The untold truth of Shake Shack

There is something timeless about the burger stand that never gets old. That's just one of the reasons Shake Shack has skyrocketed in popularity since its inception less than two decades ago. With its proprietary meat blend, crinkle-cut fries, and delectable frozen treats, Shake Shack has amassed a cult-like following and taken a huge bite out of the fast food restaurant business in the blink of an eye. What started as a single food stand (that didn't even sell hamburgers) has grown into a fast food empire. The chain, which has a market capitalization of more than $1.5 billion, has about 275 locations in dozens of countries around the world.

Maybe most impressive is the fact that Shake Shack is just getting started. According to QSR Magazine, 60 percent of the company's domestic restaurants are less than three years old, while 24 percent are less than one year old.

So how'd Shake Shack get here? In short: a little bit of good luck and a lot of good food. Here a few things about the burger company that will help tell the full story.

Shake Shack started as a hot dog stand

Time and again, history shows us that so many the world's great institutions had humble beginnings. Now, Shake Shack was created by one of the world's most successful restaurateurs and born in the heart of one of the world's most populous cities, so "humble" may not be the aptest description. But Shake Shack was never intended to be the burger juggernaut it has become. In fact, when it opened, it didn't even sell hamburgers.

Shake Shack originated in 2001 as a mere hot dog cart in New York City's Madison Square Park. It was the brainchild of restaurateur Danny Meyer, who at the time owned the restaurant Eleven Madison Park, across the street from the park. The stand was created to support an art installation in the park entitled "I ♥ Taxi."

The hot dogs were so popular, however, that the cart reopened the next two summers. The following year, Shake Shack was granted a contract to create a permanent food kiosk from New York City's Department of Parks & Recreation and the Madison Square Park Conservancy. On June 12, 2004, Shake Shack officially opened to the delight of many a New Yorker.

The original plan for Shake Shack was sketched on a napkin

A few years after Shake Shack introduced the summer hot dog cart, New York City began soliciting plans to install a seasonal kiosk in the park. Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer and CEO Randy Garutti then drew up the concept of the restaurant on the back of a napkin. As Garutti later told Forbes, "On that day, Danny sat down and scribbled on the back of a napkin his vision of a modern version of a roadside burger stand. Not retro, not '50s music playing, but today's version of what made that place great."

The napkin provides an interesting look back at what the founders were thinking when they first set up shop. It contains many Shake Shack classics: the burgers, crinkle-cut fries, and frozen custard. But there are many things that have not (at least so far) come to fruition, for better or worse. The owners originally had plans to sell such things as a tuna burger, doughnuts, and espresso.

Shake Shack lost money its first three years

It seems hard to believe now, especially since Shake Shack's owners are now millionaires, but the burger outlet was not a profitable business at first. It's a shame, too, since the idea started as a philanthropic effort. All of the profits from the humble hot dog stand were promised to go to Madison Square Park. Unfortunately, the stand lost money its first two years in operation.

It was long believed that Shake Shack got out of the red in year three, at least according to owner Danny Meyer. But he has since admitted that this wasn't the case. In the book Shake Shack: Recipes & Stories, Meyer admitted that they lost money in year three as well. "I've said we made $7,500 in year three. Actually, we didn't. I was just so embarrassed that we'd lost money for three years, we chose to make a bigger contribution."

Shake Shack got its name from the movie Grease

Of all the possible inspirations for the name of a burger joint, the movie Grease might not be the first thing that comes to mind. But that's exactly where the owners of Shake Shack purportedly got the name for the restaurant. You might not remember the name from the musical, but you definitely remember the scene from the movie. Shake Shack wasn't a restaurant in Grease, it was the name of the ride Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta are on when they sing, "You're the One that I Want" toward the end of the movie.

Although it has an unlikely origin story, the name is a hit now. We can't say the same of the other names that were floated around. On the aforementioned napkin, some other name ideas were scribbled down and some of them might seem a little surprising. They included Dog Run, Custard's First Stand, Custard Park, Madison Mixer, and, oddly enough, Parking Lot.

Shake Shack's logo and branding were created for free

Shake Shack was a product of the redevelopment of New York City's Madison Square Park, spearheaded by the park's newly founded Conservancy. The Madison Square Park Conservancy recruited the design firm Pentagram to complete a pro bono redesign of the identity. When it was decided to build a permanent food kiosk in the park, it was believed Shake Shack would be a one-location outlet, essentially an extension of the park. Therefore Pentagram simply added it to the project and designed a logo and branding for the restaurant — free of charge.

"It was so accidental," lead designer Paula Scher told Fast Company, "because it was conceived for one specific location at that point in time. I don't think anyone was thinking that this was going to be a chain."

In 2015, Shake Shack went public in an IPO north of $1.5 billion, yet they didn't spend a cent on their logo. To be fair, the restaurant did offer Scher a chance to own stock in the company before it went public.

Shake Shack spent $1 million researching French fries

A whole story could be written about the roller coaster journey of Shake Shack fries. From the onset, the restaurant sold crinkle-cut French fries. Yes, they were frozen, but that turned out to be part of the appeal. They tasted just like the fries so many of us ate all through childhood, fed to us by parents that were far too busy to hand-cut and deep fry fresh fries.

Then the New York Times reviewed Shake Shack. That's when things took a turn. The Times gave the eatery a one-star review, in part because it wasn't impressed by the frozen taters. "You can get better fries just about anywhere," the paper said. Shake Shack executives did a complete 180 and decided they needed to sell fresh fries. They then spent $1 million experimenting with different fresh-cut fry styles.

The result? Eaters weren't impressed. They missed the nostalgia of the crinkle-cut fries. Adding insult to injury, or vice versa, Shake Shack kitchen staff sustained injuries trying to prep 2,000 potatoes each day. Eventually, the company brought back the crinkled fries. They remain Shake Shake's French fry of choice to this day.

David Chang's Shake Shack Shrimp Burger caused the longest line ever

To celebrate its 10th anniversary in 2014, Shake Shack ran a promotion in which five notable chefs created limited-edition burgers for one day each. It only took two days for records to be broken.

Some of the culinary stars who participated included Michelin-starred chef Daniel Boulud and Bizarre Foods' Andrew Zimmern. But the one who made history was David Chang, best known as the founder of Momofuku. He concocted a "Shrimp Stack" burger. In addition to the restaurant's standard beef patty, Chang's creation included a smoked and griddled shrimp patty, Momofuku Hozon Sauce, Bibb lettuce, pickled onion, and quick-salted cucumber.

It only took 30 minutes for some 450 people to line up at the chain's flagship Madison Square Park location. That stands as the longest line in Shake Shack history. The restaurant sold out its 1,000-burger supply by the afternoon.

Shake Shack serves up corn dogs

As great as a restaurant's menu may be, it's always a good idea to spice things up every once in a while. How does Shake Shack accomplish this? By celebrating America in the most American way possible: gobbling down corn dogs and pie. Three times each year — Memorial Day, July 4th, and Labor Day — Shake Shack serves golden, crispy corn dogs to the masses in honor of America.

The corn dogs are all-beef, dipped in a homemade Shake Shack corn batter, and served with Rick's Picks sweet corn relish.

But the chain doesn't stop there. After all, everyone needs something to help wash down that dog. To make it a truly All-American meal, Shake Shack also serves a "Blueberry Pie, Oh My" custard. This delectable frozen treat is a vanilla frozen custard blended with a slice of seasonal blueberry pie.

Each Shake Shack location has a slightly different menu

If you walk into a McDonald's or Burger King anywhere in the country, it will probably look exactly like the one in your hometown. Most restaurant chains choose to look the same and offer the same thing so their customers know what to expect. Shake Shack has opted to go in a slightly different direction.

Shake Shack locations across the country have a slightly different menu depending on their location. Sometimes, it's just a chance to offer something different or to use a play on words. In Philadelphia, the company serves a dessert called "Liberty Shell" (vanilla custard, Termini Bros. cannoli shell, strawberry purée, and lemon ricotta). In Boca Raton, it's the "DogMiester" (hotdog topped with Shack cheddar and American cheese sauce and crispy ShackMesiter Ale marinated shallots).

But sometimes Shake Shack will incorporate popular regional items. In Coral Gables, for example, they serve "Key Lime Pie Oh My" (vanilla custard and a slice of The Sugar Monkey key lime pie) and Cookie Cubana (vanilla custard, Cuban-style sugar cookie, salted caramel sauce, and banana).

Shake Shack has an extensive secret menu

A growing trend among popular eateries has been the creation of a secret menu. Some of these are more hush-hush than others, but Shake Shack has been known to have a pretty extensive list of well-known secret items.

The most popular dish on the menu is the Peanut Butter and Bacon ShackBurger. According to #HackTheMenu, the chain had this item on its official menu but removed it out of fear of peanut allergy cross-contamination. To order it, simply ask for a standard ShackBurger and a side of the company's peanut butter sauce. Drizzle it on the burger and you're all set. Another popular secret item is the Quad Burger. This is precisely what it sounds like: four beef patties squeezed between a bun. You can "quad" any type of Shake Shack burger — just ask for four patties. Then loosen your belt a notch or two and dig in.

Other secret menu items include the Shandy (half beer, half lemonade), the Shack-cago Burger (ShackBurger with all the toppings of the Shack-cago Dog), and a Beer Float (a scoop of frozen custard in a beer).

Some Shake Shack locations serve breakfast

Everybody loves the first meal of the day, so you knew it wouldn't be long before Shake Shack started waking up a little earlier to dish out hot breakfast. It started back in 2015 at three locations in two different cities: New York's JFK Airport and Grand Central Terminal, and Washington, D.C.'s Union Station. It makes sense to serve breakfast here as these three spots are all major transportation hubs where people will surely want a bite to eat and a cup of coffee before they head off on their travels. The menu was unsurprisingly small to start. It included three types of breakfast sandwiches as well as coffee.

Since 2015, several other Shake Shack outposts have begun serving breakfast, including New York's Penn Station. And in 2017, the flagship location in Madison Square Park joined the ranks. The menu has expanded (slightly) as well. Depending on the location, you may be able to pick up a coffee cake or an apple turnover.

Shake Shack has no plans for a drive-thru

Shake Shack has always prided itself as a fast food restaurant that wasn't like other fast food restaurants (read: more upscale and modern). So it should come as no surprise that they have no plans to do as other fast food purveyors do, even if it's now a ubiquitous practice. That's why you won't be seeing any Shake Shack drive-thru restaurants any time soon.

In an interview with CT Post, Shake Shack CEO Randy Garutti explained the company's thinking, saying each location is designed to have people sit and stay. "We spend five times what a fast food chain spends on design. Their model is to get you in and out ... We will never do a drive through," Garutti said.

As much as we would all love to be able to hop in our cars to go get a delectable ShackBurger, it appears, for now, we'll have to stand on our own two feet to do so.