What It Is Like To Eat At The First Shake Shack And How That Has Changed

It was a time of firsts in the fine-casual dining arena. In the summer of 2004, New Yorkers ventured out of the concrete jungle and into the shade of Shake Shack's first-ever burger joint in search of more than just mindless fast food. Conceptualized as the anti-McDonald's by founder Danny Meyer, the restaurant championed a conscious approach to roadside classics. The response was overwhelming. Hungry crowds waited in long lines just to get a taste.

Before its memorable ivy-clad kiosk, the global franchise was nothing more than a hot dog cart. And even though this New York staple was serving up Windy City-style dogs to support an art installation titled, "I [heart] Taxi," something bigger was brewing. A simple mission to breathe life into Madison Square Park turned into a burger crusade that shattered fast food norms. With a dedication to wholesome ingredients and eco-friendly practices, the original Shack rocked the world of fast food by proving that burgers and fries could do more than just satisfy your cravings — they could be a catalyst for meaningful food.

In the ever-evolving landscape of food culture, Shake Shack still reigns top dog. What was it like to be at Madison Square Park when it all began? Amid the changes, the hype, and the ethos deeply ingrained in the chain's DNA, we delve into what it felt like to savor the first bites at Shake Shack and witness the evolution of that initial New York City location.

Shake Shack's humble beginnings as a hot dog cart

Madison Square Park was in dire need of a savior, and it found three: a visionary restaurateur, an artist with an affinity for taxis, and a passionate park conservancy. Those familiar with Madison Square Park's messy years remember it as a haven for drug dealers, a far cry from being a thriving heyday haunt to names like Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain. In 1997, the Madison Square Park Conservancy's predecessor launched a restoration project to transform the park into a vibrant community hub. 

Fast forward to 2001 when public art was all the rage in Manhattan. Restaurant owner Danny Meyer proposed an idea for a hot dog cart as part of the park's "I [heart] Taxi" art exhibit featuring taxis on stilts to raise funds for the park's transformation. Then Meyer thought of another canvas that needed a facelift. Amid the verdant greenery, the hot dog cart emerged with a whole new look. Painted by Thai artist Navin Rawanchaikul, the cart no longer stood out like a sore thumb among the public art; it became a part of something bigger. The cart came to life with taxi-themed illustrations. In a matter of days, it became a sensation in New York City.

From hot dog cart to modern roadside burger joint

"No one involved at that time ever dreamed there would be a thing called Shake Shack," company CEO Randy Garutti shared with The Street in 2016. But here, its catalyst was front and center. When a bid spearheaded by the Madison Park Conservancy for a permanent food kiosk went out in 2004, restaurateur Danny Meyer and Garutti seized the opportunity to take their hot dog cart to new heights. A new culinary revolution was about to take shape.

The very first Shake Shack was thoughtfully designed by James Wines and his team at SITE, paying homage to the American hamburger stands of the past. Its structural elements mirrored those of the Flatiron Building, intertwined with a modern twist of a roadside food stand. To complete the picture, the kiosk's features were adorned with the park's natural foliage.

The Shack was more than just a pretty face. The menu evolved beyond greasy Chicago dogs to include gourmet burgers, custards, and crinkle-cut fries. This was all in the name of creating good food and making it accessible without compromising on quality. According to Meyer, quality shouldn't be a luxury. As he explained to Inc. in 2015, good food and the rare experience of fine dining should be available to more than just the few who can afford it.

The original menu from 2004

The beginnings are nothing without the original, and with Shake Shack, there's something to be said about the offerings that paved the way. Everything on the menu was inspired by nostalgic memories from Danny Meyer's Midwestern childhood. According to CEO Randy Garutti in a conversation with Bon Appétit in 2014, the philosophy was simple: "Look at everything fast food ruined over the last 60 years and just do it right."

They did it right in less than 10 minutes, with all their ideas scribbled on a napkin. One thing's for certain, if it was on that menu, it was on that napkin. Burgers and hot dogs commanded an equal measure of the menu, with even a 'Shroom Burger, offering a vegetarian-friendly option that would satisfy the most adamant meat-eater.

When it came to sweets, Shake Shack meant business. From cherry-topped sundaes to whimsical Shackapaloozas, served in playful Shake Shack pails with a shovel, its frozen treats embodied the true spirit of putting down roots, literally, down to the spoon. The restaurant's dedication to serving quality food even extended to four-legged companions with options like The Pooch-ini, described on the 2004 menu as "a chilly treat for those with four feet."

Customers relive the first years of Shake Shack

Shake Shack's early years were marked by an infectious excitement and a loyal following that has only grown with time. Just two years after the Shack established its presence in 2004, a Yelp reviewer went as far as stating, "I didn't think the day would come when I would desire another burger patty other than my mom's." The local news was equally captivated by the charm of the restaurant in the park. One newscaster was so thrilled about it that they excitedly screamed about Shake Shack on live TV. However, it's not only the food that attracts people; it's also the sense of community fostered by Shake Shack through its famously long lines. 

In 2014, nearly 10 years after its debut, the restaurant hosted a "Decade of Shack Fest" to honor the chain's initial years and promote its first book, "Shake Shack: Recipes & Stories." Staying true to Shake Shack's style, the event went above and beyond, capturing the spirit and mission to revitalize Madison Square Park that had been present since the days of the hot dog cart. Concerts, renowned chefs, CEOs, and even longer lines added to the excitement and nostalgia of the occasion, solidifying its place in the history of burger transformation and the restaurant itself.

How Shake Shack in Madison Square Park blends nature and burgers

Shake Shack has become a quintessential part of New York. It holds a dedicated page on the Madison Square Park Conservancy website, and Forbes reports that it receives crucial support from New York City's Department of Parks and Recreation. However, Shake Shack sets itself apart from other restaurants where you simply grab a bite and leave.

Right from the start, Shake Shack's open-air design was intentionally crafted to seamlessly blend with the park. It offers a space where visitors can relish their meals while immersed in the vibrant energy of the park. And despite its expansion beyond the confines of Manhattan's 5th Avenue to more than 450 locations worldwide, the Madison Square Park restaurant maintains an enchantingly organic quality that keeps it grounded.

The key to Shake Shack's deep connection with the park and its food lies in the time dedicated to carefully crafting the overall experience, rather than focusing solely on convenience. Even after all these years, the unwavering commitment to quality and experience makes the wait worthwhile. For some, it may take time to queue up in the hopes of savoring that cherished Shack spiritualism. Yet, when you have strong ties to a place like New York City, waiting in that line for the Shake Shack experience is worth it.

A renovation shut down shop and lines for months

It's difficult to imagine that this beloved burger joint, nestled amid lush greenery in its permanent location, had to close for several months for renovations. However, the restaurant's commitment to freshness and staying up-to-date led to its first major renovation in 2014. And it was all for good reason.

According to DNAInfo New York, the renovation expanded the kiosk's footprint by 4 feet, allowing for more space for food preparation. The kitchen underwent a complete overhaul, and the basement was transformed to provide additional storage capacity. Despite these changes, the Shack retained its familiar appearance. For the dedicated Shack enthusiasts, the restaurant even offered a live-cam of the renovation process to keep diners informed. 

Paula Scher, the burger joint's brand designer from Pentagram, spoke in a 2015 interview with Fast Company about Shake Shack's dedication to such a unique identity, saying, "I think the modernness of it is somehow perfect in keeping with the quality of the food. It's a contemporary fast-food chain with a high-level product." 

How online ordering reduced the long waits in line

For a while, the Shake Shack experience in Madison Square Park remained relatively unchanged. Customers endured the sweltering New York heat during the summers, constantly hydrating themselves while waiting in line to reach burger mecca. However, in this digital age, Shake Shack needed to catch up. Its solution? The Shake Shack food app.

"We're meeting people where they are and giving our guests a whole new way to experience Shake Shack," CEO Randy Garutti said in the restaurant's blog post about the change in 2016. Instead of being stuck in traffic or enduring hour-long lines, city dwellers could conveniently order a Shackburger from their phones. For both Manhattan residents and New York tourists, it's the perfect portable high-tech buzzer. Want to add some extra Shake Sauce? The app accommodates. Craving an additional 'shroom on your Shroom Burger? Go for it. The app puts you in control, allowing you to create your own Shake Shack masterpiece.

Overall, despite the change, it's a win-win situation even for the original location. It only serves to satisfy burger cravings while elevating the Shake Shack experience to new heights. As Shake Shack expresses in its blog, when it comes to the app? "More power to ya."

Shake Shack and Pat LaFrieda teamed up for a one-day Shack Cheesesteak

When a meat purveyor claims to be the "most famous name in the burger game," it certainly grabs attention (and piques the interest of taste buds). For years, Shake Shack and meat purveyor Pat LaFrieda have been a culinary dream team, combining flavors and finesse with great success. And when it was time to introduce something new to the menu, the Madison Square Park Shack revealed a one-day, limited edition item: the Shack Cheesesteak.

With that in mind, Shake Shack proudly unleashed its creativity, crafting a delectable sandwich stacked with thinly sliced smoky steak, buttery Shack Cheddar, and a luscious American cheese sauce mingling with caramelized onions and chopped cherry peppers, all nestled on a hearty hero roll. If taste is subjective, this dish delivers a zesty punch that is hard to beat. With each sandwich sold, $1 was donated to the Bob Woodruff Foundation that benefits veterans and their families.

Although the Shack Cheesesteak is now regarded as a nostalgic and crowd-pleasing choice on that single day in April 2018, it didn't disappear without leaving a trace. The love for this item on social media was palpable, with lots of diners wishing they could partake at other locations. 

Shake Shack also paired with Junghyun Paul for a one-day shrimp special

If it hasn't become clear yet, Shake Shack's collaborations with visionary chefs have consistently produced some of the most exciting and surprising items on the menu. "Delicious, unexpected, and inspired"  are the three words that visionary Korean chef Junghyun Park used to describe the Atoburger he created for a one-day promotion to bring a taste of Korea to the Shack in 2021.

For JP, Shake Shack represented more than just a fast food joint. It symbolized the city he had grown to love. So, when the restaurant approached him with the idea of a collaboration, he eagerly seized the opportunity to share his Korean culture, cuisine, and passion with the people of Manhattan. The collaboration extended beyond just creating a burger. With every Atoburger sold, the net proceeds were directed to Heart of Dinner, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting New York City's elderly Asian-American community.

Now, let's talk about the Atoburger itself. It was a true masterpiece of culinary artistry. And judging from the reception of the Atoburger, it's clear that anything worth doing (and worth savoring) will always find its rightful place on the menu at Shake Shack.

Vegetarians and vegans alike can find a seat at the table

Shake Shack's menu has come a long way since its inception, when the 'Shroom Burger was the only offering available for herbivores. In 2023, Shake Shack's chefs, in collaboration with the company's culinary director, Mark Rosati, dedicated their efforts to creating a veggie burger that would satisfy both loyal customers who appreciated the brand's legacy and newcomers seeking something special.

While many fast food establishments have introduced plant-based options to their menus, Shake Shack went the extra mile to ensure that its plant-based choices stood out with a unique blend of mushrooms, sweet potatoes, carrots, farro, and quinoa. "Finally, a food chain that gets it," reviewer @holisticallybri wrote on Instagram. "The Veggie Shack is seriously delicious & hit the spot!"

Topped delicately with a slice of American Cheese and Shake Shack sauce, this burger technically falls into the veggie burger category though that's difficult to discern until you take your first bite. Shake Shack also made sure not to neglect the dessert options for vegetarians and vegans. Two vegan desserts were added to its renowned custard lineup, including non-dairy chocolate shakes and non-dairy frozen custards.

Shake Shack briefly got rid of its crinkle-cut fries

Mark Rosati, the culinary director of Shake Shack, once told Food Republic that "the fry is definitely our Shack Burger's best friend." So, it comes as no surprise that the crinkle-cut french fries are an essential part of the Shake Shack experience. However, in 2013, the restaurant faced backlash when it made a controversial decision to switch from its classic crinkle-cut fries to a new recipe featuring thinner, skin-on fries. The reason behind this change was that the original fries were the only item not made in-house — they were frozen.

The impact of this alteration was swift and negative. A devoted fan took the initiative to start a petition on change.org, urging Shake Shack to bring back the beloved crinkle-cut fries, arguing that the Shake Shack experience had been cut in half without them.

Ultimately, the change in fries proved to be a costly mistake. Shake Shack heavily invested in these new fries, even going so far as to retrain their entire staff and make adjustments to the kitchen. However, in the end, the customers prevailed, and the Shack returned to its nostalgic roots by reintroducing the crinkle-cut fries, even if it meant giving up on making them in-house. Since the reversal, Shake Shack has pledged to continue delighting customers with the beloved crinkle-cut fries. As Rosati assured Food Republic, "that's going nowhere for a long, long time."

In the face of COVID, it offered free fries

When COVID-19 hit New York City, Shake Shack didn't simply stand by as an idle observer. In collaboration with the mayor's office, it launched the "NYC Get Vaxed, Get Shack" promotion to encourage people to get their COVID-19 vaccinations.

Individuals who showed their vaccination card at select Shake Shack locations in New York City were rewarded with free crinkle-cut fries, without any purchase necessary. Mayor Bill de Blasio, equipped with a Shack Burger in one hand and a serving of crinkle-cut fries beside him, eloquently spoke about the collaboration in one of his daily briefings that aired on CBS News, saying, "If this is appealing to you, just think of this when you think of vaccination."

The promotion went beyond a mere incentive to get vaccinated; it was also a means of reconnecting with the restaurant's core belief in community. As Shake Shack CEO Randy Garutti said during the briefing, "We're gonna get back. Get your vax, get your shack, and let's gather up as a community again."

Early Shake Shackers now get breakfast

New York, the city that never sleeps, now has a Shake Shack that follows suit. This iconic burger chain has been a beloved fixture in the city for years, but since a 2017 blog post, the Madison Square Park location has taken on a new challenge: breakfast. And it's not your ordinary bagel and coffee affair.

The breakfast menu at Shake Shack showcases three signature sandwiches: Sausage, Egg N' Cheese; Bacon, Egg N' Cheese; and Egg N' Cheese. They feature freshly griddled cage-free eggs, complemented with American cheese, all nestled on a toasted potato bun. And for those seeking a touch of sweetness to accompany their savory breakfast, Shake Shack offers delectable pastries like Apple Turnovers and Coffee Cakes sourced from its own Union Square Hospitality Group. To complete the morning experience, enjoy a cup of coffee from Stumptown Coffee Roasters, and you're all set for a bustling New York minute.

So, why did Shake Shack decide to introduce breakfast to its lineup? According to culinary director Mark Rosati, it was simply time. "We're thrilled to finally bring breakfast to the Madison Square Park Shack," he said on the restaurant's blog. Just think about it: Burgers, breakfast, Shake Shack. Do we need to say more?