By Sara Butler | Contributing Editor
New trendy burger joint takes a team effort
In a sea of In-N-Outs and Five Guys, another burger chain in San Diego may seem like nothing special. Yet behind Shake Shack’s burger — and counter — there’s something a little different.
Shake Shack, the self-described “fast casual restaurant chain” that originated in New York City, has recently expanded west and opened up two San Diego locations, one in Mission Valley and the other at Westfield UTC in La Jolla.
The Mission Valley “Shack,” located at 675 Camino de la Reina; right off the Interstate 8 freeway, it’s nestled between Fashion Valley and Mission Valley shopping malls.
Aaron Tunney, the San Diego area director, oversees the operation of both locations.
The Los Angeles native moved to Downtown San Diego with the job in August 2017. When corporate asked if he would be willing to relocate, he jumped at the opportunity.
“I think I said yes before they even finished their sentence,” he said, laughing.
Though he is still acclimating to the area, Tunney said he already feels welcomed by the locals.
“People in San Diego, compared to what I was grew up in and around in L.A. … it’s night and day,” he said. “People aren’t pretentious, they’re not uptight, they’re just normal — they’re how people should be.”
People are the reason Tunney loves the restaurant industry. Turns out Tunney has been in the business for a while — since 1992, in fact. His dad owned six McDonalds restaurants in Los Angeles. Starting at age 10, Tunney and his brother worked in the stores, cleaning tables and bathrooms for $2.50 an hour.
Aside from work ethic and restaurant knowledge, Tunney said he learned his current management technique and the important parts of how to run a restaurant from his father.
“I looked at the way my dad was viewed in his restaurants by our employees and he was adored,” Tunney said. “He was that guy who would come in and all he cared about was talking with the employees and talking with the customers.”
This mentality is how Tunney approaches his management style at Shake Shack. He directs most of his accomplishments back to his team, starting with Mission Valley’s general manager, Kera Stebbins.
Stebbins, a Santee resident who has been working for Shake Shack and training in Los Angeles since July 2017, also attributes her success to the team she leads.
“I am so lucky to work with such great people on a daily basis,” Stebbins said. “We do treat each other like family! We not only take care of each other, but we like it; it’s what we do because it’s who we are.”
Chula Vista resident Ronnie Steele has been a team member since November 2017. He echoed both Tunney and Stebbins’s sentiments about the group of people behind the counter.
“[My favorite part] is the team that we have … they are so amazing,” Steele said, “We all treat each other like real family and we all work hard.”
Tunney noted that Shake Shack doesn’t treat customers any differently. In fact, they are never referred to as customers; rather, they are guests.
“We kind of feel like this is our second home, and when someone comes to your home, they’re a guest, and you want them to walk into your home and feel special,” Tunney said.
In the middle of Tunney’s interview, Steele broke out into song behind the counter when he found out it was a guest’s birthday. Tunney said that this is a common occurrence; he encourages the team to connect with the customers and not rush through the orders.
“Ronnie doesn’t know it’s their birthday, but he made an interaction — we call it ‘connecting the dots.’ And yes, that takes longer time to take that order, but the guest feels valued,” Tunney said. “They don’t feel like a number. It’s not robotic. That’s how we train [the team].”
Shake Shack’s slogan — Stand for Something Good — is integrated into everything the team and company does, according to Tunney.
“I think that [slogan] encompasses what we use in our food, how we make the food, how we treat our employees and how they treat the guests,” he said.
As far as food goes, one of their most popular items on the menu is the ShackBurger, which is made with a proprietary blend of Angus Beef, served on a Martin’s brand potato roll, and offered with lettuce, tomato, pickle and onion.
Shake Shack is also known for its dessert, called a “concrete” — a frozen custard mixed with pie or other chunky items — which Tunney described as “The Rolls Royce of desserts.” Every location is paired with a local bakery for their concretes; the Mission Valley location gets their pie from Betty’s Pie Whole in Encinitas.
When guests arrive, all team members recommend an item; Stebbin’s favorite is a Flat-Top Dog topped with mustard, while Steele loves the Double SmokeShack.
“[The ‘SmokeShack’ is] different and the cherry pepper makes the sandwich,” Steele said.
Other noteworthy items on the menu include the ‘Shroom Burger, made with a fried portabello mushroom; in-house brewed ShackMeister Ale; and even ShackBurger dog biscuits for your canines.
Though Shake Shack has a lot of competition in San Diego, Tunney said that they already have a strong fan-base and even a cult-like following. Before they opened its first San Diego location, Tunney said he met a family who drove up from San Diego to the West Hollywood store that he was previously working at. He also noted that the first guest at the UTC location started waiting in line at 6:30 a.m. for the 11 a.m. opening.
The biggest difference between the UTC and Mission Valley locations? The lines.
“[The Mission Valley] store is like the hidden gem right now, because [guests] can get Shake Shack without waiting in that long of a line,” he said. “People like that. But as we continue to grow, this will not be the norm.”
In addition to Mission Valley and Westfield UTC, the restaurant chain also confirmed last month that a Little Italy location is in the works, slated to open late 2018, as well as a Del Mar spot projected for 2019. Tunney will also serve as the area director for both locations. And, Tunney said, their Southwest expansion will likely continue.
“We’re not done growing in San Diego,” he said.
For more information about Shake Shack Mission Valley, visit bit.ly/2oesHeG.
—Sara Butler is the editor of Uptown News. Reach her at email@example.com.