The Nostalgic Foods That Inspired Shake Shack's Menu

Shake Shack might be something of a New York City landmark, but it has origins firmly rooted in the Midwest. Founded by St. Louis-born chef and restaurateur Danny Meyer in 2001, the now-famous chain got its humble start as a little hot dog cart parked in Madison Square Park. And while today Madison Square Park's Shake Shack location might seem like just as much of a recognizable tourist attraction as the Flatiron Building or the park itself, it didn't start out that way.

In fact, when Meyer first decided to open up his new hot dog cart, Madison Square Park was in desperate need of a facelift, according to Investopedia. The new food vendor was part of the city's plan to rejuvenate the park's fading image. And that's exactly what it did. Soon, office workers on their meal breaks were lining up around the block to place their orders at the cart. But people weren't waiting in long lines simply to purchase the same New York-style pizza and hot dogs that can be found just about everywhere in the city. Meyer's cart was offering New Yorkers something a little different.

Shake Shack's beginnings as a hot dog stand

From the very beginning, Meyer took his inspiration from the foods of his hometown. In 2001, Meyer began selling Chicago-style hot dogs, which were something of a novelty in New York City. Shake Shack's CEO Randy Garutti told Bon Appetit that "it was Danny's Midwest upbringing" that really helped set the tone of the menu, even early on. "He grew up in St. Louis and always had in mind a good Chicago-style hot dog — which you never really see outside Chicago. And you certainly didn't back then," he explained.

By 2004, the hot dog stand had become a fixture of Madison Square Park. As the city continued its revitalization efforts, it put out a call for bids to open permanent structures in the park. Meyer won the bid, using a proposal he had scribbled down on the back of a napkin, according to Forbes. Meyer added that the original menu didn't take long at all for him to conceive. "I either didn't really think about it or it was just there," he told Bon Appetit, explaining that it "flowed from my mind to the pencil to the paper in about, literally, nine minutes."

Meyer envisioned opening a modern take on a classic roadside burger stall, right in the middle of Manhattan, with the same focus on quality and freshness he put into his other restaurants. And according to Investopedia, in July of 2004, the temporary cart reopened as a permanent fast food kiosk.

Meyer was inspired by foods from his Midwestern childhood

As the kiosk expanded, so did the menu, and Meyer continued to take his inspiration from nostalgic foods he remembered from his childhood growing up in the Midwest. "One of my favorite things to do, especially after going to a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game, was to stand in line for frozen custard," he recalled to Bon Appetit. Another treasured memory after which he modeled the Shake Shack experience was the trips he'd take to Fitz's root beer stand with his family. When he founded his new chain, he still had in mind the sentimental memories of that tried-and-true order of crinkle-cut fries, house-made sauce, and of course, a burger made with skill and love.

But Meyer didn't just want to replicate these beloved foods; he wanted to take the foods he fondly recollected from childhood and "make these things taste even better than we remember them." The original menu featured many of the same foods that other fast food restaurants served, including hot dogs, burgers, fries, and frozen custards, but with a focus on doing fast food better. "We wanted to look at everything fast food ruined over the last 60 years and just do it right," Garutti explained to Bon Appetit. Now, with over 360 Shake Shack locations operating worldwide and an annual revenue of $739.9 million as of 2021, per Zippia, it's probably safe to say they and their nostalgic Midwestern menu have accomplished that goal.