Culture / Restaurants

Inside Shake Shack’s Crazy Houston Debut: Long Lines, Three-Star Beginnings and Lessons from the Hot Dog Cart

BY // 11.05.16

It’s 9:30 am, and Houston’s first Shake Shack in The Galleria is nearly two hours from its official Friday debut. The sustainably crafted space designed by Austin-based Michael Hsu — whose resume includes Uchi, Oporto Fooding House, Snap Kitchen, and more — sparkles, with tabletops fashioned from reclaimed bowling alley lanes, chairs designed with responsible materials, and the obligatory, neon green Shake Shack burger emblem perched high for all to see.

But neither captivating interiors nor the restaurant’s signature burgers were the star of the room at this hour — no, that honor belonged to the Shake Shack’s dynamic CEO Randy Garutti.

“I had my first restaurant job at 13 making $3.25 an hour at a bagel shop. I was paid in cash, under the table,” Garutti tells a room full of Shake Shack trainees. “I fell in love with the industry during that job, and I’ve been in restaurants ever since.”

His passion for restaurants eventually landed him a job with famed chef and restaurateur Danny Meyer, the brains behind the New York City based Union Square Hospitality Group, which includes fine dining restaurants such as Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, The Modern, and formerly Eleven Madison Park.

“Well I’ve been with the company for 17 years, before there was ever a Shake Shack. Years ago, we had this ugly park sitting across from our restaurant Eleven Madison Park, which is a Michelin three-star restaurant today and number three in the world,” Garutti says. “As part of the park’s renewal, they did an art exhibit with New York taxis on stilts, and the artists wanted to sell hot dogs as part of the exhibit.

“So we did that for three years out of the kitchen of Eleven Madison Park.”

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Of course, hot dogs from one of the world’s top chefs were bound to be a hit, thus Shake Shack was born in 2004 — stationed in a quaint, 400 square-foot kiosk. Soon, the menu added burgers, fries, and frozen custards and had droves of loyal fans.

But how does a supplemental hot dog cart morph into a burger empire?

“It took us almost five years to open our second Shake Shack location. We never wanted to replicate any of this, we were all about fine dining, that’s our ethos; and then we opened the second Shack, and it was busier than the first. We said, you know what, I think we should try to see what this could be,” Garutti says.

This weekend’s Houston grand opening marked the company’s 111th Shake Shack location. There are outposts across the world, including Shake Shacks in Seoul, Tokyo, Dubai, and Istanbul.

But with such an expansive footprint, many Houstonians are left wondering: Why did Shake Shack wait nearly 10 years to plant roots in the Bayou City?

“We can’t grow everywhere at once. We’re not the company that’s trying to blanket the universe with Shake Shacks. But it probably took us too long to get to Houston, mostly because of real estate. We did it as soon as we could get here and as soon as the real estate made sense,” Garutti says.

Houston, we have a Shack! Liftoff! @shakeshack

A photo posted by randygarutti (@randygarutti) on

Whether Shake Shack’s arrival makes you jump for joy or cringe with fury, one thing is sure — their signature burgers are here to stay. The brand’s already secured prime real estate in Rice Village for a second Houston location at 6206 Kirby Drive (currently La Madeleine’s spot).

Shake Shack virgins can expect a curated menu of burgers, chicken sandwiches, hotdogs, and frozen custards all crafted with sustainable ingredients. Think grass fed cows, high-quality, fresh produce, no hormones, and no antibiotics — a feature that helped catapult Shake Shack into the spotlight years ago.

“[Shake Shack] was born at a time in 2004, where people were just learning about food. Before then, we were still eating TV dinners and feasting on fast food. Then social media and technology like the iPhone were born at that time. There was a flow of information,” Garutti say. “All of a sudden people started caring where their food was coming from.

“So Shake Shack just kind of rose in that movement where many people were turning away from traditional fast food.”

Similar to other Shacks, Houston’s Galleria location showcases a number of local partnerships including the Lockhart link burger, which features a jalapeño cheese sausage link from Texas-based Kreuz Market; and concretes (frozen custards with mix-ins) utilizing everything from Fluff Bake Bar‘s devil’s food cake and pies, Morningstar donuts, and Greenway Coffee.

Mark Rosati, our culinary director, he just eats whenever he comes down to a city, and he finds these different places. Sometimes through word of mouth or just chefs that we know in the area. So we’re always seeking out these local companies to feature on our menu. I say the bigger we get, the smaller we need to act,” Garutti says.

Eleven o’clock strikes, and the debut line is in full swing at The Galleria. A squad of security guards man the chaos as the line thickens.

“I knew this was going to be a big deal, but I was not prepared for this line at all. I think I kind of underestimated the time frame. I came here to get lunch for my co-workers, so I’m currently texting them to see if they have anything else in mind,” line member Catherine Martin says.

While Martin’s prepared to jump ship, others, like Shake Shack first timer Isabel Sevir are in for the long haul.

“I was actually prepared for the line to be a lot longer. I’m here with my friend who had the burger in New York, so I’m prepared to stand in line however long it takes,” Sevir says. “I think I’m going to order the double cheeseburger and a shake, but I’m not sure which one.”

While some may write off Shake Shacks first day success to initial hype, Garutti has a message for the naysayers. “We’re not trying to be a gourmet burger, but we’re using our fine dining background to make you the best, and most quality burger possible,” he says. “We’re not in this for the next few months, we’re in this for decades.

“There’s a lot of great burgers in this town, and I don’t think anything we do is going to change that. We’re just looking forward to you putting us in your rotation.”

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