Will The Next Social Movement Start at Shake Shack? An Analysis of the Accessibility of America’s Eating Places

In 2000, New York City started to reclaim public space in Madison Square park in Manhattan because it was in a state of despair. Danny Meyer, Trinity College graduate and restaurateur, decided to help redevelop the park through the creation of the Madison Square Park Conservancy. Randy Garutti, Meyer’s Director of operations established a hot dog cart that was run through one of Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG) operations. The hot dog cart was a great success as fans lined up daily for 3 years. One day, Danny Meyer decided to sit down and scribble on the back of a napkin the design for the hotdog stand, which was redeveloped into what we now know as Shake Shack. His design was a counterfeit from the American diner, even though they sold similar food. Meyer’s design was “not retro, not ‘50s music playing” but a place with “good people serving fresh food.” In 2004, the city started to take bids on the operation of Meyer’s design and in July 2004, Shake Shack established its first official kiosk.

Shake Shack was not actually meant to be a chain restaurant, according to Randy Garutti it was “designed for one purpose; to be a park of a Park and a community in New York,” Shake Shack already had one intended audience. Not only did Shake Shack have an intended audience, it grew up alongside the emergence of social media. It has benefited from ongoing advertising through their fans sharing real-time experiences with friends and family on social media platforms. This has also helped Shake Shack establish a renowned presence in the communities in the restaurants are built in. Meyer wanted to keep the trend of having a unique experience for customers going to a Shake Shack, so, according to Garutti, Shake Shack is designed specifically to each of its location. It creates signature milkshakes, and beverages based on the city in which it operates. This “fine casual” restaurant does, however, have a similar thread of the experience for its customers. The common thread that follows the  Shake Shack experience are hospitality, a standard menu of classic American food including their famous premium, sustainable ingredients like all-natural, hormone and antibiotic-free beef, and buzzers that will notify a customer when their food is ready.

Shake Shack has now grown to be the largest part of Meyer’s USHG portfolio. The company understands how to use social media and their digital presence. When explaining how they are capitalizing on their outsized brand awareness, they “believe that [their] press and media impressions and industry recognition are a testament to the strength of [the] brand.” In June 2014, Shake Shack ranked #10 on Restaurant Social Media Index’s top 250 restaurant brands. Through advertising and promoting their brand to the people of Manhattan, Shake Shack was able to have twice as much store revenue than McDonalds. But what not a lot of people understand is that this space was produced and controlled. For locals, unlike other American diners in the area,  it was branded as the best new restaurant 1.) be because it was opened in an accessible location, Madison Square Park and 2.) because it was advertised as a healthier burger.

Eating places and commercial establishments like Shake Shack reveal that private sites in American culture are diminishing because of their popularity. Although there is a movement popularizing dining in, beneath the surface of commercial eating places are trends of exclusionary acts. These chain restaurants, and the buildings that they are attached to, are not simply buildings but socially constructed sites. In the words of psychologist Kurt Lewin, “food habits do not occur in empty space.” Though policy has changed and made it illegal to refuse service to a person based on their race, the spatial decisions made concerning eating places have direct racial and class consequences. As eating places become more publicized, the administrative offices in the commercial establishments become city builders, making decisions on the cities spatial dynamics and zone regulators, determining which crowd has access to their restaurant. Hence, there is a causal relationship between the spatial distance of the chain restaurant and the social meaning of the establishment. Directly following these geographic decisions are public and private consequences. I will examine the commercialization of eating places by looking at the architectural design, intended consumer, and delivery/service of Shake Shack along with analyzing their social consequences.

Looking Back at the History of Eating Places

Eating places can be defined as a place where a person consumes food. This includes bistros, cafes, diners, restaurants, lunchrooms and dining rooms. These spaces are often not just places for food consumption for certain groups of people, which tends to complicate their uses. The eating situation plays an important part in life because it creates a “feeling of group belongingness” when people eat together. Outside of food consumption, they are considered places for ideas, fellowship and business. The history of eating places tends to be extremely complicated as it has drastically changed in the past couple of centuries. There has been a major shift from eating places being located in the private sphere to the public sphere. With eating places moving to the public realm, commercial establishments of chain restaurants started to form as well. So, on top of the move to the public sphere, commercial establishments began to make a profit on something natural, people’s cravings and hunger.

Though eating places are looked at as a “public good” because many social movements have started there, they actually fall into the gray area of the black and white public vs. private space. They can be both a public and a private space; it’s all about perspective because space has no “intrinsic status as public or private.” Public spaces are considered to be a place where  people have “the right to gather and discuss, to interact with and debate one’s fellow citizens.” Eating places, with that definition in mind,  have a long history of being private spaces. In fact, take-out, to eat at home, as an abstract idea was widely accepted before dining-in at a restaurant was. Takeout dates back to Ancient Greece, and Rome where people had their food prepared at a thermopolium to have their food taken away to be eaten in the consolidated, private space of a home. Even during the Colonial Era, eating places were exclusively private. Typically the only place people would eat is their own home, in fact, they only dined away for special occasions such as church gatherings, weddings, and funerals. In today’s society, people who only dine out for special occasions are ones who are trying to save money and can’t afford it. So, eating places are a difficult to categorize because, on the one hand, they could be considered a public space because of the vast amounts of consumers, and their location being in “public spaces.” However, on the other hand, eating places outside of one’s home is only for those who can afford it making it “merely an open marketplace of potential transactions, monetary or otherwise, between isolated individuals.”

Eating places typically have an exclusionary atmosphere, in fact, it’s rooted in their history. In the Colonial Era, dining out at an eating place other than one’s home was considered to be exclusive to the wealthy. If we look at the start of the Civil Rights movement in the Post War Era in the United States, we see eating places still were exclusive. The Civil Rights movement started in a whites-only diner located in North Carolina. Four students who attended an all-black technical school protested, and declared they be able to order lunch. Though they were refused, they started the Sit-In Movement during the 1960s. In today’s society, there has been an establishment of a hierarchy of chain restaurants by their affordability, reinforcing the exclusivity of eating places. Whether it’s McDonalds targeting the working class and excluding the lower class, or the dining room within the private realm of one’s home, excluding the homeless. Eating places include consumers (both financial and ecological) and exclude loiterers.

Since Shake Shack falls into this gray area of a public and private space as an eating place we could consider it to be a multi-public model of public space, which is a model that acknowledges there is social difference and exclusion. It was publicized through the commercialization and popularization of dining in through social media. For example, even if a person is simply ordering a meal to-go and may think they’re in the private space of a chain restaurant, because of Shake Shack’s social media presence and its use in their advertising, that person will end up on another customers SnapChat, Instagram, Facebook, etc. Though this may seem like a natural process or normal instance, eating places are a social construct, not something natural, but a produced space. So, it is in Shake Shack’s intention to publicize their private space. On another note, even though the restaurant seems like a public space for public use, as mentioned before, it’s only a public space for consumers. Therefore, the likelihood of a social movement starting at an eating place is extremely low. because businesses are enforcing more private laws, for example, now a person cannot sit down for a meeting with someone at a starbucks because it is considered loitering.

Shake Shack

Architectural Design

Shake Shack’s design started on the back of a napkin and has since extended to what the locations look like today. One interesting point to analyze is the logo and font. Shake Shack’s logo encompasses its signature menu item, the ShackBurger, and the font has a simple and sleek look. Shake Shack’s logo colors are white, black, and lime green; the simplicity of it allows for a modern sensation to surface opposed to places such as historical diners. Its aesthetic is unique to Shake Shack, no other fast food or fine casual restaurant has been able to recreate and generate the same amount of popularity.

The inside look of a Shake Shack also intentionally has a clean and sleek look. Though each individual Shake Shack is constructed differently, one theme that remains architecturally is wrap-around steel beams, open kitchens, and the tables which are made from reclaimed bowling lanes. It’s owners wanted to “embody” the experience a person would get at the Madison Square Park Shake Shack, especially including “the line and the kiosk style” (so yes, even the line is socially constructed at Shake Shack’s). As an eating place it has become a less private space because of the popularity. As mentioned before, on the inside people are constantly advertising Shake Shack and crowded because the space doesn’t fit the vast amount of people that want their service.

Intended consumer

Going back to the history, during the 17th and 18th century, most Colonial Americans did not have a reason to dine in at commercial establishments. This was mainly because dining at taverns, inns, and boarding houses were seen as a “luxury for the wealthy.” The same happens today with eating places. For example, one difference between McDonalds and Shake Shack is their targeted audience. The two have the same American Menu, however, their quality of production, location, and price show us that they’re looking to sell to the upper and middle class, rather than the lower and working class.

It is not unknown that Shake Shack is significantly more expensive than other fast food restaurants. This is for two main reasons, one being that a person is paying for the quality of the food, and the other being that Shake Shack is actually not considered fast food but fine casual food. Shake Shack’s burger is more expensive to create, it’s considered a “premium burger” because it comes directly from raw material supplied by regional slaughterhouses and grinders. Shake Shack also charges separately for each item, there is not a deal on combos. The average price for a ShackBurger is $5.29, $2.99 for fries and $2.30 for a regular sized fountain drink. On top of having extensive pricing, Shake Shack has about 31 domestic locations that are only located in remote areas. Some of Shake Shacks locations include the upper east side of Manhattan, Yale, and downtown Los Angeles. Pricing and location choices like these allude to the fact that Shake Shack’s audience is limited to middle and upper class.


Along with having a similar interior design, the service or delivery of the food at Shake Shack remains consistent through the kiosk style dining. When you order food from Shake Shack you have the option to either order to-go or dine in, and you have the option to dodge the line by downloading the Shake Shack app. Once you have finished placing your order, you are given a buzzer that will notify you when you can pick up your food. The to-go process versus dine-in is not much different, the wait time is about the same. The biggest difference is carrier or tray a person is given to eat their food. Most people do not mind the wait because it gives them time to look over the new or limited edition menu items. There is a sense of speediness, however,  there is not drive through. This is partially because Meyer wanted to recreate the experience of the Madison Square Park Shake Shack of the line, and have a fine casual restaurant space.

So will the next social movement start at a Shake Shack? Probably not. Shake Shacks intended audience is not one who has been racially or socially oppressed (though there would be a good chance of a revolution if Starbucks became illegal). Shake Shack knows their target audience, they know the people who are already included and excluded. Most of their locations are in a remote area and have a rather closed off or inaccessible location for such an event. If there were to be a social movement at a Shake Shack, the first location would be the most likely because it was in a park. However, Madison Square Park has a  public-private partnership and is partially owned by major companies for part of the year. This same partnership is what allowed it to be restored from its time of despair in the early 2000s. Though we may think there is the potential to have a social movement start in a chain restaurant or a commercial establishment, because of the promotion through social media, geofilters, locations, etc. These businesses actually have strict policies concerning times the park location is considered a public space or a private space. These types of restrictions make it close to impossible to start such a movement. Sites like Shake Shack are socially constructed for consumers, not for people protesting. Unfortunately, you’ll have better luck starting a movement in a town square like the colonials than you would at a Shake Shack.



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