Local burger joint Shaka Shack shakes up food scene

Four short blocks south of the Santa Monica College main campus, a culinary institution is gaining its sea legs. Shaka Shack has been open for only two and a half years and has managed to gain a following strong enough to garner a four and a half star rating on Yelp and a growing number of glowing reviews from publications. The restaurant is owned by Michael Anapol and his wife Kathie Gibboney who both reside in Topanga, nestled away in the Santa Monica Mountains. "I had a small idea, it just fell into my lap," said Anapol of his decision to open the restaurant.

For the west side native who grew up surfing just down the street, the decision was a no-brainer. "It became available on craigslist, and I put in a bid, next thing you know, I have a restaurant," he said.

"In all of Santa Monica this [area] has changed the slowest or the least," said Anapol. "They haven’t built it out of control yet."

The Business

The success of the food is no happy accident, since the menu was created by chef Lisa Stalvey who was a head chef at Spago on Sunset in the 80s and was named one of the Top 100 Chefs in America in 2006 and 2007 after opening Bambu in Malibu.

How did a small burger shop end up with a menu from a renowned chef? Easy. Stalvey is Anapol's ex-wife.

Divorced for 23 years, Stalvey and Anapol maintained a strong friendship and working relationship, even leading them to compete and nearly win short-lived cooking reality competition show "The Chopping Block."

Working with Anapol and Gibboney to form the menu, Stalvey said "it was like when we used to work together." One menu idea that didn't make it past the concept stage was a lamb burger, due to Gibboney's insistence to leave "Bambi" off the menu.

Another important part of the menu is for all of the food to be fresh, organic, and GMO-free. "Most restaurants are afraid to raise [the price] even five cents," said Stalvey. "We all knew it was going to be a little more expensive because unfortunately good food is more expensive."

Gibboney admitted she's considered skimping on quality to afford more customers before. "Now and then I thought, shouldn't we do a less expensive student break burger and have it not be the grass fed so that we could afford to drop the price," she said. "But my husband has said no, that’s not what we’re doing, we’re going to try to educate people and let them find something that’s better quality."

Stalvey was a part of the process for a few years, even getting advance press for the restaurant just from her involvement. However, she had to drop out of the project once she found a more lucrative business opportunity.

Anapol said of the situation, "It took so long to go through the process of opening up the restaurant, by the time we finally got close, she said I couldn’t afford her anymore, which is probably true."

"If there’s anything that’s different about Shaka Shack, it’s the absolute family commitment that Mike and Kathie have put in there," said Stalvey. "Even if they’ve been struggling or not, they still have a smile on their face and they're still serving great food."

Family and Community

Max Bell, a writer who also works as a waiter at Shaka Shack was a regular customer who just walked in one day and was offered a job. "When I’m here, I’m [like] their adopted son," said Bell. "These are the kindest people you can possibly work with."

Customers have often remarked being able to hear singing coming from the kitchen along with the laid back, old-school R&B, and surf music mix the restaurant plays. When I was there, you could hear the melodies of Corinne Bailey Rae's "Put Your Records On" echo the room minutes after the song has passed in rotation.

According to chef Jimme Morrison, whom the owners often joke with guests is the singer for The Doors, Anapol selects all the music played. "Some days he gets kudos, other days I wanna take him out back," joked Morrison. "But I’m not violent."

As they expand, Shaka Shack has met some growing pains, including some that have caused sounds not as jovial as singing to come out of the kitchen. Gibboney and Anapol both joked about the stresses that come in a relationship where your significant other is with you the entire day.

"We have no budget for advertising and marketing," said Gibboney. "It’s a struggle as far as being a small family business."

She and Anapol have taken it upon themselves to remember regular guests orders and personal lives, making sure they reach out to all of their guests. "We’re very pleased to be in the neighborhood," she said.

The restaurant's kitschy tiki theme with bold colors matches the bold personality of Gibboney, which, be advised, some Yelp reviewers have not been the kindest to.

"I really like to have a personal relationship with everyone that comes in here," said Gibboney. "We keep getting these delightful Yelp reviews from people who have put us at the top of the list with burgers in Santa Monica."

The Food

Their four and a half star rating on Yelp has placed them above such staples as Pono Burger, The Counter, Father's Office, and even Umami Burger. It has been featured in LA Weekly, Los Angeles Magazine, and have been hailed as much for their onion rings and vegetarian options as their burgers.

Chef Morrison has a recipe for his onion rings that he brings with him every restaurant since he first created it at the Rusty Scupper in Glendale. Created by a dislike of heavy breaded onion rings, Morrison's key ingredient is buttermilk to make the rings light and crispy "like a potato chip," keeping the sweet onion flavor rather than masking it like most other onion rings.

When it comes to the burger, Stalvey left the credit to Morrison, for knowing how to build a burger, who took over after she left Shaka Shack with its intact menu. Morrison in turn gave the credit to Stalvey, saying he didn't have to do anything with the menu.

"Most people put cheese on top," said Morrison. "That’s not the experience i wanted you to have. I want you to taste everything in the burger on the first fucking bite."

"When you put it all together, the sauce does this to that and that does this to this," said Morrison.

Their burgers are grass fed Angus beef, organic ground chicken, Alaskan salmon, or ground turkey. Vegetarians would be advised to check out the Lava Bean burger or the Maui Mushroom burger, made with wild rice, corn, and black bean and wild rice and portabella mushroom respectively. The Maui Mushroom can be vegan if ordered as a wrap, as all burgers are available to be. Morrison plans on possibly making the Lava Bean into a vegan option as well.

"When i chose food, it was because it’s a positive experience," said Morrison. "You can’t make good food pissed off."

Stalvey said of Shaka Shack after a recent book signing visit, "for me it’s about their love for what they’re doing. Anybody that goes in there and they’re not happy, they gotta go and do some drugs or something, because [their food is] so good."

Customers heaped on praise when approached, for both the food and the atmosphere.

"It’s good to know that not only are they good tasting delicious burgers, but they are actually quality ingredients that we don’t have to feel bad about," said Tsega Dinga, who was eating there with his two young daughters. "Especially for the kids."

Future SMC student Mario Correa grew up in a small town and is appreciative of the organic and local aspects of the food. "The meat is incredible, it’s not arrogant, it’s just well balanced," he said. "Nothing dominates, but everything is very present."

Steve Brenner was visiting with his son William from nearby.

"You feel like you’re at someone’s house, getting a home cooked meal," said Brenner. "You feel like they care about you."

Brenner echoed the sentiment of the owners and several customers, saying "I think if you have a good product and treat the people well, the people keep coming."