SINGAPORE: Sitting in its first Singapore outlet at Changi Airport, it is hard to imagine that just 15 years ago, Shake Shack was a hot dog stand in Manhattan’s Madison Square Park.
On Wednesday (Apr 17), the 180-seater restaurant joined more than 100 F&B outlets as tenants of Jewel Changi Airport, an award-winning S$1.7 billion lifestyle complex built as an extension of the world's best airport.
The brand plans to open 10 outlets in Singapore in the next five years. Next month, there will be a Shake Shack outlet in Manila and by July, Shake Shack hopes to launch its 100th licensed outlet.
How did Shake Shack evolve from a humble street food cart to a titan in the world of burgers and milkshakes? The American brand has become so popular that those without a Shake Shack at home have been known to plan their travel itineraries around a visit to one of its restaurants.
“I think Shake Shack’s had so much of the success it’s had because it was born from a truly authentic place,” its head of international expansion Michael Kark told CNA on Tuesday.
“So many brands in today’s world come out of a boardroom setting. Shake Shack was nothing like that at all. It was born out of a park in New York City with the goal of trying to help elevate a park that had become really run down and kind of a place you would walk around rather than through.
“When I think today about what our fans around the world connect with about Shake Shack, so much of it is really that. Shake Shack has incredible soul.”
In a way, Shake Shack is coming full circle with its Jewel outlet. Some leafy foliage from the Shiseido Forest Valley peeks into its alfresco dining terrace.
You cannot see much of it, but you can hear the whooshing sound of the HSBC Rain Vortex, the world’s biggest indoor waterfall just a few steps away. It is an elevated version of the original Shake Shack dining experience in New York.
“I think what makes this location so special, with all the beautiful greenery and the way that you can peek out on to the fountain, reminds me a lot of sitting back in Madison Square Garden, in the middle of the trees, in the middle of summertime enjoying a ShackBurger and a beer,” said Mr Kark.
But there is one caveat - this is not quite the famed streetside experience that Shake Shack has been known for. After six years researching the market, Mr Kark realised “streetside” takes on a whole different meaning in Singapore.
“Back in the early days of Shake Shack, all our outlets were on the street because there were not many malls in New York. In fact, today, we only have two mall outlets in the city. Malls are not really a piece of Manhattan culture," he said.
"The high street means something different in Singapore than it does for us back home. It means something like this amazing project, Jewel," Mr Kark added.
“But then we went to places like Dubai, where we opened our first international outlet, and realised how important malls were ... For example, after spending some time in Singapore, you realise that you can be walking on the street and be like, ‘Where is everyone?’. Then you go one level down, to the MRT station, and everyone’s there.
DOING BUSINESS IN THE GARDEN CITY
Ten outlets in a small market like Singapore may not sound like an easy feat, but it is certainly not a pipe dream. Mr Kark, who first started working in the project in 2013, said Singapore “has been a really refreshing market”.
“In a lot of countries, you will find that things are not as well-defined. In Singapore, however, the legislation is very clear; this is what you can bring in, this is what you can’t, this is the way that you go about doing it, this is what can be localised, this is what needs to be imported. In a lot of countries, there’s a lot of grey. You can ask two different people and get two very different answers,” he said.
“I think that’s always been the best part about Singapore. Everything works, everything’s very functional. It makes you feel very comfortable and lets you know that you’re doing things the right way,” he added.
Mr Kark hopes to draw people to the restaurant for the “authentic New York experience”, which is why Shake Shack has no firm plans to join up with food delivery apps in the near future.
The menu will also retain 90 per cent of the “core menu that’s the exact New York experience that we want to bring people through”, he said, using meat from the US and buns brought in from South Korea.
But there are also a handful of shout-outs to the brand’s new home.
On the second floor of the restaurant is a large mural featuring the Jewel site by local illustrators 8EyedSpud.
The menu also features a total of four items - all of them desserts - that were created for Singapore. The Pandan Shake is a vanilla frozen custard drink blended with pandan and coconut, and topped with gula melaka crumble.
The other three are local versions of Shake Shack’s signature frozen custard ice-cream, Concrete: Shake Attack is a chocolate custard mixed with brownie, fudge, chocolate chunks and chocolate sprinkles, It Takes Two To Mango is a vanilla custard with mango, sago pearls, shortbread and freeze-dried fruit, and Jewela Melaka is a vanilla custard with coconut salted caramel, chocolate chunks, shortbread and of course, gula melaka.
Not only are these “flavours Singaporeans know and loved from their childhood”, they are also the result of collaborations with popular local businesses, according to Mr Kark. The brownie in Shark Attack is sourced from Plain Vanilla Bakery and the chocolate chunks from homegrown chocolatier Lemuel. One of the Shack’s shakes will also feature coffee extract from Common Man Coffee Roasters.
“We make amazing frozen custard, but we’re not necessarily bakers and we don’t necessarily make the best brownie or have the best coffee extract, so we go to people like Common Man and find the most interesting and local versions of products that we want to incorporate into our food and mix them together.
“So we have this yin and yang balance, if you will, of what’s New York and what’s local,” said Mr Kark.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story credited the mural to local illustrator Natalie Kwee as erroneously indicated in Shake Shack press materials. This has been corrected.