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Upscale Fast Food?

At the start of February, Shake Shack announced the arrival of its White Truffle Menu. This isn’t the first time the upscale burger chain has infused its food with hints of fine dining, having offered a similar menu built around black truffles in October 2021.

“Shaking” Things Up

The new menu features three items:

  • The White Truffle Burger – two patties on an artisan roll, topped with fontina cheese, arugula, tomato, crispy sweet onions, and white truffle sauce (starting at $8.99) 
  • The White Truffle ‘Shroom Burger – features a crisp-fried portobello mushroom filled with melted muenster and cheddar cheeses, on a toasted potato bun, topped with white truffle sauce ($8.99)
  • White Truffle Fries – Crinkle-cut Shake Shack fries, topped with shredded parmesan cheese, with a side of the white truffle sauce found on the two burgers (starting at $4.69)

On its website, Shake Shack emphasizes the rarity of white truffles, claiming that these “kings of the mushroom kingdom” sell for four times the price of black truffles. Though that figure is somewhat exaggerated, roughly $200 an ounce for something eminently perishable is no joke.

The items on Shake Shack’s menu are prepared with organic White Truffle Arbequina Oil and not actual white truffles. That being said, given that a standard ShackBurger (in New York City) starts at $6.89 and most other menu offerings will run you at least $8.50, that the oil is infused with actual truffles (not always a guarantee), it’s tough to refute Shake Shack’s claim that it’s offering “a fair shake for the real taste of a rare ingredient.” 

We’ve recently spoken about what has the potential to become a seismic shift in upscale dining. First, news of the impending closure of Copenhagen’s three-Michelin-star landmark, Noma, raised reasonable questions about the very top of the market, and the viability of menus that require a per-person commitment of $500 or (quite often) more.

In light of the Noma news, we considered the potential for the tier just below the very top, consisting of top-tier restaurants at which diners can enjoy inventive and delicious meals and excellent wine and cocktails at, if not “a bargain”, at least well-below-eye-watering prices.

This time, we’re examining luxury from a different perspective. Rather than consider how world-class restaurants are striving to expand appeal through greater approachability, we’re looking at how fast food concepts are trying to climb up the luxury ladder.

Affordable Luxury: Micro vs Macro

Since its 2004 founding, Shake Shack, though obviously different conceptually from star restaurateur Danny Meyer’s other brands – most prominently the iconic Manhattan trio of Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, and Eleven Madison Park – has been positioned as “a cut above” its counterparts in the fast food game. I mean, what other burger joints have ever offered half bottles of Opus One?

And, since expanding beyond New York in 2010, Shake Shack has not only put down roots across the globe to the tune of roughly 400 locations but has done so in some swanky locales. Stateside, Shake Shack can be found on the Las Vegas Strip, at Lincoln Road Mall on South Beach, and in Century City and West Hollywood (among other locations) in Los Angeles. Overseas, the company’s restaurants can be found in London, Mexico City, Hong Kong, Singapore, Yokohama, Japan, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Thus, the White Truffle Menu – like its aforementioned black truffle counterpart before it, or the elevated, white tablecloth, fine china, $20-per-person “Truffle Tabletasting menu experience offered at 10 locations across the country in late February/early March – is a no surprise.

That the food itself hasn’t drawn universal acclaim – some reviews are effusive, while others are downright lukewarm – is not ideal. More noteworthy and potentially fascinating, however, is the case study that this menu represents for fast food brands contemplating trying to carve out a niche in the “affordable luxury” space. 

No One Wants to Be McDonald’s – Until Earnings Season

Shake Shack isn’t the first brand to try to evolve beyond, if not outright shed the unflattering “fast food” label. Burger King has offered a line of upscale “Signature Crafted” burgers since 2017. Wendy has dipped her toe into these waters. And, of course, there’s McDonald’s, which first introduced a Premium lineup in 2003. 

A fair few “premium” items introduced over the years remain on menus under the golden arches. It is worth noting, however, that, some four years ago, McDonald’s did away with its “Signature Crafted” line, in favor of a revamped lineup of Quarter Pounders. There is mounting evidence that Shake Shack would do well to follow the lead of the top dog in its peer group.

Despite its own branding efforts and the genuine quality of its offerings, Shake Shack is, in fact, “fast food.” Once upon a time (the mid-2010s), when revenue at Shake Shake locations was, on average, doubling those of McDonald’s, that label, though still not “welcome”, was probably far more palatable. After all, what newcomer wouldn’t love roughing up the biggest kid on the playground? These days, those rosy reports look like relics of a bygone era. 

Collateral or Wisdom?

Unfortunately, in the absence of a truly gargantuan scale, Shake Shake is learning that, in the fast food game, trying to thread the needle of affordability, quality, and prestige really doesn’t pay. What comes next in light of that uncomfortable truth? That, frankly, remains to be seen. 

There is, however, a segment of the market for whom Shake Shack’s trial balloons could pay dividends.

That fast-casual menus have evolved in recent years to include ingredients and dishes of greater quality, sophistication, and cultural diversity will surprise no one. These establishments, particularly those operating under independent ownership or representing parts of very small restaurant groups, walk an even finer line between being rewarded for their inventiveness elevating the cuisine of their area and dooming themselves with the purchase of pricier, high-quality ingredients that ultimately go un-ordered.

Perhaps more than a fast food concept like Shake Shake, high-quality fast casuals like Omaha’s Blatt Beer & Table, with its truffle mac & cheese and premium burgers, and The Pub, which brings genuine top-tier London pub fare, like Scotch eggs, award-winning fish and chips and the fantastic six-ounce Queen’s filet, to eight locations throughout the Midwest, the South and Florida who’ve both identified the emerging (no pun intended) trend toward affordable luxury and are utilizing the tools like F&B Insights to intelligently monetize their sales data, strengthen relationships with their suppliers and improve profit margins will be particularly well-positioned to carve out niches of their own.

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