With Stanford students finally heading back to campus after a long 18 months, food might not be the highest priority, compared to seeing friends again and settling into a new normal. But sooner or later, hunger always wins out, and there’s a great eating experience just off campus waiting for their return.
In 2018, the fast casual chain Shake Shack opened its first Bay Area location in the Stanford Shopping Center. It was a big deal at the time, but three years and one global pandemic later, is the restaurant still worth it? (Spoiler: Yes, it is.)
On a sunny, Friday afternoon in July 2021, I visited the Palo Alto Shake Shack and immediately noticed COVID-19 measures still in effect, despite California’s recent decision to return to full restaurant capacities. The employees kept stray condiment drops and straw wrappers off the tables and in the trash. The tables were wiped down between customers, and the floors and bathrooms were swept clean.
In addition, several self-ordering kiosks at the front made the restaurant experience even smoother. Patrons could create customized meal in record time, without interacting with employees. I’m not sure how long these measures will stay in place, but I appreciated the option to order my meal virtually.
Even though the restaurant was busy, my 10-minute wait was nothing compared to the long lines for which Shake Shack is known. After I placed my order of one plain Shackburger, a side of fries and a classic vanilla shake, I sat down at a table, my waiting accompanied by classic rock, plus three TVs showing a poker tournament and reruns of classic Disney shows,Gravity Falls and Phineas and Ferb (two of the greatest cartoons ever, absolutely worth watching).
I am happy to report that the food was pretty good. The Shackburger normally comes with lettuce, tomato, ShackSauce, American cheese and a beef burger patty — but I customized mine into a plain cheeseburger, better matching my basic tastes. The burger was approximately the size of an In-N-Out burger, but with a much thicker patty, and was smaller than I expected. The patty was the best part, but the bun was too small and ended up sliding off. To the bun’s credit, though, it didn’t get soggy or fall apart. The fries had a distinctive accordion-esque shape and arrived hot and crispy. Although I’m not really a big shake person, it was good as well. The shake was ice-cream-like and far too thick for the straw, so I needed to ask for a spoon.
By the time I had finished my shake, the dinner crowd was starting to come in. The restaurant was filling up quickly, but the counter spots were still unavailable over COVID-19 safety concerns. I wondered how large the pre-pandemic dinner crowds had been, and if the restaurant had been forced to close like so many other establishments. With these questions in mind, I managed to snag the manager, Nancy Rodriguez, to ask her how the Shake Shack had weathered the past year.
To my surprise, Rodriguez told me that the Shack had stayed open throughout the pandemic. Although business had inevitably slowed — they had lost the 1.5-2-hour-long lines typical before COVID-19 — they were never forced to close their doors.
“We were able to provide work for a lot of families,” Rodriguez said. “I’m very grateful for that.”
Aside from the signature Shackburger, the Golden State Burger, a regionally inspired double cheeseburger with a garlic aioli, is also quite popular among the loyal Californian audience, according to Rodriguez. But her personal favorite is the Chicken Sandwich.
I finished talking with Rodriguez, thanked her for her time and headed out. During my short conversation, the table I’d eaten at had been scrubbed down and was already hosting another group of customers.