The Untold Truth Of Shake Shack's Fries

Shake Shack's fries stand out for a reason. This fast food staple, which is known for its freshly made ShackBurgers, Shack Chickens, and shakes, to have an item made with frozen spuds, is, well, a bit confusing. Why couldn't they just make it fresh like almost everything else on the menu? We'll explain that in a bit, but know that the fries have a rich, and curious history packed into every crispy bite. For example, did you know that the chain axed the frozen fries from the menu just because they thought they could do better? (via Fast Company) As with many relationships, the value of a frozen crinkle cut was only realized soon after the chain had decided to let it go. It was brought back eventually.

Frozen foods have earned a lot of bad press over the years (not to mention the wrath of chef Gordon Ramsay), but as far as Shake Shack's fries are concerned, many seem to love the stuff. When the chain took them off its menu, sales dipped (via Fast Company). When they were brought back, sales rose (via Food Business News). 

While the math is easy to understand, what was tough to perceive for the chain's CEO, Randy Garutti, was the emotional attachment that fans had to this snack. "It's clear that we underestimated the love for our classic crinkle cut fry," he said (via First We Feast). Here's all that you need to know about this beloved item at Shake Shack.

The fries were not part of Shake Shack's original menu

Surprisingly enough, Shake Shack began as a hot dog cart at Madison Square Park. The cart was actually a part of an art exhibit at the park, not a business venture focused on scaling up to national levels one day (via Forbes). However, the hot dogs became quite a hit, and the cart continued on for three years. But all this time, it served no fries. Then came the decision to move Shake Shack into a 400-square-foot kiosk within the same park. As the story goes, Danny Meyer, the founder of Shake Shack and a renowned restaurateur, chalked out a business plan on a napkin, creating a space reminiscent of a roadside burger joint — but one that sold fresh food. It was only then that fries, besides burgers and custards, were added to the menu (via Buzzfeed). There was, however, one small challenge.

The kiosk, as Randy Garutti, CEO of Shake Shack, told Forbes, lacked the space for making fresh fries from scratch. "[We] didn't have room for anything but frozen fries," he said. Turns out, it was, really a space crunch that pushed the Shake Shack team to settle for frozen spuds. With the decision set, they had explored the best options in the frozen bracket, finally zeroing in on crinkle cut fries. Garutti said that it "was the best fry we could find that was frozen" (via Forbes).

Crinkle cut fries are the only Shake Shack menu item not made in house

Shake Shack brews its iced tea daily and churn its ice creams in-house. The shakes there are hand-spun and the chicken is hand breaded. The chain even grinds its own beef and makes its own Shack Sauce, as per Nation's Restaurant News. All told, a lot of effort goes into every single menu item at Shake Shack. For example, the team had tried 30 different recipes for hotdogs before deciding on the one to sell at their cart back in 2001, as culinary director Mark Rosati told Nation's Restaurant News. They even made the rice crispy treats they sold back then from scratch — which meant going through the arduous process of making marshmallows, only to then melt them down to form the crispies. 

Think that's too much sweat for some sugary treat? "That's just how we were born; it's still part of our ethos today," said Rosati. 

There is, however, one menu item that demands little effort — their fries. The chain gets them frozen and pre-cut from a manufacturer, per Food Republic. While it may seem like Shake Shack went a little lax with the snack, in reality, Rosati and his team spent a lot of time looking for the perfect cut. Like with every other menu item, they asked themselves, per Rosati, "Is it the best it can be? Is it unique? Does it tell a story?" The crinkle cut thus fit the bill.

Shake Shack zeroed in on crinkle cut after trial and error

French fries can be curly, round and ridged, or thick like a steak. They can look like a mini waffle or even a smiley emoticon with the help of a determined cook. So, when Shake Shack was faced with the conundrum of choosing a fry cut, they went on a serious fry voyage. "[W]e tried so many different fries — thick-cut, waffle, shoestring, you name it," Shake Shack's culinary director Mark Rosati told Food Republic. The team went with a classic crinkle cut for two reasons. One had to do with all those grooves that characterize a crisp crinkle fry. 

"Because of those grooves and cuts, there's more surface area on the fry. So when we fried it, it got crunchier and crispier than most of the fries out there, and it held that crunch for a long time," said Rosati. The crunch and crisp, however, has a lot to do with the temperature of the oil, as "Ace of Cakes" star Duff Goldman explained in a tweet. Duff's advice: avoid overheating your oil. 

The second reason was the sheer efficiency with which a crinkle cut fry scooped up a dip. "[We] loved the fact that those cuts and grooves actually picked up more ketchup and cheese sauce than any other fry we played around with," Rosati noted.

Shake Shack once replaced frozen crinkle cut fries with freshly made ones

For nine years, since Shake Shack decided to add fries in the menu in 2004, frozen crinkle cut fries were what the chain sold. While they never performed poorly, Shake Shack came to the conclusion that it could do better. "Everything we stand for is freshness, quality, doing things the harder way," Shake Shack CEO Randy Garutti told Fast Company

Except for the fries, for which they never even peeled a potato. Clearly, that was crinkling up their conscience. So, the company poured a million dollars into replacing frozen fries with fresh cut ones in all its stores in 2013, as Bon Appétit reports. It also re-trained all its staff who weren't used to chopping spuds for fries, and made changes to its kitchens, per Fast Company.

Those fresh cut fries were not crinkle cut, but Belgian style fries. Furthermore, they were made from russet potatoes and not the Yukon Gold ones that had been used previously. Russet potatoes have more starch, and hence, are better for frying, per Bon Appétit. The chain's staff fried the freshly sliced potatoes twice to get the right crisp. As per Garutti, it was the "best fresh-cut fry ever made" (via Fast Company). However, the customers didn't share the sentiment. The fry sales plummeted like a potato in unheated oil, according to Food Republic.

Shake Shack brought back crinkle cut fries due to popular demand

Shake Shack's fresh-cut fries simply didn't fly with customers. "People hated them," CEO Randy Garutti told Fast Company. One die-hard crinkle fan even started a petition on Change.org to bring the frozen fries back. Many others took to social media to express their disapproval about Shake Shack's menu shake up. One among them was stand-up comedian Jerry Seinfeld's wife, Jessica Seinfeld, who wrote, "Thank you, Shake Shack, we love you, but PS, can we talk about these fries at some point?" (via Popsugar). 

But Shake Shack probably didn't have time for such a tête-à-tête as its employees were busy prepping about 2,000 potatoes a day for the fresh fries. Impressive, but as Garutti realized later, all that effort amounted to little if the potatoes were not stored well. "You can be the greatest potato cutter in the universe but if the potatoes come in the door and they sat in a truck in the freezing cold, they're ruined," he told Fast Company

Low temperature spikes up the sugar level of potatoes, turning the fries a darker shade, according to Popsugar. The result is a lack of consistency in the fries. It took six months for Garutti to realize this fry fiasco was happening. The chain reverted to its old (but improved) frozen fries in a year. The new frozen fries didn't have preservatives or artificial ingredients that are common in frozen food, Garutti told Fast Company.

Shake Shack went with frozen fries thanks to a pro chef

With fresh-cut fries, Shake Shack might have ironed out the crinkles on its fries landscape, but it did little to impress fans. "All the feedback we got on this was like, 'Hey, these are good and all, but you lost a little bit of yourself in this move'," Shake Shack's culinary director Mark Rosati told Food Republic

Frozen fries were also easy to make, as chefs didn't have to spend hours peeling and slicing potatoes. Life would have been easier if Shake Shack wasn't averse to having the frozen crinkle cut fries in its otherwise all-fresh menu. But what really made it change its perspective about icy spuds was a visit to British chef Heston Blumenthal's restaurant kitchens in London, where Rosati had what he deemed the best tasting fries ever. He found that Blumenthal and team, in fact, used the very ingredient that the Shake Shack team was trying to eliminate: frozen potatoes.

But why frozen spuds in particular? "[The freezing process] locks in all the moisture into little icicles inside the fry, and when you fry them that final time from the frozen state, that moisture explodes — it creates that mashed-potato soft interior," said Rosati. "So Heston Blumenthal, with all his culinary knowledge and scientific know-how, chose to add a freezing step to his perfect fry. That was one of the moments when we started to realize that frozen wasn't a bad word among fries," he added.

They've been called the best tasting fries out there

Shake Shack's fries have, over the years, divided the internet. Which is why, when Shake Shack's fries were ranked number one in a taste test published by Business Insider, the report faced backlash from crinkle haters. However, the test, which graded fries from a variety of fast food franchises including giants like Burger King and McDonald's, defended the ranking. It deemed the crinkle fries the ones with the "perfect mouthfeel", and a "well-rounded flavor". The test specifically looked for the attributes such as saltiness, crispiness, flavor and mouthfeel. For Business Insider, anyway, the crinkle killed it.

But despite the high rank among its fellow fries, it is not a universal favorite. A Redditor called it "too mushy and greasy", while another complained about crinkle cuts not being cooked all the way through (via Reddit). "Biting into an almost cooked potato sucks. But if done right they are amazing," said the Redditor. 

Meanwhile, New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells wrote a rather scathing review of Shake Shack's fries in 2012, calling them "pretty awful". He said that "no amount of oil or salt can make them taste like the fresh-cut potatoes that are standard issue at some burger joints now." In a final blow, he added, "Mr. [Danny] Meyer runs one of the world's great restaurant companies. Can't one of his chefs show him how to make a decent French fry?" Ouch.

The fries have been available in unique flavors

Shake Shack has been pretty adventurous with its fries over the years. We're not just talking about its lightning speed flip from frozen to fresh and back, but also about the flavors it coats the crisp snacks with. Today, you can choose from a order of plain crinkle cut fries, to one that's doused in cheese sauce, or a combo of cheese sauce and applewood-smoked bacon, besides their newly-added Buffalo seasoned fries (via Shake Shack). That's not all, however. In the past, the chain has pushed the limits of its fries to include one made with chili and another served with truffle sauce.

The chili in the chili cheese fries was made with beef and ancho and chile de arbol pepper, as Shake Shack explained in a Facebook comment. In 2021, the chain collaborated with Regalis Foods, a company that supplies 90% of Michelin-starred restaurants in the States, to make a truffle sauce paired with the chain's garlic parmesan fries (via Facebook). In its pursuit of inventive menu options, the chain collaborated with six well-known chefs (like Pinky Cole and Michelin-starred chef Dominique Crenn, among others) to bring out limited menu items, while also raising funds to help the restaurant community (via Shake Shack). 

A collaboration with James Beard Award-winning chef JJ Johnson resulted in a curry crunch crinkle cut fries, which, unfortunately, was available only for a short time (via Shake Shack).

Shake Shack published a fries recipe in its book

In its first cookbook ever, "Shake Shack: Recipes and Stories", the chain offered fans the secret to making fries the way Shake Shack does (via Eater). As per the book, it starts off with dunking peeled potatoes in cold water to prevent browning, followed with cutting them with a crinkle cutter into half inch thick slices. These are then rinsed in water, and soaked in hot water till tender. The drained slices are heated in canola oil (their website, however, mentions that the chain's fryers use soybean oil), at 350 degrees Fahrenheit, for around 12 minutes. The results are then frozen before being fried again at 350 degrees to get that golden crisp texture. Add some salt and they are good to nosh. 

Written by CEO Randy Garutti, Culinary Director Mark Rosati, and author Dorothy Kalins, the book offers the simplest way to replicate a Shake Shack menu item at home. While the recipes are designed to taste like your Shake Shack order, they are not the exact same ones that the chain uses. For example, don't expect to learn about the secret ingredients that make Shack Sauce so good. That's because, as per Garutti, only six people in the whole world know it and you're most likely not one of them. But what you can replicate is their cheese sauce, as Rosati has posted a short Instagram demo showing how to make it.

Shake Shack gave away crinkle cut fries for free

Shake Shack has used that perfect alliteration of "free fries" many times, and for good reasons. In December 2021, when 119 million Americans were set to travel after months of pandemic lockdowns, the fast food chain apparently anticipated travel delays and flight cancellations (they were right, as there were indeed a ton of cancellations, per Global News). As such, it decided to give away free fries to those who were facing these travel hiccups, according to People. During the three-day offer, the chain stationed "fry" attendants at Terminal 4 of John F Kennedy Airport in New York. Travelers could present proof of their botched itineraries to get the free snacks . Earlier the same year, Shake Shack had tacked on free fries with an order of burger or chicken in New York, so long as the customers showed their proof of their COVID-19 vaccination (via Delish).

In 2020, the chain had rolled up its sleeves and decided to galvanize more crowds to cast their votes early during the fraught US election season. All that the customers had to do was place a $5 order through the app or online with the promo code FRYVOTED (via Thrillist). The chain partnered with Vote.org, a non-profit and credible source for all information around voting, to encourage more people to be active participants in democracy, with the help of the chain's modest crinkle cut fries.