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That’s Your Queue: Behind the Shake Shack Line

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The greatest trick Danny Meyer ever pulled? Convincing the world that it wants to wait in The Line.

Since 2004, when the effervescent restaurateur opened his first Shake Shack in New York City, Meyer’s dealt with heavy queues — snaking through Madison Square Park regardless what’s falling from the sky, trickling out of a glitzy Theater District doorway, packing a greenified courtyard on the Upper East Side. Now, with Philadelphia’s one-week-old Shake Shack spreading crinkle-cut love all over Center City, The Line has a permanent 215 area code. It clings to the eastern wall of Shack’s former-dry-cleaner digs, stretching, at its longest, to the corner of 20th and Moravian, where late lunch-rush arrivals stare at their shoes, closer to Tower Style Pizza‘s graffiti’d Dumpster than to chilly salvation via Termini cannoli-studded “Liberty Shell” concrete.

And that’s precisely how the founder and CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group wants it. “We didn’t engineer having the line,” Meyer told CNBC in 2010, “but we did embrace it.”

At first exasperated glance, The Line seems impenetrable, interminable and not even remotely worth waiting in, lest ye be clowned by your Philly friends for liking something tourists also like. But for some reason, This Line is different, standing out from Sabrina’s sidewalk clusters or Village Whiskey‘s pert we’ll-call-you promises. “There is nothing particularly innovative about any single component of Shake Shack,” writes Meyer in his 2006 service-industry sacred text Setting the Table. “The key, as always, [is] how we might blend all the components to make it feel original.”

That statement, perhaps intentionally, glosses over the quiet power of The Line. “For a restaurant that takes no table reservations, the existence of a line means that patrons are willingly making the choice to wait for their food while standing,” Meyer tells me. “[We] make sure there’s something so good at the end of the rainbow. Smiles and good food are a good start.”

Kicking rocks while waiting to grub at a popular joint staffed by shinyhappypeople is nothing new (hi, In-N-Out), but the Shack’s ravenous queue possesses this very particular and very sincere twinkle, free frozen custard samples and friendly curbside employee banter notwithstanding. Why do we wait in The Line? And why is everyone in The Line so calm and cool, especially here in Philly, where we are traditionally not calm and not cool about anything? I visited Shake Shack on a beautiful afternoon last week in search of answers.

Jersey native Aaron, a Jefferson student, ate Shake Shack innumerable times in the seven years he lived in NYC. “I don’t mind waiting in line for an hour,” he said. “It’s no different than sitting down at a table and ordering a burger at a restaurant. And it’s a nice day outside.”

Carol, a 40-year resident of Powelton Village (“beautiful, historic Powelton Village!” she clarified repeatedly), said she was turned off by a “greasy smell” wafting from a Big Apple Shake Shack location she strolled by once. Though she was still too far back in line to gather any local olfactory evidence, she lined up to gauge what all the hype was about. “I tend to be countercyclical — falling in line is not usually what I do,” she said. “But for something different, why not? Get out of my comfort zone.”

Turns out our Shack is a draw for New Yorkers, too. Danielle and Sharon, both based in the Gotham metro area, were in Philly for a midwifery conference. “This is nothing compared to Manhattan’s lines,” observed Danielle, a self-described “foodie” who had nothing but praise for Meyer’s chain (“It’s real food”). Sharon, a Shack virgin, decided to tag along with her friend even though she is “not that big on burgers.” (The power of The Line…)

Ryan, a PricewaterhouseCoopers employee accompanied by his Fox Rothschild friend Corey, was the first customer to bring up Philly’s reputed lack of patience for this sort of thing. “Once people see the

 

wall, they’re not going to go beyond the street,” he speculated. “In Philadelphia, they’re just going to leave.” Him personally, though? Not bothered. “It’s all about the experience.”

Corey was slightly more skeptical. “I love burgers and shakes, but to stand in line for a half hour for ‘fast food,’ if you will?” she said. “I was in New York maybe two weeks ago. [A Shake Shack] line was out the door and around the corner. I like like noooo.” She has, however, waited for an hour to eat at Green Eggs Café.

Jamie, a native New Yorker who writes the Midtown Lunch Philly blog and has eaten Shake Shack more times than she can count, estimated exactly how long (“Twenty-eight to 32 minutes”) it would take for her and her law-school friend Christine to have food in hand. “For me, this is a burger that made me like burgers,” she said of the Shack’s boldly beefy, carhop-inspired LaFrieda patties. “That’s not even an exaggeration.”

She properly hyped up the menu for Christine, another Shake Shack noob stepping up to The Line for the first time. “[Jamie] said that it might change my life,” said Christine. “That the burger might make me want to die, in a happy way.”

Meyer is hopeful Christine, and all other local denizens of The Line, will not perish, allowing them to become repeat customers. “So long as our team does everything possible to cook good food and give our guests a genuine welcome, there’s no reason Philadelphians won’t continue to return,” he says. “It’s also important to note that the line moves really quickly — far moreso than one might think. You should try it sometime.”

I took that advice earlier today, falling into The Line around 1:45 p.m. I was done my meal — a bacon-topped “SmokeShack” (add pickles) and a lemonade — by 2:25. The Line didn’t advance at the speediest clip in the world, and I just missed the custard samples, but for some reason it didn’t really feel like waiting. I would do it again. So maybe the greatest trick Danny Meyer ever pulled isn’t convincing the world that it wants to wait in The Line — it’s convincing the world that The Line doesn’t exist.

Photos: Drew Lazor

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