Next week is A Big Deal. It's going to be difficult to predict precisely how long the Shack furore is going to last. Frankly, in its homestead, the furore has never really gone away - a visit to NYC isn't complete without a visit to the Shack. It has woven itself into the very fabric of that city, to the point that visiting from now on will be odd because we won't have to go anymore.
The Shackburger is iconic. No hyperbole. We Londoners don't have iconic sandwiches like it.
This little $5 sandwich can reach the top of the pile in New York, the plausible spiritual home of the sandwich, so moving it anywhere else, especially outside the continental US, has repercussions.
There's something indubitably unique about the Shack. Even the name itself belies the design aesthetic: The clean geometric fonts that adorn both the metallic lettering on the exterior and the menu inside. The simplistic layout and spotless lines that make the inside of each Shack so comfortable yet functional, and the building in Madison Square Park so instantly eye-catching.
The spaces look like those artist impressions of futuristic developments that you see in advertisements from the 1960s.
They are definitely not shacks.
Breaking down an icon
If you've never seen it, there's an aging, grainy, badly filmed video of the Shack's Randy Garutti walking through the process of making one. It's worth a watch because of several admirable features that the Shack have pioneered: the chrome griddle (smokeless, doesn't increase the ambient temperature of the restaurant), the smash technique (check out all those scrapers), the Home Depot paint scraper, the single flip, the Potato roll. That freaking rotating bun-butterer. So amazing.
But all of these things make a good sandwich. The iconic stature is reached because of presentation. The little paper bag that their sandwiches arrive in is a work of genius. It's the opposite of a vertically-opened McDonald's box (which is arguably trying to conceal the less-than-picture-perfect nature of its contents). You see the whole thing. The crust on the patty. The technicolour hue of the curly lettuce. The just-enough-to-see saucing. That cheese. The comforting squish to the bun. It's practically alive and breathing. All hanging out for the owner to take in before that all important first bite.
Turning a burger sideways is, excuse the pun, the special sauce. Our generation is hard-wired to respond to something that looks like it belongs in a food stylist's studio, having suffered through many a disappointing Big Mac that didn't look like the picture. The prettiness is hard to ignore. London may now be a city that harbours a fair few tasty burgers, but very few can be classed as genuinely attractive.
The Shack's dogmatic approach to presentation shows us how it can be done, at scale.
Obviously, there are nerd questions, that will be answered next week.
- will it taste right without the help of Pat LaFrieda beef?
- do Martin's rolls travel well?
- where's the cheese coming from?
- how can they replicate the colour of those veggies over here?
It may feel a bit bitter to those who have proven the London burger market. They are, after all, not Americans.
But that would be focusing on the negative. The Shack's arrival marks a maturation point; the point where we collectively decided that we're not embarrassed to like American stuff being made well by Americans. Yes, the ex-pats can continue doing their thing, the new dive bars can continue selling £8 cheeseburgers. Hell, the pretenders can continue to fob off locals and tourists alike. The Shack legitimises all of their efforts because they've proven that market and they're not here to decimate anybody.
We also love the breezy lack of cynicism. There's no pretense of health, nor inappropriate accusations of causing childhood obesity. It feels like they love hamburgers as much as their customers. It's in direct contrast to the MBA wonks running the largest fast food chains, who take no joy in their product and spend their days trying to convince us they're not killing our children.
The Knock-on Effect
Our hope is that as a city, the knock-on effect will be higher quality for less money.
Double-down, back to work.
Those charging twice the price will have to inject extra value. As of next week, £4.75 becomes the benchmark price for a good London cheeseburger.
Presentation, for many, will need to improve drastically. Differentiators will need to be more pronounced. Think as long and hard about customer experience as these guys have. Do your homework.
Don't let the Americans take over the sole responsibility of educating the Great British public of what a great burger is, in your own fucking front garden.
There might be some casualties along the way. There will be more of them across that ocean soon.
But for us, and for you, it's all good. Be prepared to wait a long time or eat your burgers as a mid morning snack.
Let's not forget that our NYC trips will be forever altered. No longer will we the pre-requisite pilgrimage to a Shack be so necessary.
Welcome to London, Shake Shack. We never thought this day would come.
- Simon & Rob.