Shake Shack, beyond the call of duty

When it came time to pick a restaurant for my birthday dinner this year, the decision was clear: Shake Shack. Inexpensive, flexible enough for large parties (the entirety of Madison Square Park is your table), and comfort food that puts everybody at ease. It’s my favorite restaurant in the city right now and, best of all, they keep late summer hours (new for this season), which sealed the deal. I called them last Tuesday to confirm that they closed at 11 PM, and got the thumbs-up. Evites were sent, and we were on for Friday night at nine. I should have paid attention to the little voice telling me to have a backup plan, but I was so excited about my burgers-and-frozen-custard birthday that I forged on, zealous. I really should have called a second time.

When I arrived at nine o'clock, last Friday, the workers were already gathering and folding chairs from the seating area. I felt a sudden hollow sensation in my chest (I call it my “birthday feeling”). Walking over to one of the chair-folders, I asked what time the restaurant closed:


Twelve hungry people were on their way by train to Madison Square Park for the failed promise of a cheeseburger dinner. I started to panic as I strode over to the order window, where the manager was turning away disappointed customers; as I approached, he waved both hands out at me–the international symbol for “we have no more burgers”.

Me: “I thought you closed at eleven.”

Manager: “Who told you that?”

Me: “I called on Tuesday, and the guy said eleven.”

Manager: “Maybe he meant we open at eleven. Our hours are eleven to nine.”

Me: “No, I specifically asked. I mean, I got a whole birthday party coming. Like ten or twelve people. Your website says eleven [they’ve corrected this], all your press says eleven, your guy said eleven…”

Manager: “Oh, wow… You’re looking for burgers and fries, right? That’s gonna be tough. How about ice cream, maybe?”

Me: “I don’t know; people are coming for dinner.”

Manager: “Okay, I definitely can’t do burgers, but… Here, take my card [hands me his business card, ‘Mitch Cynamon, Eleven Madison Park’], my name is Mitch. I manage here and at Eleven Madison Park. Let me see what I can do.”

What Mitch did, without further disappointment, was have the kitchen at Eleven Madison Park prepare an assortment of chicken and sausage sandwiches and salads, serve them to us–personally–in the park, and wish me a happy birthday. He was unbelievably helpful and made a great dinner out of a potentially awkward moment. Everybody was stunned but Mitch, who seemed to think it was just the right thing to do in the situation.

This is the wonderful thing about Shake Shack, besides the quality of the food: the grace under pressure exhibited by the staff. Andrea Strong, in her behind-the-scenes tell-all, clearly sees this as the defining quality of the people there; they run the highest-intensity cook-to-order lunch kitchen in New York (“The whole city is the dining room. They come, we feed them,” says its owner, Danny Meyer) and yet they demonstrate a zen-like capacity for stress and uncertainty. Even with lines that exit the park, Shake Shack’s crew manages to keep everybody happy. I am no exception, and after last Friday’s experience, I am considerably happier. If you’ve been sleeping on the Shack, you’re missing out on one of the great dining establishments in New York; it more than lives up to its hype. I don’t know how they do it.

Thank you, Mitch, and thanks to the staff at both Shake Shack and Eleven Madison. You guys totally made my birthday.

Postscript: On my last ritual visit to The Shack, I noted that their hours have been extended to 11am - 11pm, for excellent late night burger (and birthday party) prospects.

tangentialism is David Yee!