The Man Behind The Burger

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Meet Randy Garutti, CEO of Shake Shack

By Angela Barbuti

With more than 600 employees, Shake Shack is arguably the most popular burger chain in New York City. If you find yourself at the chain's outpost on 77th and Columbus Ave, you might just run into Randy Garutti, CEO of Shake Shack. The store started out as a hot dog cart in Madison Square Park in 2001 and has grown to 12 stores nationwide, with two recently opened in Dubai and Kuwait.

We caught up the Upper West Sider to talk about what makes people line up for their burgers and fries.

West Side Spirit: Why did you pick the Upper West Side for your second location?

Garutti: I live on 81st and Columbus. I was walking home one day and saw a For Rent sign-I called the number and it was my original landlord, from whom I had rented an apartment from 12 years before, on Amsterdam and 74th. This second restaurant was the one where we said, "Is this really something that can exist outside of a park?" Amazingly, this one is busier than the park on many days.

What is your company's belief behind the burger?

It's just a simple pleasure. Shake Shack is for people who say, "I don't eat fast food, but when I choose to eat a hamburger, I want a good one."

What is the secret to the tasty meat?

We have our own blend that we created with Pat LaFrieda seven years ago. It's whole muscle, no trimmings. All natural, no hormones, no antibiotics. It's all ground last night for this morning. We sear our burgers by pressing them down, getting the outside caramelized. Then we scrape them off so that you don't lose any of that caramelization.

How did you end up on the Upper West Side?

After I graduated Cornell with a degree in hotel restaurant administration, I met Danny Meyer, the owner of our company, Union Square Hospitality Group. When I was 24, Danny gave me the chance to be the general manager of Tabla restaurant. My college roommate and I got a place here on Amsterdam and 74th. When I got married, I moved down to the West Village and lived there for four years. I've been back here for my fifth year with my wife and three kids.

What would you order at the Shack?

A classic ShackBurger, a hot dog to share with a friend, cheese fries, a half-size concrete and an Arnold Palmer to wash it all down.

What did you think of Pete Wells' one-star review in the New York Times?

I don't think there has ever been a place selling four-dollar hamburgers that has achieved this. He acknowledged that we started the whole better burger craze. He said we are a work in progress, and he's right. He also said we're inconsistent at times, and that can be true. When you're serving that many people every day, it can happen. We took all that and said, "Let's make sure we're being as consistent as possible and are taking care of our guests."

Who is your biggest competitor?

In New York, we don't think about competition that way. What we say is, "A rising tide lifts all boats." I love the burgers at Minetta Tavern and The Spotted Pig.

Your burgers also guest-starred in a couple of movies last year.

In Tower Heist, Michael Pena works at Shake Shack and Ben Stiller comes in there to plan the heist. We were all over Something Borrowed-John Krasinski and Ginnifer Goodwin frequently meet at the Shack. When he goes to get her in London, he brings a bag of our burgers.

Why do you think your customers are willing to wait on such a long line?

It's ultimately about the experience. It's a community-gathering place, where people come together to have fun. On top of that, we have great food and incredible hospitality. The whole is much greater than the sum of the parts at Shake Shack. The whole is the community.

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