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Mark Rosati on the Evolution of Shake Shack's Wine List

Left to right: Shake Shack Culinary Development Manager Mark Rosati, Shake Shack CEO Randy Garutti,Shake Shack Senior Director of Operations Jonathan Vandegrift

Mark Rosati is the Culinary Development Manager for all of the Shake Shack locations worldwide. As a part of his job, he sits down with the CEO and also the Senior Director of Operations for Shack Shake, and they together determine the wines and other beverages that will be on each Shake Shake menu across the globe. Mark began his employment with Union Square Hospitality Group working as a line cook at Gramercy Tavern, before eventually being tapped for the Shake Shack team in 2008 as the Upper West Side location was getting off the ground. Eater talked with Mark about the continuing evolution of the Shake Shack wine programs.

Would you give us a history of how the Shake Shack wine program has changed over time?
When we opened in Madison Park back in 2004, we kind of considered ourselves a fun gathering spot for people just to kind of come, sit down, have a burger, sit outdoors, enjoy the summertime, and a big part of that is – just because we all come from fine dining backgrounds, was adding really great beers and wines to the list. And back then, no one really thought Shake Shack would do the business it is doing. I mean, that location was literally built assuming that we would be open Monday through Friday say from like 12 p.m. to 3 p.m., maybe cook 50 burgers and then shut the doors. And totally went the opposite way.

But the more we got to understand it, and take Shake Shack from being a seasonal place into a year-round place in the wintertime, it gave us a chance to kind of play around with different wines, and maybe reflect the season. Maybe go with something a little heavier for those colder months. Then maybe in the summertime, start playing around with a rosé or a Prosecco. It was really the fact that the Madison Park location was growing, and our wine list started to grow. And then of course, we all came from fine dining backgrounds and we were right across the street from Tabla and Eleven Madison Park. You know, we would talk to the wine buyers there, and they'd say, "Well, we get this really cool wine or you might want to try this, and wow, that's great." To go the other way was just not a part of our thought process. All we know is fine dining. So those seemed like the logical choices.

And then when we actually opened our second location, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan - our first indoor spot, and that was kind of the game changer to grow a list and make it a little more fun. And before that, at Madison Park, we used to have a lot of high-end wines, but that's when we started to lower our price points. That's when we started to look at different wineries which were a little gentler on price but still offered awesome wines that pair really well with our food. Back when the Upper West Side opened, we took it a step further and made a wine menu and put it on the back of our paper menu. That's when we talked about the wines: the regions, the grapes, the fun Shake Shack way, and all of the pairing notes. Like the Pinot Noir, for instance, we put that it had subtle nuances that worked well with our 'Shroom Burger. Then we started using Govino wine glasses two years ago at all wine selling locations. We wanted to find a recyclable plastic wine glass that not only would work in the context of our various locations, both indoor and outdoor, but that also had the form and function of proper stemware.

Has the focus of the list shifted over time to more American wines, as opposed to European wines?
It has, it has. We actually consider ourselves a classic roadside American burger stand. So we did want to feature more American wines. That was a process we have actually applied all across Shake Shack. In the past we were using a lot of French chocolates, a lot of French purees. So we slowly started to move that. Now all of our chocolate and all of our purees are coming from great producers in San Francisco. So yeah, we realized there are so many great people here in America doing great things, and we absolutely wanted to feature them on our menu. Our menu these days is pretty much 90% American wines.

Have you found that varietal labeling is helpful to you when you are selling wine at a Shake Shack, or is it not important?
We find it can be important because we find that a lot of people do get the varietals. That's what they're looking for nowadays.

In New York, it's mostly half bottles on the wine lists, right?
It is, I mean it also is the whole experience of Shake Shack. If two people are coming in, a half-bottle is the perfect amount of wine to drink while you're enjoying your food and catching up with your friends. We're not the type of place where people linger too much. It's not going to be the duration of a normal dinnertime meal. So we find the half bottles are a perfect amount of wine.

How varied are the wine lists in New York? How different is each location in terms of what I might find offered there?
In terms of New York City varying — you're not going to find much variation. We do vary our beer lists a little more than we do our wine list. But when you go outside of New York City, the wine lists from South Florida say, versus Philly, you're going to see more variation in those. It is a part of working with the vendors that are in those markets, and talking with them and saying "Hey, in Philly, people prefer crisp, white wines more than they like this one, like really why is that?" It's just the makeup of the culture, the food that they would traditionally eat there. You find that people naturally gravitate towards certain wines. Great, how can we work that into what Shake Shack does and see if we can exceed people's expectations? If that's the grape that is most popular, let's try to find a great one, at a great price.

And how many locations of Shake Shack are there, currently, worldwide?
We're at number 24 with the recent opening in Boston and we have a lot of restaurants that are going to be opening this year. I think we are going to be opening 20 restaurants.

And are there Shake Shack locations in countries where alcohol is prohibited?
We have three countries like that. Well, one country that doesn't allow wine drinking, Kuwait. But we're also in Dubai and Qatar, where they do have wine, but it's only available in licensed hotels and we don't sell it. Unfortunately we can't offer beer and wine at those locations.

Did you adjust those programs and add other beverages to make up for that lost alcohol revenue?
At first we thought about doing that, and we actually developed a couple of different juice cocktails that were very popular refreshments of the region. But at the end of the day, it did not feel like us. And there's other stuff that we've talked about that makes sense for that region, such as the popularity of tea and coffee. And it's something we've thought about doing here in the States, but at the end of the day, we just feel that coffee's great but it's probably not the go-to drink here when you want to eat a burger. But we're also opening in Istanbul. In Istanbul there's not a single block you can walk down without seeing people selling tea. It's just so a part of their culture. So for there, for us to do that to our menu, it's a very honest addition that we feel good about making. And actually, going one step further, I'm not sure if you're familiar with ayran - it's kind of like a fermented yogurt drink. It's really good. It's very tangy and on the savory side. It's served in bottles, iced. And it's as popular as Coca-Cola is in Turkey. Everyone was telling us - you guys have to try ayran. And I tasted it. Every single restaurant I went to for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, everyone was drinking ayran.

So are you thinking about adding tea and ayran to the offerings in Turkey?
Definitely ayran, we're going to add ayran - it's very fun and cool, and it's different. We tried it with a burger and fries, and were like "Okay, this actually is kind of fun." And for us, it's making a very honest addition to our menu. We felt it was right for the community that we were joining. And not yet, but maybe we will add hot tea down the road. In the same way, maybe in the right setting coffee makes sense for a location.

What is the next Shake Shack location that you will be opening up?
We're going to be opening in London this summer — so that was completely starting from scratch over there. We just finished the wine list, and some of it's going to be really similar to the original Madison Park menu — where we are going to have a couple of big ticket wines on the menu that you might not expect. But that's really us going into a new community, and from everything we've heard and seen, wine and beer is incredibly popular in London. So we feel we have an opportunity to kind of expand our menu. The beer and wine that you find in a London burger place are just a little more upscale, it's more of a place where people are going to go for their main dinner, to sit down and linger. So it was unexpected to see that, but I think they're taking what we're doing here and taking it to the next level in terms of how much of a full dining experience it can be, built around the humble hamburger.

In London, everyone keeps telling us that we should go for full bottles, because the half-bottle format is not quite as popular over there. So for over there we're looking at getting a good vacuum system to maintain the bottles if we open them. Going into London, it's completely different. You know, we're going to have wines from France, Spain, Argentina, Italy, and South Africa. So we're having a little more fun — it is a little more of an international scene. But we do have one American wine there, and we feel if we're going to London, we've got to bring what we consider one of the finest American reds to pair with a burger, so we're bringing a red Zin from the U.S. Because yeah, we're an American burger concept.
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Shake Shack

23rs St and Madison Ave., New York, NY