Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months, you’re likely aware that Shake Shack has come to Utah. It would be hard to miss Utah’s press and foodies going gaga over the opening of our first Shake Shack at The School Yard in Sandy or the recent opening of a second Utah location at Fashion Place. So this week I decided to find out what all the fuss is about. Frankly, I don’t get it.
Now, I should say at the outset that I am a fan and admirer of restaurateur Danny Meyer, founder of Shake Shack. When I lived in New York I relished frequenting his Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern restaurants and I’ve enjoyed interviewing him in the past. He’s one of the smartest restaurant biz people I’ve ever met and a genuinely kind, warmhearted person.
Meyer once explained to me that a large part of the success of his businesses – he’s Founder & CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group which includes 275 Shake Shack locations worldwide – is PEOPLE. He believes in hiring motivated people who are kind, friendly and affable. He once said to me, “I can train anybody to carry a tray and serve people; but I can’t train friendliness or make a good personality.” So, he believes in hiring people based on personality traits over job experience. He’s had great success with that formula.
According to Meyer, the first Shake Shack “sprouted from a hot dog cart in Madison Square Park in Manhattan to support the Madison Square Park Conservancy’s first art installation. The cart was quite the success, with Shack fans lined up daily for three summers.” In 2004, he opened a permanent kiosk in the park and Shake Shack was born. It’s considered a “modern day roadside burger stand” and serves up what you’d expect: burgers, hot dogs, shakes, frozen custard, fries and the like.
Hearing that some folks were willing to wait three hours for a table at Shake Shack, my wife and I decided to order a curbside pickup meal from the Sandy location and eat our lunch in a nearby park. Ordering online was a bit of a puzzle. I downloaded the Shake Shack app to my phone but discovered that menu options that appeared in online menus at the Shake Shack website weren’t available via the phone app. For example, placing our order on the website allowed me to add tomato to a grilled cheese sandwich; the phone app didn’t. The curbside pickup situation was also confusing. When I placed my online order I was asked the color and type of car I’d be in for curbside pickup. So, I naturally assumed that someone would bring the food to our car. Nope. 1:00 p.m. – our pickup time – came and went and no one appeared. It turns out that you need to go into the store to pick up your curbside order, although online you’re given a choice of having someone bring the food to your car or going inside to retrieve it yourself. Weird. For what it’s worth, on a Monday afternoon Shake Shack wasn’t at all crowded and there wasn’t any wait for a table at all. Maybe the hype has worn off.
I’ve heard that Shake Shack serves the world’s best burger. Or at least, a lot of people seem to think so. I’m not one of them. Don’t get me wrong, a ShackBurger ($5.49/single or $8.29/double) is perfectly fine. It’s a thin, “smashed” burger; that is, it’s mashed onto a hot griddle with a spatula for searing. The blend of meat – sirloin and chuck – is quite tasty and is supplied locally, never frozen. I know of the meat source for Utah’s Shake Shacks but I’m not at liberty to divulge it. I’ll just say it’s a very reputable local meat purveyor.
A ShackBurger is served on a soft potato bun that’s lightly brushed with butter and toasted so the inside is a little bit crunchy. Standard toppings include American cheese, lettuce, tomato, and ShackSauce. The latter is a slightly sweet and spicy blend of ketchup, mayo, mustard and spices. Additional optional burger toppings include pickles, cherry peppers, sliced onion and bacon. Gluten free buns are available. Like I said, a ShackBurger is a perfectly good burger; I liked it just fine. But I didn’t find it any more likeable than an In-N-Out Burger or locally, a burger from Pace’s or Tonyburgers. I just don’t really understand the cult of Shake Shack.
That’s especially true when it comes to the French fries, which were quite disappointing. Again, I’d heard raves about the crispy crinkle-cut fries at Shake Shack, which come in various versions: hot and spicy, hot and spicy with cheese, bacon cheese fries, and plain cheese fries. We ordered the classic Fries ($2.95) and to be honest, I don’t think they had much more flavor than the cardboard box they came in. And speaking of packaging, environmentalists probably aren’t going to love Shake Shack. A ShackBurger to go, for example, is wrapped in paper and then placed in a cardboard box and then placed into a takeout bag with a big pile of napkins. There’s a lot of waste.
Oddly enough, a gluten-free bun is an option for the ShackBurger but not for the Grilled Cheese ($3.79), even though it’s made with the same potato bun as the burgers. Odd. So my wife – who is gluten-free – settled for eating a potato bun since virtually everything on the Shake Shack menu except beverages contains gluten. However, items like the burgers and hot dog can be ordered wrapped in lettuce, sans bun. Made with melted American cheese, we found it to be a perfectly acceptable grilled cheese sandwich for the price, but nothing to rave about. For an extra $1.69, you can add bacon.
A menu item I really did like was Shake Shack’s Hot Chick’n. We ordered the 6-piece Hot Chick’n Bites ($5.09) which is available as “Hot, Extra Hot or Fire.” Since I love spicy food, I ordered the Fire chicken bites and wow – they’re not kidding around. The chicken was a Scoville scorcher! I was impressed by the quality of the hand-breaded, antibiotic-free chicken breast pieces, which were actually real chunks of chicken, not pressed ground chicken. The Chick’n Bites come with a choice of ranch, BBQ or honey mustard sauce. To repeat: These are seriously spicy Chick’n Bites!
Since we’d driven all the way to Sandy for our Shake Shack adventure, we decided to try a number of menu items out, including the Flat-Top Dog ($3.49). I have to admit, even naked the 100% all-natural Vienna beef hot dog (no hormones or antibiotics) was damned tasty. It’s split, griddled, and served on a soft potato bun. I did find it odd that condiments such as relish or mustard weren’t an option; the dog came simply with ketchup packets.
My wife really liked her lemonade ($2.99), which is made with Shack-made simple syrup. And I enjoyed my strawberry shake as well, although the $5.29 price tag seemed pretty steep.
I suggest you visit Shake Shack, if you’re so inclined, and try it yourself. Maybe you’ll love it. I did not. I think that Utah’s own Tonyburgers are every bit as good as Shake Shack’s and the fries are remarkably better. Tonyburgers locations include Salt Lake City, Holladay, Clinton, Centerville and South Jordan.
I’m told that the beef patties at Tonyburgers are hand-formed each day and never frozen. They use a secret proprietary beef blend that tastes to me very similar to Shake Shack’s. They are griddled like at Shake Shack, with a nice and crispy outer edge. A single patty (small) Tonyburger ($5.09) comes with a load of topping options including lettuce, tomato, fresh onions, grilled onions, pickles, jalapeños, and mushrooms, plus sauce choices like Tony Sauce (similar to fry sauce), ketchup, mustard, BBQ, ranch, mayo, poblano sauce, chipotle, garlic aioli, red pesto and Southern ranch. However, a slice of cheese on your Tonyburger is going to cost you an extra $.99, making a single cheeseburger slightly more expensive than Shake Shack’s. But unlike Shake Shack there are cheese choices at Tonyburgers: American, Swiss, Cheddar, Pepper Jack or White Cheddar. There are also some supplemental add-ons such as fried egg, onion strings and fried pickles to be had for a little extra.
Simply put, the skinny, skin-on French fries at Tonyburgers put Shake Shack fries to shame. They actually taste … you know .. like POTATOES.
Being gluten-free, my wife was looking forward to one of the Tonyburgers salads, which are surprisingly good. Unfortunately, Tonyburgers is not currently serving salads – perhaps because of supply chain issues around Covid-19. So, instead she ordered a grilled chicken “sandwich” ($$6.59) wrapped in lettuce. It was a large piece of high-quality grilled boneless chicken breast that she enjoyed very much.
So in a nutshell, Shake Shack doesn’t shake my world any more than Tonyburgers does. In fact, I prefer Tonyburgers thanks to their awesome fries. But your opinion may differ. We’d love to hear it.
Photos by Ted Scheffler
Culinary quote of the week:
“I never eat when I can dine.” — Maurice Chevalier
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Originally trained as an anthropologist, Ted Scheffler is a seasoned food, wine & travel writer based in Utah. He loves cooking, skiing, and spends an inordinate amount of time tending to his ever-growing herd of guitars and amplifiers.