ICE’s Culinary Management Instructors are seasoned industry professionals who are still active in the industry, working on their own projects while teaching classes at ICE. With such a wide range of experience between them, we decided to ask Julia Heyer and Vin McCann to take a closer look at the business of running a restaurant and sound off on some of the hottest topics in the restaurant world. Today, they look at the recent New York Times review of the ever-popular Shake Shack and try to get to the bottom of what it is that has people lined up around the block for a burger and fries.

Vin McCann
Recently Pete Wells, the Times food critic, spanked Danny Meyers for Shake Shack’s, Meyer’s growing burger chain, operational inconsistency. The piece was both striking and instructive for a number of reasons. First, it raised the question of if Mr. Wells’ interest in a burger chain signals a new field on the Times’ radar screen.  Can we look forward to future reviews of Chipotle and Red Mango? Or was this a one-time scold of a high profile industry operator for not imparting the rigorous standards of his fine dining establishments to his lower priced concept?

In another vein, the piece raised a number of salient business points. The concept of having multiple units on the lower end of the industry’s price spectrum thrive on diligent brand development and sound operational systems, both of which are driven by an objective of consistency. From Wells’ perspective Shake Shack turned up wanting in both departments.

The criticism also raises the inevitable dilemma that all restaurant concepts, whether chains or otherwise, must resolve, namely the fusion of the expectations that are raised and the performance that is delivered. In Wells’ eyes, Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG) brand seems to promise more than it delivers on the food portion of the experience, but manages even in his critical eye to provide the memorable signature of Meyer’s hospitality. This raises the question — can hospitality carry a burger chain?

Julia Heyer
Firstly, Wells seemed to look at Shake Shack through the lens of Meyer and his restaurant group. The majority of its guests however, assuming its large following and guest count, likely will not. When I last drove past the Eight Avenue location they were literally lined up out the door. And while I am sure a portion of these burger enthusiasts appreciate the half bottle of Opus One on the menu, know the name Danny Meyer and have frequented one of his other restaurants, it also seems certain a larger number of “Shake Shakers” do not know all about Mr. Meyer, and frankly, are likely not to care.

I don’t think Mr. Meyer’s other restaurants’ reputations of hospitality need to carry the burger chain. Evidence suggests they are doing just fine on the brand promise of offering an elevated burger experience, tasty shake, communal waiting and a sly nod to a prestigious California cabernet. Shake Shack has taken on its own personality, extending the number of guests served far beyond any of USHG’s other concepts. Its success might be a reason the New York Times dared to lower itself to report about a quick service — or shall we call it “quick casual” in the new industry-lingo — operation.

Vin’s Response
Glad to hear that you won’t wait in line. My confidence in your good sense has been restored. “Communal waiting” has mystified me since the days of Studio 54. Is it a devotional deprivation that enhances the long anticipated first bite? If the wait is part of the experience, it certainly removes Shake Shack from the “quick” anything category. No argument on the claim that they are doing fine, but isn’t the issue more a matter of for how long and to what extent? It’s a tough, crowded and competitive restaurant segment. Personality sounds about as strong a concept attribute as playful packaging. I think this was Wells’ point. Get the fries right and cook the burger consistently to the desired degree of doneness — these are the performance issues that will elevate the experience and resonate with any customer for a longer period of time.

Julia’s Last Word
That’s what would elevate a good burger experience to you and me. But what makes it top of the line for Shake-fans? I don’t know, but there seems to be more in that special sauce then we think. Maybe we should queue against our better inclinations (I’m buying if you don the outfit and hairstyle of your Studio 54 days) and see what their love affair with the shack is all about.

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