Saturday, September 10, 2011

Shake Shack: Burgers by Design

What's all this hype about the Shake Shack? Is it really a worthy competitor of In-N-Out Burger and Five Guys? I rolled up my sleeves and do what I always do when it comes to testing burgers: I ordered one plain burger, with lettuce, onion and tomato as the only garnishes. No cheese, no secret sauce, no distracting toppings. If I want to know how a burger tastes, I need to taste the meat.

And here's how it shook down. If you are going on meat flavor alone, Shake Shack falls squarely between In-N-Out and Five Guys. The naked In-N-Out burger surprised me with its flame-grilled flavor, unusual for a fast-food place. I enjoyed every bite, and making that stop on the way to LAX was even worth missing our plane back to DC. Chris was definitely right about that one.

By contrast, Five Guys, unplugged from its dazzle of toppings, is really tasteless. The kind of tasteless that makes me angry that I have been pursuaded to come here. On later visits, I found that the free and plentiful topping choices are fun to experiment with, just so long as you can forget what is underneath.

And Shake Shack? The plain burger is pleasant tasting, but comes nowhere near the flavor of In-N-Out. On the other hand, it does not depend on toppings to be respectable. So like I said, from this perspective, Shake Shack burgers fall between the two.

But what if you look at it from a different angle -- what if design, rather than taste, is the distinguishing feature? Walking into the Shake Shack in Dupont Circle, you are immediately struck by its muted lighting and sleek dark surfaces. It's a far cry from In-N-Out and Five Guys' shared motif of red-and-white hues, bright florescent lights and formica counters. The retro-modern concept of Shake Shack is to reclaim the burger and reposition it in the context of sustainable design. Shake Shack exteriors are individually created (often by SITE Environmental Design) to be harmonious with their surroundings. Each interior is unique as well: the interiors of the Dupont Shack are constructed from reclaimed bowling alley lanes (the tabletops), reclaimed antique barn wood siding (the walls), and lumber certified by the Forestry Stewardship Council (the chairs and booths). Wind-power credits offset 100% of Shake Shack's electricity, and its used cooking oil is recycled into bio-diesel fuel. 

Burger on reclaimed bowling lane table top

But isn't all this designery, green stuff expensive? How is it that Shake Shack can offer all of this and still keep their burgers at fast food prices? A single burger with lettuce and tomato is $3.50; the Shack Burger w/American cheese, lettuce and tomato, and Shack sauce will run you $4.50. It turns out that the fast food model is perfectly suited to shoulder this initial capital outlay in design and materials. With no maitre d', waitstaff, or linens, the profit margins can be as high as 13%, compared with a median of 1.8% in full-service restaurants.

All this, I like (and like enough for it to be bloggable). But what does it say about the burgers? You would think that with all the thought going into design, that the same consideration would have been given to the meat. Well, it has -- and therein lies the problem. I believe that Shake Shack burgers have been over-designed. According to a recent New York Times article, Richard Coraine, the burger designer, spent months modifying the organic blend of sirloin, brisket and chuck. Besides getting these proportions just right, he also factored in other elements that would affect the taste: the amount of butter brushed on the bun before griddling, the flavor and amount of Shack Sauce, the type and even the width of the American cheese. Like everything else at Shake Shack, the meat is designed to fit in with its surroundings -- it's not meant to stand alone. This means that if you just want a plain ol' burger, you're out of luck. You can order it, but it won't taste right. Respectable, yes, but really no great shakes. So here is a plea to the powers that be at Shake Shack: if you are going to design the hell out of a burger, please create one designed to be eaten without cheese or sauce. I'd like to reclaim my plain burger!

Shake Shack on Urbanspoon

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