How do you tailor Shake Shack’s menus for each country?
I try to make sure each one has its own soul and taste. We want each venue to feel more like a neighbourhood restaurant than a big chain out of New York City.
What do you think of the UK’s burger scene?
My first trip to London was 20-something years ago on a family holiday. I loved it, but at the time the food here was not the best. When I came over in advance of our first opening in Covent Garden I'd heard that things had changed a lot. I went to Honest Burgers and Patty & Bun right off the plane and was really inspired. I felt like our burger was different enough to sit alongside the others in London. If you love burgers you don’t pledge your allegiance to just one, you like to eat around.
How did you create Shake Shack’s UK menu?
I started to try and understand the dining scene from two different angles. I went to high-end restaurants like The Ledbury, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal and The Fat Duck and also a lot of street food places. It’s about seeing what people are doing, and figuring out what I like. At the end of the day our food is very personal. If I lived here I’d want to eat a brownie from St John every day, and I’d want to go to Bread Ahead and get their amazing Ginger Cake.
You’ve also opened in Cardiff now…
They have a lot of Welsh teacakes that I found interesting, you don’t really see those in London. So now we have a custard in Cardiff that has a Welsh cake in it with strawberry jam and vanilla. I wanted to create something that was very yummy but also paying tribute to the culinary heritage of the area.
Is there anything you’ve put on the menu that hasn’t worked?
The fun part of our menu is our custard calendar, where we have a different flavour that rotates throughout the week. One of my more interesting ones was a Raspberry Jalapeno flavour. The thing with spice is some people think it should be hotter and some people think you’re trying to kill them! So that one was a bit polarising.
One of my favourite flavours that we use in our Tokyo Shake Shack is Black Sesame, which dyes the custard grey. We ran the flavour in America with a lot of orange and lemon zest and called it Grey Matter. It was wonderful but people saw the name and were like ‘I’m not eating that’. So sometimes the vision doesn’t meet the reality but that doesn’t stop us from wanting to have some fun.
You also created a special menu for dogs…
It’s called the Pooch-ini! We were born out of a park in New York City where people would walk their dogs, so we thought it would be fun to create a menu item for them. At the end of the day we don’t take ourselves too seriously, it makes us a little different and maybe a little wacky at the same time.
You’ve collaborated with St John and Sat Bains in the past, are there any other UK chefs or restaurants you’d like to work with?
I’ve long admired Heston Blumenthal and his team, especially Jonny (Lake) at the Fat Duck and Ashley (Palmer-Watts) at Dinner. I love Hoppers and Bao and I imagine if we ever did a Taiwanese or a Sri Lankan burger it would be cool to have them channel their vision in to an American patty.
The cool thing for us is that the first collaboration we ever did in London was with Massimo Bottura two years ago. He created a burger inspired by his home region of Emilia-Romagna [in Northern Italy].
I think a lot of these amazing chefs appreciate that we care a lot about hospitality and have that same passion for detail as people with multiple Michelin stars. What I realised on my first day at Shake Shack was that it was very similar to fine dining but it was a lot more simplistic. I think chefs are curious about what we do and we would like to do a lot more collaborations.
Maybe you should work your way down the 50 Best list…
We’ve actually worked with number one (Massimo) and number three Eleven Madison Park, and it’s been great. But I think it would be a missed opportunity just to stick to that list!
You’ve opened in England and Wales, would you ever consider expanding to other areas of the UK?
You never know. Right now we have four Shake Shack’s over here. Back in December we opened another London site and in Cardiff. Every time we grow we like to stand back a little bit and make sure the locations are doing the best they can do, and that takes a little time.
A lot of American chains like Five Guys and Smashburger are launching in the UK, do you feel the pressure of the increased competition?
I think what makes us different is that we’re born out of fine dining and our hospitality is something that separates us. London is a very saturated market but there’s no stopping it because people like a burger. All ships rise with the tide, so if some other guy opens up and starts doing great burgers then it’s just going to re-spark everyone’s love affair with it.
What’s coming up for Shake Shack?
We’ve had a great year and opened in Los Angeles in March. What’s fun for us is that many burger places in the UK have a lot of DNA from there. It is the birthplace of the great burgers that we know today. We are opening in Seoul, Korea, and are going to be opening more Shake Shack’s in the Orient and expanding and deepening our roots in cities at the same time.