Since the first Shake Shack opened in 2004, the high-end burger chain–which we take an in-depth look at in the latest issue of Fast Company–has done pretty much everything right, from its impeccably sourced food to its carefully designed stores to its well-managed expansion to its high-profile IPO earlier this year.
But there was one time they totally blew it. In 2013, Shake Shack decided to upgrade its french fries, which had previously been of the frozen, crinkle-cut variety. The crinkle fries were popular–the best-selling item on the whole menu, in fact–but the previously frozen taters didn’t fit in with the chain’s natural-ingredient ethos, and CEO Randy Garutti decided to tinker. “Everything we stand for is freshness, quality, doing things the harder way,” he says. “We truly believed the product could be better.”
The solution, Garutti thought, was to introduce fries that were hand cut from fresh russet potatoes (the old ones were Yukon gold) and then double-fried, in the Belgian pomme frites style, which resulted in a higher-end product more in keeping with Shake Shack’s other premium offerings. But making them from scratch was far more laborious, and to pull it off they had to make changes to Shack kitchens and retrain staff–as well as deal with some unanticipated logistical issues. “You can be the greatest potato cutter in the universe,” says Garutti, “but if the potatoes come in the door and they sat in a truck in the freezing cold, they’re ruined. You cannot get them to be good.”
Garutti was convinced the extra effort was worth it. After all, the new fries would just plain taste better. Wouldn’t they? “People hated them,” Garutti says. “I think we made the best fresh-cut fry ever made. But a lot of people said, ‘Hey, I love you guys, love what you’re trying to do here, but I just miss the crinkle-cut.’” At first, Garutti wasn’t worried. People often dislike change, and he figured they’d come around eventually. But early indications were worrisome: After Shake Shack ditched the crinkle-cuts, fry sales dropped noticeably. “For months it was like, ‘Yeah, but they’ll figure out that this is better.’”
A key turning point came when Garutti took off his CEO hat one day and had a chance to approach his product as an actual customer. “I was having a party for my son’s Little League team, last day of the season, and I was ordering a big order for takeout,” he says. “And I chose not to order fries. I said to myself, ‘If I’m knowing that the fries are not going to be good by the time they get there, what must other people be thinking?’ That was the first time I allowed myself to say, ‘Hold on, what’s really happening here?’” Garutti’s children were also a voice in his ear. “My kids would be like, ‘Dad, I like the old fries better.’ When you’re getting that vote, you’re like, ‘Why are we fighting? It’s way harder to do fresh-cut fries. Crazy hard.’” At the same time, the staff was listening to Shack fans’ ongoing reactions, which remained negative. “It took six months before I would admit that I made a mistake,” Garutti says.
Finally he caved, and last fall the crinkle fries came back. “We didn’t fully appreciate the simple, tactile pleasure and the emotional attachment our fans have to the crispiness, the ridges and pure joy that these fries bring to guests of all ages,” Garutti wrote on Shake Shack’s website when he announced the change. “It’s humbling to know that so many people care so deeply about our menu.”
Though the fries tasted the same, the new crinkle-cuts actually weren’t exactly the same product. Garutti used the crinkle reintroduction to work with the manufacturer to remove artificial ingredients and preservatives. “This fry is still frozen, but it has none of that stuff that frozen fries have,” he now says. “We got to the place we wanted to be in a roundabout way, and gave people back what they want. That was the ultimate win.”
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