Serious Shake Shack fans will remember what culinary director Mark Rosati calls the french fry debacle of 2013. The beloved New York burger brand decided that year to switch to fresh-cut skinny fries in favor of its iconic frozen crinkle cuts. Customers and critics immediately revolted, and a year later, the fresh cuts were ditched and the crinkles triumphantly returned. It was not a smooth moment for the now-global chain.
In retrospect, Rosati points to the fact that not once did they test the new fries on actual customers.
“They were like, ‘Man, those crinkle fries were you. That’s what we associated you with,’” he says. “And that’s the one moment when we realized we really should be engaging our fans right on the frontline before we roll a menu item out.”
Fast forward five years and Shake Shack has opened a shiny new test kitchen — the Innovation Kitchen, as they like to say — underneath a West Village Shake Shack in order to test out new items on customers. The West Village Shack already sells three new-to-NY items: chicken nuggets, Japan’s black sesame milkshake — a Danny Meyer favorite — and a matcha cold brew, introduced in London.
Beyond that, the test kitchen team of five has started to randomly bringing new products upstairs, whether it’s in batches of 20 or 100, in hopes of getting real-time feedback from customers. So far, there have been experimental items such as a pancake and bacon frozen custard; a beef hot dog with pumpkin mustard, bacon, cranberries, and sage; and a cheeseburger topped with tempura watercress, crispy mozzarella, and black garlic mayonnaise. Each week brings a new special, announced via a chalkboard on the street.
This method of testing new options may be crucial for the future of the Shack. Since going public, the stock has had its ups and downs, and an earnings call last year pointed to new menu items and delivery as potential growth areas. The test kitchen model is a strategy that several big restaurant chains have adopted, including Taco Bell in California, Chipotle in Chelsea, and McDonald’s in Chicago. For all these companies, it’s reportedly not only a bid for customers but also for younger talent who knows how to appeal to younger customers.
“Shake Shack has a remarkable brand, but as they grow larger and larger, it’s going to be difficult to remain entrepreneurial and fun and nimble,” says hospitality consultant Steven Kamali, who has worked with companies like Wagamama and Tacombi.
A test kitchen is a way for the brand to do that: “For a company of that scale, it’s small dollars. There’s no downside,” Kamali says.
For Shake Shack, the test kitchen is an attempt to keep acting “smaller” despite being a multimillion-dollar global company. Before the new West Village location, new dishes only rolled out after extensive testing with management at the company, at quarterly tastings. Very few make it through.
The chili introduced last year went through 13 iterations — Eater critic Ryan Sutton called the result “damn fine” — while one time a partner rejected the seemingly small idea of switching to salted butter on the buns. “He wrote back saying, ‘You gotta be careful. Our guests can taste the most minute differences,’” Rosati says.
More recently, a few chicken sandwiches, chef collaborations, that chili, and now chicken nuggets have made the cut through in-company testing.
The evolution of the nuggets in particular started with the fried chicken sandwich, which itself took two years. When the idea of nuggets came to the table, Rosati thought it would be as easy as just cutting the chicken shack smaller and frying. But it didn’t work, he says, and they had to redo everything, particularly the breading.
“Cutting up the chicken shack; that’s the easy way. The operations team would love us; the Shacks would love us,” Rosati says. “Now we have to create new stations for our breading, because at the end of the day it’s the easy option, but it’s not truly the best option.”
Now, those nuggets are being sold first at the West Village outpost, with plans to roll them out nationwide in the future.
Despite the time investment into testing and tastings, experiments don’t always hit. Sutton called a grilled chicken sandwich the company once tested “average” and “mealy,” positing that it was not true to Shake Shack’s roadside roots and simply a money grab.
And though Sutton dug the new chicken nuggets and their “craggy, almost geological coating of golden breading,” the praise was not universal. Eater critic Robert Sietsema complained on the Eater podcast of the coating frequently falling off and of the nuggets being “way too salty,” and a Buzzfeed review found the same salty fault.
Only selling experiments at this one West Village location for now, though, is a significantly smaller scale way to make mistakes before bringing an item wider — a way to avoid future frygates. A bonus is that New Yorkers, where the chain was born, also get to feel like insiders on the process.
Currently, one test kitchen worker is experimenting with a chocolate chip cookie, while another recently tried making a beef bourguignon-inspired burger. It takes a long time for items to get national rollout, with the company currently talking about winter 2020. (Single-location specials can happen much more quickly.)
Rosati says there are few restrictions on what the staff might send up from the Innovation Kitchen; the only necessity is that it’s in line with Shake Shack’s roadside-stand style menu. If Rosati has his way, a Cubano burger he’s already been working on for years will be incoming.
“I must have presented this thing 10 times and [Garutti] keeps saying, ‘It’s not dead; it’s in purgatory. I’m gonna keep it shelf for now, because I still wonder, ‘Is it a different sauce?’ That’s one I want to get over the finish line,” he says, before resolving to continue work on it that afternoon.