When Shake Shack opened its first South Korea location in 2016, Culinary Director Mark Rosati and his team did what food industry folks love to do—they packed in as many restaurant visits as they could while there.
“We discovered many variations of Korean fried chicken,” Rosati remembers. “All use the same technique of double frying the chicken, but each restaurant owner uses a unique sauce.”
After taste-testing numerous versions over several years, the Korean fried chicken coated with a gochujang glaze at a Seoul beer hall was the one that stood out, says Rosati. So when the team began R&D on a Shake Shack version, a gochujang glaze was a must-have component.
Working with their Shake Shack partners in Seoul, the team began developing a Korean-style Fried Chick’n sandwich about two years ago. It launched in the chain’s South Korean units in Oct. 2020, and, with a few tweaks, debuted in U.S. locations earlier this month.
Starting with the chicken
The foundation of the new sandwich is Shake Shack’s Chick’n Shack, which uses a fresh, boneless chicken breast slow-cooked sous-vide style in buttermilk to tenderize the meat. “We have a huge fan base for the Chick’n Shack, so we started there,” says Rosati. The chicken is breaded and fried to order at each location.
Next, the teams honed in on the gochujang glaze. The goal was to create a spicy-sweet glaze from scratch that could be scaled up. The final glaze is a blend of gochujang sauce, rice syrup, garlic and ginger. “We’re fanatical about flavors and colors and the chopped ginger and garlic add another dimension,” says Rosati. Toasted sesame seeds finish off the chicken prep.
In South Korea, the glazed fried chicken is served on the classic Shake Shack potato roll with a side of pickled white radish.
Tweaking the build for the American market
After running the sandwich in 14 South Korean Shake Shack locations with very positive customer feedback, Rosati said, “Why not bring it here?”
To begin, he tapped one of the chain’s co-packing partners to scale up the gochujang glaze recipe to supply a consistent product throughout the U.S. system.
Rosati felt that the sandwich needed something cool to contrast with the heat of the glaze, so instead of serving a side of pickled white radish, his team developed a white kimchi slaw to layer on top of the chicken. In keeping with Shake Shack’s mission to partner with small, local producers, the kimchi is made in an authentic style by a Portland, Ore. company with Korean owners, Choi's Kimchi. It’s a proprietary combo of fermented napa cabbage, daikon radish, carrots, garlic, Asian pear and green onion made expressly for Shake Shack.
“We get the kimchi in at each location and mix the slaw in house,” says Rosati.
The components create a sandwich that is “50% Shake Shack and 50% outside influence,” a balance he strives for when creating menu items. The kimchi, gochujang glaze and toasted sesame seeds are all new SKUs that were brought in for the limited-time offer.
Adapting a fine-dining mindset to fast casual
Originally part of Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality group of restaurants, “fine dining is ingrained in Shake Shack’s DNA,” says Rosati. That means a focus on cooking everything fresh in-house with chef-created recipes and techniques. But sometimes, “we have to take our chef egos out of the equation” to simplify processes in a fast-casual setting, he adds.
The biggest challenge with the new sandwich was finding an efficient way to glaze the fried chicken. “We originally poured it into one big pot but it was awkward. The operations team found a clever solution that was easier on team members,” says Rosati. Instead, it’s poured into smaller pans that fit onto each station. The prep crew uses tongs to dip the fried chicken into the glaze, then sprinkle on the sesame seeds.
The limited-time Korean-style Fried Chick’n sandwich sells for $7.19 and is part of a group of Korean-influenced items that will run until Apr. 5. Also available are Korean-style Gochujang Chick’n Bites ($5.19 for 6-piece and $7.19 for 10-piece) and Korean-style Gochujang Fries ($3.49), all of which cross-utilize ingredients. For the fries, the gochujang glaze is blended with mayonnaise to create a dippable sauce.
Although Shake Shack had been working on its sandwich for many months, the launch just happened to coincide with the huge explosion of fried chicken sandwiches on chain menus. “If you’re a fan of fried chicken, you’re living in a good time,” Rosati notes.