Shake Shack attempts to win back customer interest

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Photo by Katherine Garvey.

One and a half years after Shake Shack first opened its doors on Chapel St., the burger joint is still working to establish its presence in New Haven.

The initial excitement associated with the opening has since died down, leaving Shake Shack searching for new ways to ensure its success in the volatile, college town environment. In that spirit, the restaurant’s management is planning several events this spring to attract new customers who will stay beyond purchasing food.

“What we need to be able to do is to maintain the level of interest and to make this a place that is valued, that people enjoy coming to,” said Thomas Lerou, assistant manager of the restaurant’s New Haven branch.

The international franchise’s New Haven opening was a heavily publicized event, with lines of excited new customers queuing outside the door. However, crowds in the branch have not matched those numbers since then, said Zach Koff, vice president of operations for Shake Shack.

Shake Shack’s central location in downtown New Haven places it at the intersection of three unique sectors of the city: the business district, the University and residential areas. The branch’s customers are a fairly even mix of these three demographics, Lerou said.

Students from University of New Haven, Gateway Community College and especially Yale make up a large portion of Shake Shack’s clientele, Koff said. Its close ties to Yale are reflected in the restaurant’s menu, which features flavors of concrete, the signature frozen custard, that include Boola Boola Blue and Skull & Cones.

Still, despite Shake Shack’s efforts, several students interviewed said the restaurant’s location several blocks from campus and its relatively expensive menu items were deterrents to frequenting the locale.

“It could definitely be cheaper,” said Molly Williams ’17. “But, at the same time, it gives off the impression that you are paying for slightly better than fast food quality.”

Many students, especially those coming to Yale from areas where Shake Shack does not have a presence, need an extra incentive to venture into the store. Students cited the distribution of free frozen custard coupons during finals week and other enticing offers of discounted food as particularly successful methods of attracting customers.

Another visible and popular venture is “Shake Shackapella,” the Monday night performances where Yale’s various a cappella groups serenade customers. Even reluctant Shake Shack customers are willing to go to the store to see their friends sing, said Laurel Lehman ’17, a member of Proof of the Pudding.

“It’s more than just dinner and a show, it’s good food, good music, and good friends,” Lehman said. “Who could ask for anything more?”

Lerou and the rest of the branch management hope to continue expanding their outreach to students and changing the way that students view the restaurant. They are striving for an aesthetic that encourages students to spend time in the store even when they are not eating, Lerou said.

Design touches such as the lounge-style seating and functional fireplace are intended to make the restaurant feel cozier, Koff said.

“I want to be more like a Starbucks where people hang out and chill, rather than feel rushed to go in and out,” Lerou said.

One initiative the restaurant is planning for the upcoming spring is a series of tastings of food and drinks from Shake Shack’s various vendors.

Possible tastings include locally brewed seasonal beers and spiked seltzer from the nearby town of Westport. Events such as these are also designed to appeal to a wider range of customers, including those beyond the restaurant’s university clientele, said Anna Monaco, manager of the New Haven Shake Shack.

“We are reliant on the student population, but we need to be able to insulate ourselves better,” Lerou said.

Shake Shack currently has over 40 locations worldwide.

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