How Jessica Seinfeld saved crinkle fries, and other Shake Shack tales

Randy Garutti, CEO, and Mark Rosati, culinary director, wrote “Shake Shack: Recipes & Stories.”
Randy Garutti, CEO, and Mark Rosati, culinary director, wrote “Shake Shack: Recipes & Stories.” Photo provided

Shake Shack opened its first Kentucky store in Lexington last week, and by now you might be wondering: How did this popular burger place materialize from a New York hot dog cart launch in 2001?

There’s a book for that: “Shake Shack: Recipes & Stories” (Clarkson Potter/Publishers, $26) by CEO Randy Garutti and culinary director Mark Rosati.

Founder Danny Meyer initially saw that hot dog cart as a “community wealth venture” rather than a profit-making business.

Meyer’s business is Union Square Hospitality. He opened its first restaurant, Union Square Café, in 1985. His ventures include Gramercy Tavern, Blue Smoke and Jazz Standard, The Modern, Café 2 and Terrace 5 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a catering division called Union Square Events.

The hot dog stand was designed with the idea of donating 100 percent of its profits to Madison Square Park to support the Madison Square Park Conservancy’s first art installation. The cart was a success, and lines formed daily.

But then the little hot dog cart that could became what the book describes as a “petri dish” for Union Square Hospitality Group. “Whoever wrote the rule that fast food can’t be great food?” Meyer asked.

The first permanent Shake Shack opened in 2004 in Madison Square Park. It hit customers like a re-invention of the burger.

Josh Ozersky wrote in Esquire magazine that Shake Shack “took the ultimate American trash food and approached it not as an object for postmodern reinterpretation, but as a dish to be executed.”

That means no added hormones or antibiotics, things for which you wouldn’t even think to ask of a dish on a drive-through burger for a buck. The atomic green relish on the hot dogs was dropped because, Shake Shack reasoned, that color couldn’t be healthy; it was replaced with a more natural, less-sweet relish made by Rick’s Picks in Brooklyn.

Another priority was to create Shake Shack restaurants that make customers happy, which Garutti said is reinforced as the company gets bigger. Even though the chain now has more than 130 restaurants, the trick, he said, is to make each new Shake Shack feel authentic to its place. That means each Shake Shack looks different and finds some local color for its menu.

In Lexington, for example, the design is modern yet complements the clean lines and village-green feel of The Summit at Fritz Farm. The Shake Shack has a woody interior off a faux-grass green spot; it sells frozen custard concretes with ingredients from Lexington-based businesses North Lime Coffee & Donuts and Pig & Pepper pie-makers, and a milkshake made with Maker’s Mark bourbon.

Follow the book’s directions and you can learn to pick and grind your own pretty good, if not exactly Shake Shack-standard, burger meat, and to serve it on potato rolls toasted with butter. A “close enough” Shake Sauce recipe also is available.

One of the best parts of the book, though, is the detailing of the struggles through which Shake Shack went for its fries.

Shake Shack researched potato chemistry, finding that potato sugar levels are important but impossible to control on a consistent basis. The company tried marinating, vinegar, refrigerating and not refrigerating, and soaked until the starch ran out, and washed until the water ran clear.

The idea of thrice-fried potatoes came from tasting the fries made by chef Heston Blumenthal, the three-star Michelin chef of London’s The Fat Duck.

Shake Shack introduced the new fries into which it had put so much research and money. Customers hated them. Even Garutti’s kids hated them. The employees hated the equipment and process required to produce them.

Jessica Seinfeld, cookbook author and wife of comedian Jerry, ordered burgers for a Little League game in Central Park and posted on Instagram: “Thank you, Shake Shack, we love you, but PS, can we talk about these fries at some point?”

In 2014, the company went back to its crinkle-cut fries, and customers rejoiced. Garutti’s conclusion: “So shame on us for over-intellectualizing the whole thing.”

The book cites Maya Angelou about how people “never forget how you made them feel.” Garutti gives the key tenet of working at Shake Shack: “The bigger we get, the smaller we need to act.”

Cheryl Truman: 859-231-3202, @CherylTruman

This simple but potent spread goes on the Shake Shack chicken sandwich, and its silky tang offsets the crisp but not doughy texture of the buttermilk chicken.

It could probably go a ways toward improving whatever chicken nugget variant you’re trying to elevate into dinner. And since we’re in the down yonder of the United States, we’re not going to say you shouldn’t substitute Duke’s Mayonnaise.

Buttermilk herb mayo recipe from “Shake Shack: Recipes & Stories”

2 cups Hellman’s mayonnaise

2 tablespoons buttermilk

2 teaspoons white wine vinegar

1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley

2 teaspoons finely chopped chives

1/4 teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Put all the ingredients into a medium mixing bowl and stir until well combined.