By Leslie Albrecht
UPPER WEST SIDE — Just call her the line wrangler.
Johanna Luciano is Shake Shack's "hospitality champ," a position the popular burger joint created earlier this year specifically to deal with a side effect of the restaurant's success: epic lines.
At Shake Shack's Upper West Side location at West 77th Street and Columbus Avenue, lines have been known to curl around the corner and snake down 77th Street until they reach Amsterdam Avenue, said manager Lisa Goyette.
Luciano, a four-year Shake Shack veteran, employs a range of strategies to keep those hungry hordes happy and in line — literally and figuratively.
Sometimes it's handing out ice water, Arnold Palmers or free samples of frozen custard. Sometimes it's providing people with information: how long the wait is, copies of the menu. Sometimes it's answering questions about her favorite items on the Shake Shack menu — the Shack burger and black and white shake.
Luciano also makes sure the line moves in an orderly fashion around the corner down 77th Street instead of spilling unsafely onto Columbus Avenue.
"I make sure everything is fine and that they feel comfortable," Luciano said.
When she's not outside calming the queue, Luciano is inside with her eyes trained on the crowd. She scouts seats for customers in the bustling eatery and reminds them there's a downstairs seating area.
Shake Shack announced the new hospitality champ position at a Community Board 7 committee meeting Wednesday night, when the restaurant was seeking a renewal of its enclosed cafe permit.
The permit allows Shake Shack's cafe seating area to eat up a significant chunk of sidewalk real estate, which creates a bottleneck in front of the restaurant on busy days.
Years ago, Community Board 7 encouraged restaurants to expand onto the sidewalk with cafe seating as a way to make Upper West Side streets safer after dark, said George Zeppenfeldt-Cestero, chair of Community Board 7's Business & Consumer Issues committee.
But times have changed. Now the neighborhood is safer and more populated. Sidewalk space is scarcer than ever and cafe seating on the sidewalk has become more of a neighborhood nuisance than a benefit, Zeppenfeldt-Cestero said.
"It really limits the amount of space that’s available for pedestrians to use, particularly in high-volume areas such as where Shake Shack is," Zeppenfeldt-Cestero said. "If there's a baby carriage for two (on the sidewalk), there’s no way a pedestrian can walk by Shake Shack if there’s a line of individuals waiting to get in."
Zeppenfeldt-Cestero, a regular Shake Shack customer, lives a block from the restaurant, and he's witnessed the throng first-hand.
So has Shake Shack's chief operating officer, Randy Garutti. A father of two who lives a couple of blocks from Shake Shack's Upper West Side location, he said he's well aware that sidewalk space is at a premium in a neighborhood where tourists and double-wide strollers fight for every inch.
That's why line management is so important, he said. "We recognize our popularity and our impact on the neighborhood, and we do everything we can to minimize our impact," Garutti said.
Hence the "hospitality champ," or, as Garutti put it, the "hospitalitarian.'"
"It's someone to welcome you to Shake Shack, welcome you to the neighborhood, explain the menu and control the line when it's a long line and make it a more comfortable experience for you," Garutti said.
But he noted that lines have a positive side. Shake Shack once catered a wedding for a couple that met while standing in line, Garutti said.
"The line is part of the human experience of Shake Shack," Garutti said. "It's the one place that New Yorkers slow down and they meet people and they talk. It's part of being there and getting to know people."