Sports writer Benjamin Hochman samples burgers in every city he visits and rates them, in a very tongue-in-cheek fashion, on his blog. Wherever he covers an NBA game for the Denver Post, he tries the favorite local burger as part of his personal NBA, National Burger Adventure. But once he got to Shake Shack in New York, he said his search for the perfect burger was over.
“To put it in Boston terms, you can compare this burger to Pedro [Martinez]’s 1999 season. You can compare it to the 1986 Celtics. You can say it’s akin to Ted Williams’s .400 batting average,” Hochman said. “Simply put, it’s the Kate Upton of cheeseburgers.”
Given Shake Shack’s frenzied following, fans of the restaurant expect the line to be out the door when the chain’s first Boston-area outpost opens Wednesday morning on Route 9 in Chestnut Hill. Shake Shack’s burgers, custards, and, of course, milkshakes are prompting the kind of buzz not seen in these parts since Krispy Kreme came (and left) or Pinkberry opened its doors.
“Oftentimes people really need permission or an excuse to buy what they really want, and Shake Shack has really given people permission, in a sense, to do that,” said New York restaurant consultant Clark Wolf.
On muggy summer days, New Yorkers often wait more than an hour at the Madison Square Park location for the concrete (that’s Shake Shack terminology for frozen custard), or for crinkle fries that Brighton resident Jen Leland calls “heaven topped with catsup.” The company even has a “Shack cam” on which customers can monitor the line from their computers — and get their grub as quickly as possible.
Openings in Miami, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia were packed, with eager customers lining up hours in advance. The Washington Post created a hashtag for the opening: #shakeshackalypse. In Philadelphia, employees handed out menus and free frozen custard samples to those waiting in line, all the better to get them hooked. During peak hours, the Times Square Shake Shack regularly sports a line snaking out the door, something more common at Apple stores than at neighborhood burger joints.
“When we set out to design, we wanted to change everything that fast food got wrong over the past 50 years,” Shake Shack chief executive Randy Garutti said of the restaurants, which feature salvaged bowling alley wood for table tops. “Uncomfortable seating and drive-through service and bad lighting — you name the things that fast food did to create this machine feeling, and what we’ve done is strip down every piece of that.”
Garutti said the search for a Boston-area location took several years, and his team is currently looking for a second location in downtown Boston.
What began as a hot dog cart in 2001 intended to fund an art project has blossomed into a chain of 24 international restaurants. The Chestnut Hill Shake Shack, opening at 11 a.m. at 49 Boylston St., will feature locally inspired custards such as Revere’s Tracks (vanilla frozen custard, cheesecake blondie, peanut butter sauce, and chocolate sprinkles) and Lobstah Shell (vanilla frozen custard, lobster tail pastry shell from Boston’s North End, strawberry purée, and ricotta cream). They will also serve beer and wine created specifically for Shake Shack.
Those who are planning a visit, even if it means standing in line, say the quality of the products justifies the price (a Shack Burger is $4.60 in New York) and the wait. Some describe love affairs with Shake Shake, the kind of devotion usually reserved for first loves or the one who got away.
“A lot of my friends here have never tried Shake Shack before, so I plan on converting all of my friends into the cult, so I’ll always have someone who wants to go and eat Shake Shack with me,” said 23-year-old Boston research technician Olivia Nguyen.
Fans of the restaurant often use the term cult to describe their passion for the frozen custards and milkshakes. Restaurant analyst Ron Paul, president of Technomic in Chicago, also uses the term. He said even the lines, which move quickly, are a draw.
“People want to go where they can’t get in,” Paul said. “It’s human nature. It’s a sign to them that it must be something good. I think that, combined with the fact that burgers are hot right now, makes it a perfect storm. That’s why they’ve grown, and that’s why I think the Boston location will be a success.”
Joanne Chang, owner of Flour Bakery, points to the acumen of Danny Meyer as a big part of Shake Shack’s success. The famed New York restaurateur and chief executive of Union Square Hospitality Group also owns the New York hot spots Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern, and Blue Smoke.
“[Meyer]’s done a good job of finding the thing he’s good at, and then he focuses on that,” Chang said. “He’s not trying to be shake and burger and hot dog and nacho and pizza and taco shack. He’s saying this is what we’re going to do, and we’re going to do this really well.”
Members of the Shack “cult” may not know much about the business behind their beloved burgers, but they do know that the shakes and burgers are what they crave.
“I was never a big cheeseburger fan until I had Shake Shack,” said Tess Alexandria, a 22-year-old musician. “Something about those burgers is magical. It’s always the first place I want to go when I visit New York.”
And now, Chestnut Hill.