Photo: OK McCausland
Shyan Zakeri throws burger parties. As the co-founder of the Shy’s Burgers pop-up — which launched last year after Zakeri and his friend Alexander David began selling burgers that they lowered to friends in a bucket from a Williamsburg balcony — Zakeri has cooked at Maria Hernandez Park in Bushwick; a house party in Southampton; Flynn McGarry’s Gem wine bar; and the Dimes Square sushi spot Time. (Zakeri estimates he’s cooked close to 10,000 burgers in the 17 months since he started Shy’s.) But on a recent rainy Sunday morning, he tried something different: Shy’s Bazaar, where cash, Venmo, and other federally recognized forms of currency would not be accepted. Instead, people could trade their belongings for Zakeri’s smash burgers. “I just thought it was funny,” he says. “I get these ideas and kind of go with them.”
So a little before noon, a line had formed outside Cactus Store on Essex Street. One guy brought a faded but complete set of 1985 baseball cards; some girls with bedazzled teeth had an old issue of Playboy and a portable car-battery starter. Everyone showed their possessions to two appraisers (Nico Geyer and Ben Elias, Zakeri’s friends), who weighed the objects’ merits and calculated how many burgers they could offer in return. Almost nothing got rejected, although the favorite item of the day was a palm-size ceramic cheeseburger.
From the start, Shy’s Burgers has borne little resemblance to the comparatively straightforward pop-ups (Ha’s Đặc Biệt, Apollo Bagels) that have drawn big crowds around the city. It’s always felt more like an ad hoc cookout with friends, but its ongoing success is at least partly due to the fact that, as one regular explains, Zakeri “just happens to make a really good burger.”
He uses only grass-fed patties, but Zakeri didn’t want to re-create New York’s “beef-forward” burgers. Rather, he looked to diners like the Apple Pan and fast-food joints in L.A., where he grew up. At most events, the menu is the same: A No. 1 is modeled after an In-N-Out burger. A No. 2 is McDonald’s. “When I think of burgers, I think of texture and this interplay between salt and fat and acidity,” says Zakeri, who consumed books by J. Kenji López-Alt, Samin Nosrat, and hamburger authority George Motz during his earliest cooking days. “It’s a balanced food in a way.”
Zakeri, who is 25, says Shy’s transitioned from pandemic novelty to full-fledged business last fall. David moved back to L.A., making Zakeri the sole operator. He also picked up an old Range Rover for errands like buying more potato rolls from Costco and meat from Foster Sundry. “Until then,” he says, “we’d never put in additional money, only what we’d made from burgers.” (The Range Rover has since died a couple times, and Zakeri plans to replace it with a Ford.)
There’s enough momentum now that he is considering opening a brick-and-mortar. Until then, Shy’s remains a roving operation for a dedicated group of fans who learn about upcoming events as they’re posted to Instagram. “I don’t really see Shy’s Burgers as analogous to a lot of pop-ups that work in restaurant spaces because we don’t have seats,” Zakeri says. “We just have a line, there’s no bouncer, and anyone can come — I see it more as an open-invite house party.”