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First Sight: Shake Shack

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Just a few paces from that latest ex-NYC import, Balthazar – and on the site of a former NYC-style deli – we met Danny Meyer, NYC restaurateur par excellence, with Shake Shack’s CEO Randy Garutti. The site: their first London Shake Shack – is the group’s 29th location, and the first in the EU.

Shake Shack started as a pop-up burger and hot dog cart in Madison Square Park in the early years of the millennium. It became a permanent site in 2004. Expansion was mainly in the Northeastern US at first, but then the shopping malls of Dubai, Qatar and Kuwait beckoned.

Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group runs some of NYC's great restaurants, including the legendary Gramercy Tavern. So, any immediate plan to bring his fine dining empire to these shores? Well, never say never, but – despite Meyer’s high international profile – his fine dining empire has never strayed outside Manhattan (and is still confined mainly within a few blocks Downtown). But wouldn’t there be more money to be made in, particularly, Las Vegas, where most big names, including our own Gordon Ramsay, maintain large and presumably profitable outposts? “It’s not about the money.”

‘Locavorism’, as Americans call it, has played a big role in Shake Shack's success in many markets. “Whenever we've done a Shake Shack anywhere in the world, it needs to taste like the Shake Shack, and also feel like the place where it is. We did things here on the menu that we've never done before,” says Garutti, referencing this particular Shack's nod to London, with its St John and paul.a.young concretes (frozen custard ice cream), and its London-only Cumberland Sausage dog. (Given the many US influences at work in London at the moment, it’s notable that Meyer and Garutti credit interest in local food supplies as an idea that, initially at least, went largely the other way.)

London's Shake Shack opens tomorrow, just one day after – and within a five-minute walk of – another highly anticipated US burger import, Five Guys. Over its 20 year history, the chain has gathered 1000 locations across the US.

Can Shake Shack continue to expand whilst maintaining its high quality, and when is big too big? Garutti says: “if we've developed a leadership team that's ready to go, if we've taken care of the supply chain and our vendors, and if we've grown a team that's really ready to make this Shake Shack great, then we should grow. It's a good thing for the producers we work with, a good thing for our team, and a good thing for the world. That's not growth for growth's sake.”

Meyer adds,“Yes, we are a chain, because there's more than one. We don't think that anyone ever wrote a rule that says each link in the chain has to be precisely the same. So whenever we go anywhere, part of the reason that Shake Shack will expand more slowly than other chains, is that we make each one feel as local as can be, given that it's a chain.”

Have they succeeded? Better have a look at the menu.

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