The announcement that a new burger joint is opening in central London is as commonly heard these days as “Do you want fries with that?”. Things started small with a half-underground burger scene working out of trucks or pop-ups and rapidly spread into bricks and mortar across the capital. This reappropriation of honest grub has spawned a vast bubble. They call it “dude food” or “dirty food” and it’s big enough to have observers questioning its future.
The latest joint to open in London is Shake Shack; a name whispered in awe by burger aficionados. The original Shake Shack was opened in 2004 in New York by Danny Meyer, the brain behind a string of successful fine dining operations, mostly in a small area of Manhattan.
So when Meyer finally comes to London to launch a burger joint just as the craze has arguably peaked, he must know something we don’t. We met at Patty & Bun, one of the dozens of start-up burger joints across London that Meyer so likes. This one seems particularly tuned to the ambitions of his London operation, containing a healthy smattering of hipsters but not so cool as to discourage the trade from nearby Oxford Street. He arrives with Randy Garutti, fast-talking head of Shake Shack operations, and their own PR consiglieri.
Meyer is 55, slightly built and immaculate in his blazer. They “clock” the room constantly in a way that bespeaks years on the frontline of dining rooms. (After Meyer leaves a starry-eyed girl at the next table asked if I’d been interviewing Roger Sterling, one of the characters in Mad Men.)
Shake Shack began when Meyer took over a concession stand in Madison Square Park close to several of his high-end restaurants. It was, as he tells it, an almost charitable act of community relations. “Three years of a hot-dog cart followed by five years of adding burgers and frozen custard – we called it Shake Shack because we wanted it to be all about frozen custard. We didn’t even think burgers were a part of the damn thing – hardly a plan.”
Since 2004 the company has expanded vigorously. By the end of this year it is expected to number 33 outlets in six countries; the first of two planned Shake Shacks opened at JFK airport in May.
Watch the food media though and the prevailing opinion is that London, at least, has reached dude food saturation: “Peak Burger”.
The US mini-chain Five Guys is set to open in several UK locations this year. Do we need another burger joint, no matter how good?
The Shack team doesn’t seem too worried. “Do [Londoners] feel threatened?”, Meyer asks. “Would they rather see another McDonald’s?” Garutti chips in, “The burger business in the US is worth about $70bn per year. The ‘better burger’, $2bn. So is there room for our bit? Without question.”
“The better burger category has an opportunity to do two things,” says Meyer. “We can pull people from fast food who are willing to spend 75 per cent more to get a better experience. We can also pull from a guy who’s been going to Eleven Madison Park [restaurant] who wants the absolute best experience in the world, doesn’t want to part with his taste for quality, still wants a great glass of beer, a great glass of wine and he still wants a burger.”
In the UK we’ve been through a phase of “gourmet” burgers: vast, packed, overdressed and tarted up to justify a higher price. Meyer’s burgers are simpler, based on high-quality ingredients, and graced with titles like the ShackBurger® and the SmokeShack(™). They are also reassuringly more refined than the grungier dude food they inspired.
Meyer and Garutti are keen to emphasise the modest scale of their ambitions for the company in a manner at odds with the reality of their expansion. “If you were to walk into my office,” says Garutti, “there’s a thing on the wall, it says, ‘The bigger we get, the smaller we need to act’. So when we come to the UK we need to act small. That means, I’m up in Scotland on ranches figuring out where our beef’s coming from. We’re working with Ginger Pig on a Cumberland sausage – which we’ve never done in the US. We’re working with St John on brownies and biscuits which we’ll use in our frozen custard … Paul A Young chocolates … ”
It’s clear that unlike large groups who build a brand by a standardised product, Meyer’s is about difference. “We never want to scale it to the degree that fast food chains want to. But we’ll always have something they don’t have. It’s a different outlook. What’s the role of staff in creating a community of guests? What is the role of design and location to its community? Those are things that independent guys think about all the time.”
The arrival of London’s first Shake Shack has the burgerati slavering and the industry watching closely. If he continues to pull off the balancing act of the “multinational independent”, Danny Meyer may well end up as the biggest little restaurateur in the world.
Shake Shack, 24 Market Building, The Piazza, London WC2E 8RD.
Tim Hayward is an FT Weekend contributing writer