could hit the road and roll out nationally. The foodie grew up in St. Louis, so he knows the drive-in dynamic: Fitz’s, Steak ’n Shake and Ted Drewes were local haunts.

They had great grub and he stakes Shake Shack’s success on an “authentically great cheeseburger.” Still, atmosphere is equally important—drive-ins were a place to show off your wheels.

“Does it create lifelong memories?” Meyer asked rhetorically of people’s favorite burger joints. “Whether or not the food was great, it’s about the experience.”

According to a Vanity Fair profile, Tina Fey is a fan and she’s just the type of customer Meyer wants to attract. “She’s a thinking person’s comedian, and there’s an intelligence about Shake Shack,” he said. “When I want to have my burger, milkshake and fry fix, this is the place I’m gonna do it.”

The original Shake Shack has a rep for its long line, which has in turn inspired a tagline: “There are no shortcuts to quality.” It’s a double entendre. In the park, one might be in and out of the lunch line in 15 minutes in chilly February.
In May, it could take an hour. A Web widget lets people check a “Live Shack Cam” to assess the line’s length in real time. Meyer read that entrepreneurs behind Twitter used their downtime in line to get their business up and running.

The wait is marketed as a positive trait—a seal of quality and an adventure. The sentiment is captured on an “I [Shack] NY.”

T-shirt that shows a long, snaking line of lunchers. “It can’t be reflective of bad service,” Meyer said. “It’s the opposite of the experience that comes with the fast food drive-thru and being shielded from other humans. This is a people magnet.”

And no person gets preferential treatment, he said. While the line might remind people of  Studio 54, so will its strict service policy. “My kids don’t even get to cut the line,” Meyer said. “No one does.”