Shake Shack: from street food to global brand

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 18th July 2014
Mark-Rosati Shake Shack UK, the American street food inspired burger and milkshake outlet in Covent Garden, celebrated its first anniversary this month. The Staff Canteen caught up with culinary director, Mark Rosati, to find out how what started out as a New York hot dog cart has become an international brand with outlets across the globe and how it's trying to stay true to its street food roots.

From New York to the world

Shake Shack began life little more than a decade ago as a single hot dog cart in Madison Square Park, New York. It was the brainchild of restaurateur Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG). The cart, which was run from the kitchen of Meyer’s legendary Eleven Madison Park restaurant, proved an instant hit and for three summers drew huge queues. In 2004 USGH won a bid to host a permanent kiosk-style operation in the park selling hot dogs, burgers and milkshakes and the first Shake Shack was born. ShackBurger cheeseburger topped with lettuce, tomato and ShackSauceNow there are 12 Shacks in New York alone with 15 more across the States and international outlets in London, Dubai, Istanbul, Lebanon, Moscow, and even Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. Shake Shack has been a big hit worldwide, adapting its take on classic American street food to local culinary scenes and traditions. The brand serves its frozen shake or ‘concrete custard’, for instance, with a baklava, banana and cinnamon caramel sauce in Istanbul, or a honey almond cake shake in Dubai. The Shack in Jeddah is the busiest in the world according to culinary director Mark Rosati. And it won’t stop there, particularly for the UK. “We always look to open between one and five Shacks depending on how big the city is,” says Mark, “so we’ve definitely got our eyes on opening more locations in London and the rest of the UK.” Mark Rosati has such a sunny disposition and winning smile that he could be telling you he’s going Shake Shack, Covent Gardento open a string of sweat shops and you’d briefly consider the benefits. He is indeed the perfect front man for the kind of mid-western hospitality that is the soul of American fast food, the kind of warm personality that became hideously warped into the rigid death-smile of Ronald McDonald when big business took over the humble burger.

Anti fast food

It is just this sort of centralised corporate expansionism that Mark is keen to distance Shake Shack from. Yes they have become a global brand but their roots are still firmly fixed in local neighbourhoods and communities, he insists. “We consider ourselves the anti-fast food,” he says. “Where fast food started to go awry back in the 60’s and 70’s was when it was made faster and more efficient and I think then we lost the human interaction which didn’t make it so great. In the 50’s it would be fun to get in a car and drive to a shack and sit down with family and friends and eat great food; we want to put that back in and make it a more human experience.” Hot dogThis might be easy to say but when you’re expanding at the rate of five new countries a year, as Shake Shack did in 2013, the challenge to retain that local, human, non-Ronald-death-smile face surely becomes a more challenging balancing act? “We never want to be sat at our computers in New York saying, ‘Okay… London… let’s see what we can do here. I know, let’s do a milkshake with the colours of the Union Jack flag,’” says Mark. “We always want it to feel like someone is from that town and that they opened it; that takes a lot of research.” It’s this research that saw Mark spend most of last year abroad. In terms of London it involved sampling the local street food and culinary scene, an experience which threw up some pleasant surprises. “I thought, my God these are amazing,” he says his voice recalling the pleasure of the discovery of London’s burger scene. “It was probably the first time in a long time I was really Frozen Custard dense, rich creamy ice-cream spun fresh, daily at the Shack is the foundation of all Shakes’ (2)inspired by what other people were doing. When I think about making a burger, I’m always thinking of putting a salty, savoury sauce on but in London I saw a lot of sweet sauces. It wasn’t my take on a burger but it was really authentic and really inspiring.” His investigations also took in the fine dining end of the spectrum, a move which resulted in a collaboration with one of London’s most iconic names, Fergus Henderson. “I went to St JOHN and had that bone marrow. I’ve had a lot of bone marrow in my day, and I don’t know what he does to it, but this was really different and special. Then I found out he had a bakery. I went in there and had one of the finest brownies in my entire life.” The rest, as they say, is history. St JOHN Bakery became a Shake Shack supplier and their brownies inspired a couple of frozen concretes’proving that the company is not afraid to flirt with the fine dining end of the market as well as the street eats.

Roots

Mark came from a fine dining background himself. At first just a keen amateur cook, his first chef job was at one of USGH’s iconic New York restaurants, Gramercy Tavern. He found himself working there after meeting chef Michael Anthony at a food and wine event. “He gave me the opportunity to go and watch them cook one day which to me was like the greatest thing on Earth. When I did it I was literally hooked.” Mark got a job at the restaurant and spent the next three years learning his trade. He moved to the original Shake Shack location in Madison Square Park after expressing an interest in finding out more about the management side of catering. Although he originally worked there as a manager he found his boss kept pushing him more towards the food side, a move which eventually stuck. “He suggested doing milkshakes and that kind of sparked my creativity and gave me the green light to take more risks with the menu.” From there, he went on to become culinary development manager in 2010 and culinary director in 2013 with responsibility for menus across the whole Shake Shack empire.Black & White Shake It is an international role but one that he still claims inspiration from his childhood experiences of American street food. “I grew up in Connecticut on the East coast where we had a lot of seafood shacks and I loved those. Every summer after we went to the beach we’d always go to these places. A lot of Shake Shack’s inspiration is similar to these places, as well as the burger stands of the mid-west and west coast.”

Soul food

This then is the soul of Shake Shack. But It is exactly this home-grown, nostalgic vision which is most at risk, you feel, from the company’s worldwide expansion. How are they going to stop themselves from eventually becoming a glorified version of the fast food giants they consciously set themselves against? “I feel that with our slower approach to growth,” says Mark, “as long as we have that team that can keep going to those new locations and meeting local people and experiencing what makes those cities great, I still think each location will have its own soul that makes it different and unique. It’s our job to make people walk out of Shake Shack feeling happier than when they walked in and doing that in an enlightened and honest way.” There it is again, that pitch-perfect tone of mid-western hospitality that became one of the key stones of American fast food culture. With Mark, you sense, it really is genuine but you also know how easily it can morph into that Ronald McDonald death-smile. With Shake Shack you sincerely hope it never will because, at the moment, it is a company with real heart and soul.

In these challenging times…

The Staff Canteen team are taking a different approach to keeping our website independent and delivering content free from commercial influence. Our Editorial team have a critical role to play in informing and supporting our audience in a balanced way. We would never put up a paywall and restrict access – The Staff Canteen is open to all and we want to keep bringing you the content you want; more from younger chefs, more on mental health, more tips and industry knowledge, more recipes and more videos. We need your support right now, more than ever, to keep The Staff Canteen active. Without your financial contributions this would not be possible.

Over the last 12 years, The Staff Canteen has built what has become the go-to platform for chefs and hospitality professionals. As members and visitors, your daily support has made The Staff Canteen what it is today. Our features and videos from the world’s biggest name chefs are something we are proud of. We have over 500,000 followers across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and other social channels, each connecting with chefs across the world. Our editorial and social media team are creating and delivering engaging content every day, to support you and the whole sector - we want to do more for you.

A single coffee is more than £2, a beer is £4.50 and a large glass of wine can be £6 or more.

Support The Staff Canteen from as little as £1 today. Thank you.

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 18th July 2014

Shake Shack: from street food to global brand