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Is It Time to Shake Up Shake Shack?

How does the chain break in chain service?

Danny Meyer would not be happy with this story. The famed New York City restaurateur and Shake Shack founder has explained that his business strategy is “built on both good service, defined as the technical delivery of a product, and ‘enlightened hospitality,’ which is how the delivery of that product makes its recipient feel…‘You must make customers feel that you’re on their side.’”

But recently, I visited a Shake Shack in Terminal 4 at JFK, where both its technical delivery and its enlightenment were missing.

Order-taking, Out of Order

My flight was delayed by almost two hours. Searching for a snack that would be both tasty and satisfying, I spotted a Shake Shack. I’d never been to one, the Toffee Takeoff sounded delicious, and there were only two people waiting. Perfect!

But the cashier at the register was having trouble processing the orders for the two people ahead of me. Finally, it was my turn. I ordered a single Toffee Takeoff. He rang up a double. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I wanted a single.”

“We don’t have that,” he said. “Only one size.”

“It’s on the board,” I said. He handed me a menu, clearly not believing me.

“Here it is,” I said, and pointed.

“Oh,” he said, looking unhappy. He asked a colleague how to ring it up. She told him, and he rang up the correct item, but then had to ask someone else to void the original order. While we waited, I watched the line growing behind me, and the staff members standing around because they couldn’t fill as-yet-unprocessed orders.

A Transactional Analysis

I yearned for reinforcements at the register, but no one behind the counter seemed to notice. Finally, the old order was voided. “$5.10,” he said.

“I’ve got the dime,” I said, and gave him $20.10. The change came up $14.55. “Oh,” I said. “You forgot the tax?”

The cashier didn’t acknowledge the incremental mistake, just handed me my change and receipt. I knew he needed my name for the order, and prompted him.

“Oh,” he said, sounding disconsolate. “What’s your name?” He turned again to the first worker who had helped him. “I don’t do drinks — you have to ask her!” she said, pointing to the woman at the drinks and dessert station. He looked even unhappier, but went over to her, and tried to explain quietly. “Who, he?” she asked. He pointed to me; I smiled and waved. “Oh, she!” she said, and we nodded at each other pleasantly.

Just then, a worker carried a completed order to the counter. “Wayne?” she called. “Wayne?” After a minute, she put the order on a holding shelf. A waiting customer eyed the woman and the bag, but he wasn’t Wayne. The worker had a bright idea. She asked the befuddled cashier to buzz the code on “Wayne’s” buzzer. A buzzer buzzed, and the same waiting customer stepped up to take the bag. “Wayne?” she said again. “It’s Ryan,” he said. “Ryan. I told him three times.

Underserved Is Undeserved

By the time I received my Toffee Takeoff, two other employees had started their shifts at the register, the production system was up to speed, and people were being served quickly. I enjoyed my sweet, rich dessert and watched other customers happily downing burgers and fries.

Even travelers are willing to wait a few extra minutes for higher-quality fast food, and Shake Shack has that handled. Every employee other than the novice at the register seemed both competent and pleasant. But no one monitored the line or provided supervision and coaching for the not-yet-competent staffer.

It only takes one broken link in the chain to bottleneck an operation — or one uncomfortable, unskillful person to put a deep dent in enlightened hospitality.

I assume the Shake Shack system eventually sorts out any employee who doesn’t fit in. But I wonder how the inept cashier got hired in the first place, and whether the rest of the team had already begun agitating for his improvement or removal.

Mr. Meyer, if you’d like to discuss applicant screening, onboarding, or speedy performance intervention, I’d be happy to oblige…

Onward and upward,


Just a couple of hours after this post went live on social media, I received an absolutely lovely email from Zach Koff, COO of Shake Shack. The man knows how to craft an apology, with warmth, humility, and a touch of humor.

Exactly as one would wish, he acknowledged the problem, committed to appropriate follow-up, and encouraged me to give them another chance with both words and a coupon. Textbook but better. If only the leadership of United Airlines had responded to their recent service debacle a fraction as well!

In this week’s review of the reopened Union Square Café, another Danny Meyer property, Pete Wells, the New York Times restaurant critic, noted that an “empathetic attunement to disturbances in the Force defines the Meyer brand of hospitality.” Mr. Koff’s follow-up was completely on-brand and on-mission, and I will definitely give the chain another shot.

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