‘We’re in a golden age of hamburgers’ — East Coast burger darling hopes to make its mark in a crowded market.

Shake Shack’s signature ShackBurger features a beef patty, melty American cheese, lettuce, tomato and Shack Sauce on a Martin’s potato roll. (Photo by Veronica Weber)

When Mark Rosati looks at Shake Shack’s 202nd location, in Palo Alto, he doesn’t see New York City, where the now-global burger chain was born. He sees Northern California.

In the new Golden State Double, Shake Shack’s culinary director sees San Francisco through the sweet potato bun (made by Bay Area institution Tartine Bakery), Gilroy through the smoked garlic aioli, Yuba County through the patties from Richards Grassfed Beef.

Shake Shack will be opening at Stanford Shopping Center on Saturday Dec. 15, 2018; A selection of “concretes” at Shake Shack feature frozen custard mixed with Dandelion chocolate, Manresa Bread’s chocolate chip walnut cookie and Pie Dream’s seasonal pie. (Photos by Veronica Weber)

The frozen custard concretes represent the South Bay (pieces of whole wheat walnut chocolate chip cookies from Los Gatos-based Manresa Bread are swirled into vanilla custard) to the East Bay (chunks of seasonal pie from Pie Dreams in Fremont are mixed into vanilla custard) to San Francisco (dark chocolate chunks of Dandelion Chocolate stud a chocolate custard).

“I wanted this to get to feel like someone from California decided to open a burger place, not some guy from New York City,” Rosati said in an interview at Shake Shack’s first-ever Bay Area location, opening to the public this Saturday, Dec. 15, at Stanford Shopping Center.

Shake Shack’s Golden State Double burger, served exclusively at the Palo Alto location: two patties of Richards Grassfed Beef, topped with McVicker’s B&B pickles, smoked garlic aioli and served on a Tartine sweet potato bun. (Photo by Veronica Weber)

But, undeniably, Shake Shack’s well-established burger cachet is what will draw lines of diners to the 2,491 square-foot restaurant on Saturday. Despite having more than 200 locations around the world, it’s taken 14 years for the company to expand to the Bay Area.

Founder Danny Meyer, now a renowned restaurateur and CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group in New York City, started Shake Shack as a hot dog cart in 2001. Part of a public art installation meant to revive Madison Square Park, it was so popular that it became a permanent kiosk three years later.

The company has come a long way since then. There are Shake Shacks in 26 states and in more than 70 international locations from London and Hong Kong to Dubai and Moscow.

Shake Shack announced in January that it would be coming to the Bay Area, first to Palo Alto and later to San Francisco and Marin County. The company is also planning to open at the Mineta San Jose International Airport in 2020.

Shake Shack employees serve burgers and fries to guests at the chain’s new location in Palo Alto. (Photo by Veronica Weber)

Rosati, who comes from the New York City fine-dining world and has been with the company since 2007, said he feels Shake Shack needs the Bay Area more than we need them.

“I’ve seen a big change in the burger culture here,” he said. “Now, there are a lot of people doing it at a high level.” (Two of his favorites include True Laurel in San Francisco and Kronnerburger in Oakland.)

The Bay Area is also now home to more Michelin-starred restaurants than New York City.

“We know the bar is high,” Rosati said. “We want to make sure we exceed that bar.”

Clockwise from top left: The Chick’n Shack, a crispy chicken breast topped with lettuce, pickles and a buttermilk herb mayo; Shake Shack’s signature crinkle cut fries come with cheese sauce for dipping; and local craft beers on tap. (Photos by Veronica Weber)

Shake Shack Palo Alto will serve the classics that the chain is known for — straightforward Angus beef cheeseburgers served on squishy-soft Martin’s potato rolls, a fried chicken sandwich, crinkle-cut fries and the dessert concretes — plus new menu items exclusive to Palo Alto. Those include the Golden State Double, a heftier double cheeseburger on the Tartine bun with white cheddar, smoked garlic aioli and bread and butter pickles from McVicker Pickles. The specialty burger will be available daily in limited quantities.

The locally inspired custard concretes are also exclusive to the Palo Alto restaurant.

The Golden State Double, exclusive to Shake Shack in Palo Alto. (Photo by Elena Kadvany)

There’s also local beer and wine, including from Fort Point Beer Co. in San Francisco, Broc Cellars in Berkeley, Brea Wine Co. in Colorado (a natural wine company) and Robert Sinskey Vineyards in Napa.

Shake Shack’s burgers — hotly debated as In-N-Out’s East Coast competition — are made from a proprietary blend of all-natural Angus beef, per the company’s website. All burgers are cooked medium unless otherwise requested and served on the potato rolls from Martin’s in Pennsylvania.

There’s also the Smoke Shack, a single or double cheeseburger topped with all-natural applewood smoked bacon, chopped cherry pepper and Shack Sauce; the vegetarian ‘Shroom Burger, a fried portobello mushroom filled with melted Muenster and cheddar cheeses and topped with lettuce, tomato and Shack Sauce; and flat-top hot dogs, a nod to Shake Shack’s more humble beginnings.

Guests at Shake Shack’s new Palo Alto location can place orders on digital kiosks. (Photo by Veronica Weber)

At the 66-seat Shake Shack, customers can place their orders on touch-screen kiosks, then pick up their food from a window in front of the kitchen. Despite the use of technology, human touch is front and center to the Shake Shack hospitality philosophy created by Meyer.

A sneak-peek event on Wednesday night wasn’t called a media preview but rather a “housewarming.” Attentive, polite staff roamed the restaurant taking orders and picking up finished food, eagerly asking diners about which burger they liked the best and if they would like ice with their water. Shake Shack is known for successfully integrating fine-dining service into a fast-food setting.

When the company hires, they look for character and personality over technical skills, Rosati said.

“We try to find people who if they’re walking through the dining room of a Shack and they see a discarded napkin, they’re compelled to stop and pick it up and throw it away. We can’t train that,” he said.

Shake Shack opens their first Bay Area location this Saturday, Dec. 15, in Palo Alto. (Photos by Elena Kadvany)

Rosati believes the Bay Area and more broadly, the country, is in “a golden age of hamburgers.”

So Shake Shack took its time planning what they hope will be an enduring local outpost amidst plenty of competition.

Shake Shack will open at 11 a.m on Saturday at 180 El Camino Real, Suite #950, Palo Alto (next to P.F. Chang’s).

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Brisket by the Bay: the Six Fifty’s guide to southern BBQ on the Peninsula

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Elena Kadvany

A writer with a passion for investigative reporting, telling untold stories and public-service journalism, I have built my career covering education and restaurants in the Bay Area. My blog and biweekly newsletter, Peninsula Foodist, is the go-to source for restaurant news in Silicon Valley. My work has been published in The Guardian, Eater, Bon Appetit’s Healthyish, SF Weekly and The Six Fifty.

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