The area around Shake Shack's first Japanese outpost took on a festive atmosphere minutes before officially opening Friday morning in the nation's capital. CEO Randy Garutti and the store's crew clapped to a brass band playing "Proud Mary," stopping only to holler "We love you Tokyo!" Soon after, those hoping to be among the first to try the famous New York burger spot's food began a countdown — or at least the ones near the entrance, as the line snaked around the block past a tennis club.
When they hit zero, Garutti cut a green ribbon stretched across the front of the store and the first customers to the city's latest buzzed-about restaurant filed in as the band launched into "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah." By the 11 a.m. opening, several hundred people were in line on the brisk autumn day, with a few near the very front saying they had camped out overnight. Near noon, Shake Shack workers estimated the wait time to the register was three hours at the store, located in Meiji-Jingu Gaien in the city's Aoyama district.
"I can't believe it," Garutti said in a small question-and-answer session. "I woke up this morning and said to myself ‘I wonder if anyone will be there.'"
An hour before opening, the line was already a hundred people deep
East Asia's first Shake Shack comes as the latest highlight in a year that has seen the burger chain continue to expand and appear on the New York Stock Exchange. Their foray into Tokyo, based on opening day, looks to be off to a healthy start. An hour before opening, the line was already a hundred people deep, with some businessmen working away on laptops while queued up.
One man, who didn't want to share his name, said he came from neighboring Saitama Prefecture. "I woke up at 5 a.m., because I wanted to be one of the first 100 people," he said, before showing off his prize, a t-shirt. "I had never heard of Shake Shack before, but I saw them mentioned on [local station] TV Tokyo, and wanted to try it."
The media exposure is only set to get bigger, as seemingly every news outlet and morning show in the capital attended the opening.
"It was nice! The beef was very high quality," he says after being asked how his meal tasted.
The Japanese burger landscape has long been one of extremes. Cheap fast-food style restaurants such as McDonald's towered over the scene for a long time, but in the last decade gourmet burger shops have been booming.
Shake Shack seems to be eyeing something between the two, trying to bring a fast-casual style restaurant to the country's burger community (Garutti stressed Shake Shack wasn't "fast food" during his media session). Helping the company out are the ongoing struggles of McDonald's Japan, which continues to suffer after several food scandals damaged the chain's reputation in recent years. Not to mention Shack has arrived at a time when all things New York are seen as especially cool, to the point where famous donut store Mister Donut sold a "Brooklyn Jar" earlier this year.
The menu at Tokyo's Shake Shack features all the staples customers have come to expect, down to the custard calendar. A few Japan-exclusives have been worked into the mix, highlighted by special concretes featuring ingredients sourced from Japanese chocolate maker Minimal and another New York-born creation attracting long lines in the city, Dominique Ansel Bakery Tokyo. The prices are in the same range as at the store's Madison Square Park location, but are a dollar or two higher on average.
"I think Japan is ready for a new type of hamburger," Garutti said. Shake Shack, however, won't be alone in the race to fill the country's fast-casual space. Recently, Japanese hamburger stores Mos Burger and Freshness Burger, traditionally associated with the fast-food side of the industry, have launched more upscale venues Mos Classic and Crown House, respectively. These new spots feature classier interiors and prices hovering in the same area as those on Shake Shack's menu.
"I think Japan is ready for a new type of hamburger." — Randy Garutti
Working in the New York franchise's favor, though, is reputation. "I went to New York two years ago, and my taxi driver pointed out Shake Shack and said I should try it," said a woman named Hatsuai (she didn't want to share her last name) while she waited for her order. "It was delicious, and I was so excited when they announced they'd be coming here."
Also helping out is the Tokyo store's location and design. "Just like the first Shake Shack, this one is in a public park," Garutti said. Despite being slightly out of the way from a major street, Japan's first Shake Shack rests on the famous Icho Namiki, famous for the gingko trees that turn a vibrant yellow in late autumn. It makes for a picturesque spot to enjoy a ShackBurger.... or play a game of table tennis on the store's patio. Several visitors did just that Friday, with news cameras hovering right near them.
Large lines lasted into the early evening, which is a common sight for any new buzzed-about restaurant in Tokyo. The trick, however, is keeping the hype going a month or two after opening. As suit-clad workers from the nearby business district made their way down the street around 12:30, they stopped to gawk at the scene in front of Shake Shack. "Wow, that looks incredible," they said before asking someone what exactly is going on.