Image credit: Jim Vondruska
Shake Shack, the “better burger” brand founded by Danny Meyer in New York now has an international presence across the globe and recently opened their fourth UK site.
Daniel Reynolds caught up with Shake Shack’s chief executive Randy Garutti to discuss international expansion and why medium-sized is sometimes better.
Shake Shack grew out of a hot dog cart in 2001 that was initially intended to support an art installation in Madison Square Park. Queues duly formed and the cart returned for two subsequent summers before a permanent location was secured inside the park and Shake Shack was officially born.
At this time Garutti was working for Union Square Hospitality Group, Meyer’s group of fine dining restaurants that is now separate to Shake Shack. Walking home one evening after work he came across what was to be Shake Shack’s second site, on the Upper West Side. “I showed Danny the site and he said ‘Do you want to stay in fine dining or make the move?’ I had worked in that side of the industry for my entire career so it was quite a transition. Saying that, I always knew I would be a business leader of a large company, so it made sense”.
I ask if he misses aspects of his previous role. “I miss it everyday, I loved my life up until the age of 33 when I was in restaurants day-in-day-out, but I think I was born to run a company like Shake Shack. If you told me back then we would be opening in Tokyo and Cardiff I’d have said you’re out of your mind man, holy cow!“
Shake Shack certainly takes a different approach to expansion in comparison to their competitors. In North America, they have sites in 12 states so hardly a nationwide brand. Outside of North America, its biggest presence can be found in the Middle East, followed by Russia, the UK and Turkey. Why open in Cardiff before other larger cities in the UK? “I would describe us as a medium sized operator and it just so happened the site in St David’s [shopping centre] came up at the right time. I’ve been asked many times why we’re moving so slowly but we’re not those guys who will open 50 in a city and spend the cash to achieve it”.
Garutti mentions “appropriate growth” and is keen to stress there are only seven sites in Manhattan. It is refreshing to hear an operator say that “there should not be an unlimited number of Shake Shack’s”. With recruitment an issue across the industry I ask whether it’s harder to attract staff to a fast casual operation. “It’s different but the simple answer is no. In fact we’ve seen a number of industry veterans wanting to try a different piece of the industry, just like diners are trading up or down, the same thing is happening with staff”.
Much has been said of the “burgerfication” of the London restaurant scene with news of another opening often met with a “not another one” reaction. I ask Garutti whether we are reaching a tipping point as the traditional fast food giants have been struggling in the US and more “better burger” brands are emerging. He is typically buoyant, arguing that the second largest food industry after burgers in the US, pizza, “only makes up less than half of the sales of burgers”. Coupled with the often talked about dining habits of millenials the appetite seems to be stronger than ever. “There will be fallout from weaker brands who think it’s an easy money maker but the brands who do it right will be the winners”.
Garutti has high praise for the London scene (identifying Gymkhana and The Palomar amongst others) and I ask if an international cuisine can be labelled as British. He likens it to that of New York, “some of our greatest restaurants aren’t American, however they’re using American ingredients”. There seems to be a genuine desire from Shake Shack to source locally where they can, partnering with St. JOHN and Paul A Young in London for their brownies and chocolate respectively. He goes on to say they even removed colouring preservatives and GMOs from their fries and buns in the US after finding they are banned in the UK. “We were forced to make them without and turns out they’re better”.
In September last year, Shake Shack Covent Garden teamed up with 2 Michelin-starred Sat Bains to serve up a limited edition burger. It’s a common occurrence in the US where previous collaborations have included Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park, Daniel Boulud and David Chang of Momofuku. The cynic may say it’s purely a PR stunt, however association with such respected figures only helps to elevate them above their competition.
Identifying the next big thing in the food world can be tricky and here at CODE HQ we’ve noticed the popularity of poke slowly spreading to New York from its west coast heartland. A raw fish salad not dissimilar to ceviche, Garutti knows it well from his time spent in Hawaii, but acknowledges it is “yet to explode on the east coast”. After trying poke at Seamore’s in SoHo, we hope it won’t be too long before it appears on London brunch menus. Whether it will displace avocado on toast from your Instagram feed is another matter.
In the meantime Shake Shack continue their steady expansion, having opened in Cardiff and Tokyo days before Christmas. Next on the horizon is Seoul, which Garutti explains is “the most exciting to date”. If Shake Shack continue their sensible approach to establishing an international brand then there’s no doubt they’ll continue to be one of the winners.
Covent Garden, New Oxford Street, Westfield Stratford and Cardiff.