Shake Shack [SHAK]: An after-the-IPO taste test

Since Shake Shack’s the kind of investment you can taste, one way of evaluating the company is to sample the store, the food—and the employees themselves.

The original Shake Shack located in Madison Square Park.
The original Shake Shack located in Madison Square Park. (Image via Wikipedia)

WASHINGTON, February 10, 2015 – The Prudent Man, unlike your average stock picker, likes to get away from the computer from time to time and do a little shoe-leather research on various stocks he’s taking a look at. You can learn a lot by doing this, and if you’re moderately P&L math-challenged like the Prudent Man, it’s certainly an easier kind of research to conduct than endlessly crunching numbers and poring over endless reams of spreadsheets.

In addition, you can discover stuff the numbers never see. The Prudent Man still remembers doing this kind of research back in the days when he was an actual stockbroker. It’s like the stockpicker version of “management by walking around” (MBWA), a big deal in business circles back in the day. The idea is, if you don’t get down there in the scrum of humanity and experience actual people and actual products, you won’t really know what you’re talking about.

Given that yours truly still believes in that maxim, both Mr. and Mrs. Prudent decided to do some first-hand research to see if we could figure out whether or not the actual Shake Shack and its product line have at least the potential to make long-term bucks for those currently considering purchasing its shares.

A frigid trip to the Tysons Corner Shake Shack

Given that Mr. and Mrs. PM had never visited a Shake Shack before, we determined that the closest one to our longtime Reston, Virginia residence was located about eight miles away in the massive Tysons Corner Center, aka “Tysons I,” a mega-mall that, along with Tysons II (aka, “Tysons Galleria”) across Virginia 123, is more or less the DC-area equivalent of Rodeo Drive, even though it doesn’t look that way.

Conveniently enough, the Prudent Pair had to journey to Tysons anyway the Saturday morning following the Shake Shack IPO, given PM’s alter ego as a performing arts reviewer for this hallowed website. The event was a Met in HD live simulcast performance of Jacques Offenbach’s bizarrely entertaining opera, “Tales of Hoffmann,” which we both ended up thoroughly enjoying.

The plan was to grab an early “fast casual” dinner at the Tysons Shake Shack to sample the wares and see what all the hubbub was about.

Finding the Tysons Shake Shack was a bit of a challenge. It’s not located inside the Mall, per se, but actually opens outdoors on the Mall’s rooftop area, adjacent to the local Lord & Taylor. You can enter it by going outside the third level of the Mall by a vaguely marked but large entry hall, or right next to the store after you plow through all the ice skaters coming in and out of the skate rental area.

That was our first surprise. We’d had no idea that the forever-under-construction Mall had added a rather substantial outdoor ice-skating rink on the third level. But there it was, and there was the Shake Shack, all industrial looking on the outside, which is where its only entrance happened to be.

Problem for us was it was bitterly cold that Saturday, with winds gusting 30 m.p.h. and above. There were plenty of skaters in action. But, unless you were one of them, it’s likely you wouldn’t have been tempted to brave the 20-degree temperatures and that wind, which likely brought the wind-chill factor close to zero that day.

But we were on a mission, so we managed to fight the wind and the heavy, recalcitrant Mall doors to get to the Shake Shake and shoehorn ourselves inside.

Inside the local Shake Shack

There wasn’t much room in either the order area or the tiny adjacent area where a few sit-down diners could be accommodated. But at least it was toasty warm inside. Better yet—given that the Prudent Pair happened to be famished—this Shake Shack had a veritable armada of employees scurrying about at top speed, taking orders at a blistering pace.

So here was notable item #1: Instead of the one open register at the average Macdonalds these days—with that employee more interested in covering the drive-thru window than the customer service register—Shake Shack, even on a rotten, windy, bitterly cold day had three employees on three registers with a fourth employee running the order tabs right back to the platoon of chefs and sandwich-makers directly behind.

A bit like the area’s popular Clydes chain of sit down restaurants, you got, with your order ticket, a little hand-held beeper that would sound and flash when your order was up. This seemed a bit superfluous to us, since we had no intention of leaving the warm building until we had to. But, given the number of skaters outside and given the fact that, in warmer weather, the Tysons Shake Shack also has a large outdoor seating area available, the beepers generally make sense.

Shake Shack food: Good, bad, or indifferent?

Our order? Mr. P ordered a regular Shake Shack burger with most of the trimmings plus an order of fries to share, all of which were to be washed down by—mirabile dictu—a refreshingly large draft of a Brooklyn microbrew ale. That was not surprising, given the company’s New York City lineage. But what was surprising was that Shake Shack offered beer and wine at all, a choice you generally don’t have at all at a burger joint. So here was something delightfully unique and attractive to us, a standout choice that makes Shake Shack deliciously different from your average Macdonalds or Wendys.

Mrs. P, in a calorie-saving mood, ordered a Shake Shack “’Shroom Burger,” which consisted of two breaded and fried portabella mushrooms placed bottom to bottom on a Shake Shack bun. Mrs. P appreciated that the bun was not the usual burger joint cheap crap, but had some heft and character, distinctive and flavorful, slightly yellow in color with a pleasantly eggy taste.

The veggies (primarily lettuce and tomato) on both sandwiches were fresh, tasty and appealing, although Mrs. P found the Shake Shack “secret sauce”—mostly mayo with a few secret spices and a dollop of wine vinegar added—not terribly distinctive. Mr. P disagreed, enjoying his burger avec secret sauce quite thoroughly, although he must concede Mrs. P’s judgment that the secret sauce could have used a bit more of that alleged wine vinegar to punch things up a bit.

Both the burger and the ‘shroom variant made for a pretty good meal in our estimation. Ditto the crinkle cut fries which we both shared. They seemed to have been either hand cut or minimally processed and were the way we both prefer: creamy on the inside and suitably crunchy on the outside.

Mr. P’s Brooklyn microbrew was sturdy and hoppy and complemented the burger perfectly. Mrs. P also generally enjoyed the mango lemonade which she found surprisingly thick, so much so as to “almost be a smoothie.” She observed, however, that it was the wrong choice for that Saturday, given the blasts of cold air we both had to endure.

Oh, yes, once exiting the Shack with our order, we finally found some seating inside the Mall in an open area reserved for Shake Shack customers. Problem was, this being another entrance to the ice-rink, people were trundling in and out at frequent intervals, with each entry or exit subjecting indoor diners to fresh gusts of arctic air.

Skiers and ice skaters would doubtless not have been bothered much by this. But, as aging Boomers with increasingly cold-sensitive joints, Mr. and Mrs. P have developed an increasing desire to relocate to warmer climes, quite unlike this one. So Shake Shack’s très frigid indoor dining enclave didn’t quite fit the bill for us that day. Undoubtedly, spring and summer dining there will be a better experience.

Keeping things frigid and real, we did also share a dessert, in this case a frozen confection dubbed a “Washington Monu-mint Concrete.” This dessert was actually quite good, although once again, it would have tasted even better if we weren’t already frozen ourselves.

“Concrete” as a descriptor was a word dreamed up before Shake Shack came into being. It’s supposed to connote a frozen dessert that’s more frozen than soft-serve but not necessarily rock hard. Shake Shack’s Washington Monu-mint was not quite as hard as we thought it might have been, but what the hey?

The vanilla ice cream was good, the gooey marshmallow crème tasted pretty authentic, and the massive chocolate chunks, with their slightly minty aftertaste, were first-rate with a fairly adult and not horribly sweet dark chocolate taste. Our only complaint was that the serving size was a bit small for the price.

And speaking of price, that was a surprise, and not a terribly positive one. These days, one pays a price for trendiness. Including tax, two burgers, one order of fries, a smoothie-lemonade and a small “concrete” totaled $29, a price that seemed a good bit higher than we expected to say the least—roughly two times or more what we’d pay at Mickey D’s for a similar setup.

That said, Mickey D’s burgers are pathetic when compared to those that Shake Shack puts out. The larger chain’s fries, while still the gold standard in fast food don’t make the grade when you kick it up a notch as Shake Shack has done.

Shake Shack’s desserts, while pricey, seem to be made from premium ingredients. And the brew? Not available at Macdonalds. But priced around what you’d pay for a micro-brewski at Clydes, T.G.I. Friday’s or at similar sit down casual establishments, the beer was about in line with D.C. prices. We think they’re all too high, but Shake Shack isn’t exactly a prime offender here, and we were glad to have a choice of beers and wines to peruse.

On the whole, aside from the frigid air and a bit of sticker shock, we found our Shake Shack early dinner to be quite good, including the fact that the hot food was served hot and promptly as well, despite the land office business this franchise was doing. But how does Shake Shack stack up against the food−and the business−of local fast-casual dining hero Five Guys? We’ll let you know in our next article.

Next up: Part II: Shake Shack vs. Five Guys; the burger wars begin.

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