After keeping a prime downtown retail spot vacant for 12 years, Yale has recruited a popular hamburger chain to move in—and “serve the next course on New Haven’s renaissance menu.” Time to whip out the straws.
Shake Shack, a “roadside” burger mini-chain launched by New York restauranteur Danny Meyer and blessed with a cult following, is set to open an outpost at the long-vacant 986 Chapel St. spot this fall. The restaurant plans to move into the Yale-owned building “just as students return to campus” at the university in the fall, according to a company press release.
Yale spokesman Michael Morand said the company offers “distinctive, quality operations” that will add another dining destination to “a great food town.” The new restaurant promises “burgers, hot dogs, frozen custard, beer, wine and more.”
The deal represents a new chapter for a stretch of high-visibility real estate on the Green that has languished for decades.
The storefront, a stone’s throw from Yale’s Old Campus, has been abandoned since 1989, according to former landlord and developer Joel Schiavone. It once housed New Haven Restaurant, one of the jewels of Schiavone’s still successful overall remaking of downtown in the 1980s.
The 8,586 square-foot property, built in 1946, was home to Kaysey’s Restaurant in the 1970s. Schiavone bought it and turned it into the New Haven Restaurant. The space was then used by a local theater group for two years.
“And then it closed for good,” Schiavone said.
Yale bought it in 1999 as part of a collection of properties on Chapel and College that Schiavone had redeveloped in the 1980s, then lost to bankruptcy.
In a dozen years, Yale has failed to find a retail tenant for that property and the one next to it, 976 Chapel.
Morand called 986 Chapel “an odd spot.” He said Yale could have found someone to simply pay rent, but it was holding out for “a quality tenant.”
The storefront has maintained as a faceless presence of painted white wood for years. Morand said the building’s interior remains “safe and sound,” if “a little raw.”
“Yale has kept those two places vacant—it’s just a disgraceful job,” grumbled Schiavone in an interview Wednesday.
Discontent rippled through the community problem-solving site SeeClickFix, where Edward Anderson two years ago called on Bruce Alexander, Yale’s vice-president for New Haven and State Affairs, to fix up the property.
“C’mon Bruce, you’re a real estate whiz,” Anderson urged. “I know you and Yale can do better,—especially given the fact that this is such a great location. Renovate the hideous storefront into something respectable, and then I bet you’ll find a good tenant in a hurry.”
Alexander himself popped onto the site to announce three months ago that Yale had secured a tenant.
The tenant’s identity hit the Web through a Yale Daily News article last Friday announcing that Shake Shack had chosen New Haven over Cambridge, Mass. to make its Ivy League debut.
The news set the Twittersphere abuzz.
“Next course on New Haven renaissance menu: Shake Shack,” wrote Yale on Twitter.
“No way!” cried Alena Gribskov (@alenarg).
“I am not exaggerating when I say this just made my week,” rejoiced Ruchi Shrivastava (@ruchdabomb).
One Yale grad who left town lamented that arrival will come two years too late for her to grab a bite there.
Shake Shack, which began as a hot dog cart in 2001, scored its first permanent home in Madison Square Park in July 2004 and became an institution. It hit the charts as No. 37 of Zagat’s most popular New York City restaurants in 2010.
Shake Shack has now spread to six more locations in New York City, as well as to Miami Beach, Washington, D.C., the Saratoga Race Course in New York, Dubai, and Kuwait City. The nearest one sits in Westport, Conn.
Shake Shack is part of Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, which includes higher-end New York City restaurants and outposts at the The Museum of Modern Art, Citi Field, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
The group is known for “quality ingredients and an intense focus on customer service and hospitality,” said Morand.
Meyer, who attended Trinity College in Hartford, has several connections to the area, Morand said. He spoke at Yale and recorded a podcast last April, and recently stopped in for a visit with the chef at Heirloom at The Study At Yale.
“We are incredibly excited to establish roots in this food-loving, bustling city – which some even say is the birthplace of the hamburger,” said Meyer in a press release, referring to Louis’ Lunch.
“New Haven is staging a thrilling urban renaissance and we are excited for the opportunity to join this community as employers and citizens,” Meyer said.
Schiavone said he knows Union Square Hospitality Group as “a nice, sophisticated” outfit.
Tony Bialecki, the city’s deputy director of economic development, welcomed Shake Shack to town.
“For a property that’s in the prime location, it’s a shame that it’s been vacant for the past 12 to 13 years, but I think with the influx of new businesses downtown, that this is a great addition,” he said.
He called Shake Shack “a unique restaurant type—it’s not necessarily taking away from anything else.” It coincides with an effort to revive that block, he said—next door, the storied bar Richter’s Café is slated to reopen this spring, and around the corner, an effort is under way to reopen the restaurant space at the former Taft Hotel.
The burgers will come in time for the December expansion of Yale University Art Gallery up Chapel Street, Morand added.
Shake Shack “has had a great cult following” that should attract folks not just from New Haven but from the surrounding area, Bialecki reckoned.
Passersby were less familiar.
“Shake shack? Is that what this is right here?” asked one woman, gesturing across the street to Occupy New Haven.
“Burgers and shakes?” asked James Mastroianni, who was leaving the TD Bank with Carolyn Lizasuain.
“That’s old-fashioned food. I think that’s pretty cool.”
Dequanno Cooke, who hadn’t heard of Shake Shack, welcomed its arrival.
“Right here?” he asked. “I think it’ll be great.”
“If you pay attention to downtown,” he noted, “there is no place where they sell milkshakes” on the entire retail stretch of Chapel Street.
“It’d be beautiful” to be able to grab a shake downtown, he said.
Mig Halpine, spokesman for the Pickard Chilton architects, said the firm is “pleased to have a new business expand in downtown New Haven and to occupy a long-vacant storefront.”
The firm has sat for 10 years over an empty retail space, also owned by Yale, right next to the Shake Shack. That building at 976-980 Chapel was the original home of Hamilton & Co., a small department store headquartered in New Haven for 50 years, Halpine said.
The building has been “empty forever,” Morand said.
Yale bought the property in 2000 and never found a first-floor tenant.
While the large space lies vacant, Yale has been letting its tenants use the windows for advertising displays.
On Wednesday, Carin Keane and Marianne Scandone of University Properties stepped inside the dark building, where Scandone was about to set up a new display in time for Sunday’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
After Shake Shack moves in, Keane said, “we’re hoping to bring in a fabulous retailer” to the abandoned space next door.