If You Can Get Joy Out of This, Life Isn’t So Bad

Each time I visit one of the five Shake Shack locations in New York City, I get an anxious feeling. It is a much different feeling than when I go to Chipotle or, dare I say it, McDonald’s (not that I have set foot in one in years). Why? It’s just a hamburger. It’s just a hot dog. Big deal, right? Why does this particular fast food restaurant attract mobs of people like some sort of tourist attraction?

McDonald’s has saturated planet Earth with mediocre food and substances that could be categorized as something other than whole food. It takes a special talent to open a fast food joint that attracts tourists.

So what exactly makes Shake Shake a fast food joint that has brought so many seasoned food writers to their knees?

When I moved to New York City, I had never heard of Shake Shack, the fast food joint created by the very successful restaurateur Danny Meyer.  Yes, Danny Meyer of the four New York Times starred Eleven Madison Park. Danny Meyer, the restaurant genius.  He has cornered the market for “specialty fast food” as well as “super fine dining.” With about 65 cooks on the roster, Eleven Madison Park, which is adjacent to the first Shake Shack in Madison Square Park, is the place to work right now if you’re a chef in New York City. The food is phenomenal and beautiful. The Michelin Guide noticed and bestowed three stars this year. New York mag recently called it the #1 restaurant in the entire city. Meyer must be doing something right.

In the recent New York Times article “A Movable Feast: Danny Meyer On A Roll,” Sean Wilsey writes:

New York is a city of rooms. Most of them are tiny, dark, lonely, and the wrong temperature. Meyer makes rooms that are exquisite…you feel at home. His goal, he told me, is for customers to make his restaurants their clubhouses.

That’s precisely it: Shake Shack is my clubhouse. Well, not entirely, but the dining area certainly was the right temperature when I noshed on a “Shack-ago dog,” escaping a 20-degree, windy January day. The fact is, if you pay attention when you enter a food establishment, it is evident whether the person in charge cares. Danny Meyer cares. He cares so much that he manages not from an office, but by running around the city. He is not only a marketing genius, but he knows what people want. Wilsey goes on to say:

He has created new restaurants as though they were each his first and only — the singularity of a place always as important as the food. His looseness and precision are qualities more reminiscent of an athlete or an artist. Whatever Meyer is engaged in — jaywalking, French-speaking, grease-inhaling — receives his complete attention.

The burger at Shake Shack is delicious. It’s not the paper thin, rock hard, semi-greasy, semi-dry, meat-ish gray patty that you see at other fast food restaurants.

I had not nearly moistened my eyeballs three times and my first Shake Shack burger (pictured above) was devoured. They must know what they are doing. And by they, I mean the butcher and the patty designer. As Sean Wilsey accounts:

Meyer told me the vast majority of Shake Shack’s management “began their careers with us in our fine-dining restaurants,” and the meat comes from Pat LaFrieda, a third-generation butcher who produces a blend of sirloin, chuck and brisket designed by Richard Coraine, former general manager of Wolfgang Puck’s Postrio in San Francisco and now one of Meyer’s partners.

Danny Meyer means business. And so do I when my order is called at the Shake Shack counter. Soft, pillowy buns surrounding real lettuce, tomatoes, and actual meat? As Danny Meyer says, “If you can get joy out of this, life isn’t so bad.”

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One comment

  • Cheryl Livingston January 19, 2012  

    Well said. It is always a pleasant experience to eat at a Shake Shack. Of course the food is a major part of the experience but the people working there, the surroundings and the other diners always make it fun. I live in Colorado but always visit one or more Shake Shacks in NYC as well as one or more of the Danny Meyer fine dining restaurants when I’m visiting. Always worth the time and money and a good memory once I’m back in Colorado. Joy is found in big and little ways. Shake Shack is one of them.

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