Reporter's Notebook

Shake Shack vs. In-N-Out Burger: Let the comparisons begin

Shake Shack Los Angeles
Shake Shack makes its Los Angeles debut Tuesday. Photo: Lisa Jennings

Throngs are expected in West Hollywood, Calif., on Tuesday as the long-awaited West Coast outpost of Shake Shack makes its debut.

The first of three locations scheduled to open in the Los Angeles area this year and next, the restaurant marks a milestone for the growing, 84-unit Shake Shack chain. The brand is also moving for the first time into Dallas, Minneapolis and Arizona later this year, but it’s really California that will be the true test of Shake Shack’s ability to compete in a region with excellent burger options at every turn.

Shake Shack coming to Los Angeles is a bit like an American moving to Italy to sell pasta. Southern California is the cradle of the American burger chain, after all. McDonald’s was born here, as were countless other brands, including Carl’s Jr., Fatburger, Jack in the Box, Habit Burger Grill and, more recently, The Counter, Burger Lounge and Umami Burger.

The most important of these is 311-unit In-N-Out Burger, founded in 1948 in nearby Baldwin Park, Calif., and without question the cult favorite across the West. 

This will be the big showdown: In-N-Out versus Shake Shack, the old tried-and-true versus the young upstart.

In fact, I’d be willing to bet that the burning desire for Angelenos to compare the two brands will initially be a huge traffic booster for Shake Shack.

There are similarities between Shake Shack and In-N-Out. Both have a relatively short, focused menu, and both proclaim the quality of their ingredients.

In-N-Out has remained a closely held family operation, now in its third generation, and will likely never go public or franchise. Most locations have drive thrus, and the brand operates only in the U.S.

Meanwhile, fast-casual Shake Shack was created by the highly respected fine-dining operator Union Square Hospitality Group LLC in 2004, and was spun off as a public company last year, with only 63 locations at the time. The now-84-unit chain includes 35 international locations and five licensed domestic units.

During its year-end earnings report last week, Shake Shack executives warned that sustaining last year’s double-digit same-store-sales growth will be a challenge in fiscal 2016.

As for its menu, Shake Shack LA will serve the usual lineup of burgers, hot dogs, chicken sandwiches and crinkle-cut fries, along with some West Coast-specific burgers, such as the Roadside Double, a double Swiss cheeseburger topped with Dijon and onions simmered in bacon and beer.

Dessert will include frozen custard “concretes” with locally made Larder Baking Company salted caramel chocolate brownies and Sqirl Seascape Strawberry & Rose Geranium Jam, or Compartes dark-chocolate chunks, as well as local beers and wine.

But like so many East Coast expats who roll like loose marbles to the West, no amount of embracing what’s local will erase the fact that they’re New Yorkers through and through.

I was curious how a non-New Yorker Shake Shack virgin would perceive the concept on our home turf.

So I took my 20-year-old son to a preview party at the new Shake Shack on Monday night. A California boy raised on In-N-Out, my son worked at Fatburger for a summer and has mad respect for it and other local burger brands. But when he wants a burger, which is at least once a week, he hits In-N-Out.

In fact, he didn’t really see the point of trying another burger, especially because the prices at In-N-Out just can’t be beat. 

An In-N-Out Double Double costs less than $4, while a similarly sized double ShackBurger is priced just over $8.

My son, however, is a huge Mets fan (sorry Dodgers, but a New Yorker friend got to him first), and when I told him Shake Shack was coming to town, he jumped at the opportunity to taste the same burger served at his beloved team’s Citi Field stadium.

At the intimate preview party, with roughly 2 million of Shake Shack’s closest friends crammed into the stunning new restaurant, burgers were being passed by the trayful, and I’m not sure which he tried. He scarfed down a few tubs of crinkle-cut fries and sipped countless cups of mini milkshakes.

The result: It’s a good burger. It’s really good, in fact, with thicker beef patties. But if it’s more expensive than In-N-Out and Mom’s not buying, he said, he’ll stick with the tried and true.

Many luminaries of the LA restaurant world also attended the event.

Ellen Chen, co-founder of LA-based Mendocino Farms gourmet sandwich chain, predicted that Shake Shack will do well here, despite the cult followings of local brands.

“In-N-Out is a classic and will never go out of style, while Shake Shack provides burgers that take more of a chef-driven approach and provides diners with less of a fast-food feel,” Chen said. 

Russ Bendel, president and CEO of Irvine, Calif.-based The Habit Burger Grill, in an email gave Shake Shack a warm welcome.

“Shake Shack is another very well positioned, fast-casual, better-burger concept that will do well,” Bendel said. “Southern California is a big place with lots of people and home to many iconic better burger concepts. The Habit has been in business from 1969, and we are very proud of our roots in Southern California. We welcome them.”

Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer told the Los Angeles Times that this city is like “Broadway for burgers.” 

If he can make it here, he can make it anywhere. Good luck, Shake Shack. Break a leg.

Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected].
Follow her on Twitter: @livetodineout

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