Shake Shack

Union Square Hospitality Group Takes its Roadside Shack Out for a Spin on Jersey's Route 17

In support of the first public art installation in New York's Madison Square Park back in 2001, Danny Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG) deployed a simple hot dog cart to serve pedestrians strolling through. The group quickly realized it was on to something good and, in 2004, won the bid to open a permanent kiosk in the park. That kiosk, the original Shake Shack, has since become an iconic spot beloved by New Yorkers and a popular spot for visitors to the city from the world over.

In fact, that humble walk-up stand set the stage for what today is both a beloved boutique fast-casual burger brand and a vehicle for international expansion. Over the past few years, Shake Shack units have opened in cities ranging from London to
Istanbul to Dubai, as well as Miami, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and finally, as of last November, just across the river from New York in Paramus, N.J.

USHG had long wanted to take Shake Shack into New Jersey — proximity and well-established brand awareness made it a natural expansion market — but as with all of its locations the company favored careful site selection over speed to market. Ultimately, the site they secured on Route 17 in Paramus was a home run, according to Andrew McCaughan, USHG's director of real estate and design.

"Being based in New York City, we had always had our sites on New Jersey. We had so much outreach from Bergen County and other communities who knew Shake Shack from the city but we just hadn't been able to find the right site," McCaughan says. "We wanted to be on Route 17, which is a very busy corridor for retail and restaurants and is easily accessible to the surrounding communities. It just took some patience."

Among a handful of critical site-selection metrics the group had to consider was parking. "That's something we've learned as we've expanded outside of New York, where we mainly have pedestrians, subways and buses," McCaughan says. "It's a driving culture once you get outside of the city and for our kind of restaurant we need a lot of parking. So having accessibility, high traffic and the right look were important, but so was having enough space for parking."

In addition to patience in site selection, getting the Paramus location open took a lot of elbow grease. After finding the right site — a freestanding, 67-year-old former pancake house — USHG stripped down and transformed it into what McCaughan describes as "a really clean representation of the brand. A simple but modern version of the roadside hotdog and hamburger stand."

While some of the original building's characteristics — a low ceiling with exposed steel beams and a metal deck roof, for instance — were appealing, USHG essentially gutted the building. "We wanted to open up the floor plan and open up windows with all of the views onto Route 17, so we took it pretty much down to studs and built it back up," McCaughan says.

Retro Rethought

Although USHG continues to expand Shake Shack at home and abroad, the company embraces an "anti-chain" approach to its growth, focusing on creating distinctive units with unique experiential designs for each location that speak to the building, the architecture and the local community. In Paramus, working with designers Denise MC Lee and Sara Stracey, of SITE, a New York-based architecture, art and design firm, the company set out to create a retro roadside shack vibe with modern, eco-friendly sensibilities.


Lee says the project was among the most exciting her firm has done yet for Shake Shack because of the total transformation that took place. "We studied the site extensively and even sketched over coffee while the previous pancake restaurant was winding down — before the contractors began the archaeological dig," she says. "Layers of previous businesses were excavated."

As with any conversion of an existing building, unexpected issues can arise during such an "excavation." In Paramus, significant structural deficiencies were discovered that needed to be shored up prior to reconstruction. Nonetheless, the project was completed on time, within 17 weeks, and on budget.


Focal Point: Open Kitchen

The heart of the restaurant, as in each Shake Shack location, is a large, open kitchen. It's what McCaughan calls the concept's "engine" and is a focal point of the design.

"We do all of our cooking from scratch and to order. That's always been a key to the concept, dating back to the original kiosk location in Madison Square Park. Whenever you enter a Shake Shack, you always have that experience of walking up to the counter, ordering, seeing what's going on in the kitchen and interacting with employees."

Shake-Shack-order-counterWhile each restaurant has a somewhat distinct appearance and utilizes different materials, all Shake Shack kitchens have a similar aesthetic. In addition to being open to full view, they're clad on the dining room side in corrugated metal panels. That's a reference back to the original Shake Shack in Madison Square Park. "They might vary in color in different units, but they'll all have that same basic material and consistent look," McCaughan says.

In Paramus, for example, the kitchen features warm reddish-grey corrugated zinc panels. In Battery Park City in New York, the panels are tinted a greenish-blue.

All told, the kitchen in Paramus takes up roughly 40 percent of total space, and is set up in 3 main aisles to maximize both food production efficiency and visibility from the front of the house. "We don't want to hide anything," McCaughan says. "We want people to be able to see right in and see their milkshake being made or their burger being cooked for them."

The exterior of the Paramus location also harkens back to the original unit, picking up the metal cladding. Outside, corrugated dark brown aluminum panels surround the structure and the angled roof provides a sleek and modern look, but one that is simultaneously warm and inviting.

Wood Warms the Interior

Shake-Shack-Wood-countersThe restaurant's interior achieves that same modern, yet warm effect thanks to minimalist styling balanced by a liberal and creative use of wood. Tabletops, counters, chairs, half walls (which double as planters for native plants) and even wall coverings all exude warmth from a variety of natural woods.

"We reached for the warmth of local Jersey red oak balanced with a black charred look," Lee says. "Charcoal has a cleansing effect on water and air, and we felt the air here needed to be cleared to make way for this new restaurant."

The charred look comes from incorporating locally sourced, reclaimed mushroomwood. According to Lee, it's a blend of cypress and hemlock reclaimed from the bedding bins of local mushroom growing facilities. During the mushroom growth cycle, enzymes digest and erode the soft wood grain producing an organic, sculpted effect.

Also lending a distinctive look to Shake Shack's interior is the dark grey recycled concrete flooring tile that evokes a city sidewalk. "It has a little bit of sheen to it and a beautiful, clean look, but is finished to have a little grip for safety and is designed for very high volume," McCaughan says.

The continuation of the angles used on the building's roof sets the interior apart, as well. The design team chose the angled wall treatments as a way to reference the modern roadside shack, according to McCaughan. "We felt it referenced some of the more modern architecture of the 1950s that you see in the Madison Square Park unit," he says. "We like playing around with those angles and it makes for a much more interesting effect on the interior."

Philosophically, the approach fit. USHG strives in all of its units to utilize as much locally sourced, sustainable materials as possible. "We want to design restaurants and use materials that create a great experience, but that also have some strength and a good story to tell," McCaughan notes. "Our booths and benches are made for us by a company up in Rochester, N.Y. They produce everything in a very sustainable fashion."

One of McCaughan's favorite features is the counter seating along a wall of windows looking out onto Route 17. With room for 8, it spans roughly 16 feet and was constructed from reclaimed bowling alley wood. "We work with a great manufacturer out of Brooklyn, N.Y., who makes those counters by hand for us. It's something we just think really works and has value."

The counter, like all of the tables, is branded with the distinctive Shake Shack burger logo, a signature touch also found in other locations. "That's something that we're just in love with," McCaughan says. "It's what our guests touch and feel, and we think it adds a lot of value."

Project Team

  • USHG Director of Real Estate and Design: Andrew McCaughan
  • Design: Denise MC Lee, Sara Stracey, SITE
  • Architect Project Manager: Neal Thompson, Aria Group
  • Contractor: Trinity Building & Construction Management
  • MEP Engineer: Henderson Engineers
  • Snapshot

    Owner: Union Square Hospitality Group
    HQ: New York, N.Y.
    Unit location: Paramus, N.J.
    Opened: November 2013
    Square footage: 3,370
    Real estate type: freestanding, 67-year-old building
    No. of seats: 100+
    Front of house/back of house split: 60/40
    Design highlights: Dark brown corrugated aluminum exterior, angled roof, open kitchen, angled reclaimed wood wall finishes, FSC-certified chairs and booths, logo-branded tables, large windows; window counter and tabletops made of reclaimed bowling alley lanes.
    Build out: 17 weeks

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