The launch of the Innovation Kitchen is like everything else the brand has done up until this point: relentlessly slow to roll out and completely worth the wait.
— Erika Adams
Shake Shack-branded chicken nuggets, black sesame shakes, and cold brew matcha lattes can only mean one thing: the test kitchen that the company has been talking about for years is finally open and the team isn’t wasting any time with putting the new space to work.
Shake Shack’s new Innovation Kitchen will function much like Chipotle’s Next Kitchen in New York or Chick-fil-A’s test kitchen in Atlanta. It’s a dedicated space for the team to try out new menu items and new technology, get nearly instantaneous guest feedback, and be able to make faster decisions on whether those menu items are ready for wider rollouts.
The space is built directly underneath Shake Shack’s corporate offices in the West Village neighborhood in Manhattan. Corporate employees don’t ever have to leave the building to get to a Shack now — the ground floor level was built out into a new Shake Shack restaurant, and the test kitchen sits behind large glass doors in the basement level of the building. The basement also houses a leadership development center where Shake Shack will host its regular New Leader Orientation sessions, among other events.
As Shake Shack CEO Randy Garutti explained to Skift Table, the Innovation Kitchen has been an anticipated move for a long time now, and there’s a lot of excitement throughout the building now that the new space is officially in operation.
At a preview event a day ahead of the restaurant’s official opening to the public, Garutti tells us what to expect from the kitchen, how the team plans to use it to make decisions on new menu items in development, and why Shake Shack’s slow and steady approach on new initiatives is the right move for the brand.
Skift Table: Everything that the kitchen is producing for the preview event [including an heirloom tomato custard, a yuzu strawberry shake, and a Shack lobster roll], are these things that will be sold at this Shack?
Randy Garutti: Not everything. The whole point of this place is to use it for new ideas that may or may not ever make the full-time menu. So for instance, here, the big thing that we are really testing are the Chick’n Bites. That’s something that will be just here and we’re going to listen a lot and learn and finally have a place where you can test and immediately [get feedback] upstairs. That’s something we can see being potentially a wider rollout.
But the other things that you tasted tonight were mostly just fun. Mostly one-offs. Some things like the black sesame shake that we’re going to have here, that came from Tokyo. And the cold brew matcha latte, those were flavors that we had in Tokyo. So, as we go around the country and around the world, we find inspiration, we bring different things back, and we may test it.
It may go as far as, the team is at the [Union Square] Greenmarket and they find something — like today, I don’t know if you got the heirloom tomato custard?
Garutti: Like, that’s ridiculous! Whether that ever matters to Shake Shack, who knows.
ST: Did Mark [Rosati, Shake Shack’s culinary director] come up with that?
Garutti: We did that flavor probably ten years ago at Shake Shack. It’s all to the goal that we say a lot, that the bigger we get, the smaller we have to act. Just making sure we are continuing to innovate, but act like a grown-up company. And we finally have a space and an area to do that. We have our offices upstairs. We can come down now and taste things immediately. I think it’s just going to really help.
ST: Will new corporate employees be doing shifts in the restaurant?
Garutti: Yes. For sure. Everyone who works in the corporate office has to work in a Shake Shack from time to time.
ST: For how long?
Garutti: Usually two to three days. So, we get ’em making burgers.
ST: Shake Shack is known for its chef collaborations, but they are typically only available for a very limited time and only locally here in New York. I can come and taste the menu items because I live here, but a lot of people who follow Shake Shack on Instagram and really know the Shack brand don’t get to participate in that. What’s the value of doing the collaborations?
Garutti: Well, for us, I think it just speaks to who we are at our core. Our fine dining heritage, being a part of Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group since 1985. I don’t think there’s a whole lot of burger joints selling $5 hamburgers who can get Dominique Ansel and Daniel Humm —
ST: $7.50 hamburgers.
Garutti: Ok, some. But the Shackburger is $5.50. So you know, if you think about it, there’s no one I think that can claim the culinary heritage that we have, and really the friends that we have. Andrew Zimmern is here tonight. All of our friends that we collab with, I think it’s just a reminder to people that we think differently, yet we still go after the most core basic menu items, the basic cheeseburger, and do it well.
ST: Will any of those collabs see a nationwide rollout?
Garutti: I don’t know. That’s never been the objective of them. But we never say never.
ST: Is it a big marketing drive?
Garutti: It’s just fun. Our fans love it when we do it, and it allows us a chance to further the innovations and the relationships that we have. And in other cities. We’re in all these other cities and we’ll often do collabs with the famous chef of that city. It really connects our vision, to stand for something good, wherever we go, in those communities.
ST: So these Chick’n Bites: why was this the item to launch today, coinciding with the opening of the Innovation Kitchen?
Garutti: We’ve been working on it for about a year, at least. I think it’s just something that we’ve really been curious about, whether our Shake Shack guests are excited about that. We’ve heard from a lot of people, whether they like them as a side or a snack, a lot of kids ask for them. So we’ve been working on it, and we think we finally got it to a good Phase One. It will absolutely change. We’ll hear things that people like and don’t like, but that’s why we’re going to listen.
ST: How long do you listen to that feedback?
Garutti: Usually months. And we’ll see how this one goes. This one is going to be quick learning now that we are here. We’ll see who orders it, we’ll see how often, and we’ll build from there.
ST: When it rolls out, do you put it in more New York City stores, and then go further?
Garutti: Maybe. We also like to use some restaurants in our out-of-New-York network. So for instance, we’re testing the Veggie Shack in a couple of Shacks in L.A. and a couple of Shacks in Austin, Texas.
ST: I really like it, by the way. I’m surprised it’s not everywhere yet.
Garutti: Well, again, we take our time. We’re patient. We want to get things right, and, even with the Veggie Shack, people love it but there’s pieces of it that we want to keep improving. We want to make little tweaks.
ST: Like what?
Garutti: Just flavor profile, texture. Every time we get feedback on it we want to make sure we listen and say, alright, how could that be just a little bit better? Constantly striving for excellence is what we’re trying to do.
ST: Speaking of moving slowly, I can’t wait til you guys launch web-based ordering.
Garutti: I know! It’ll get there.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.