From a park art project to a global brand: 8 questions for Shake Shack CEO Randy Garutti

Shake Shack's CEO discusses his growing brand with Sean Czarnecki and explains how it plans to face looming challenges.

From a park art project to a global brand: 8 questions for Shake Shack CEO Randy Garutti

You started at Shake Shack from very humble beginnings. Does the brand still mean the same thing to you today?
It means way more. Shake Shack was born with one idea: to support an art project for a park that needed to raise money. It became a hot dog cart in 2001. None of us would’ve dreamed we’d open a thing called Shake Shack. We thought we’d support the park and sell a few hot dogs. The brand far exceeds the size of the actual company. We recently opened our third restaurant in Korea, and there were about 1,000 people there.

Few restaurant companies have ever been birthed out of New York City. But we were able to take the big brand of New York, the media, and the whole story and go way further than most brands ever get. The only thing we did by accident was create the next generation of burger joint.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about the American consumer?
They know a lot more than companies give them credit for. They require a lot more. You better be transparent. You better be quality, enjoyable, and easy to use.

In 2004, when this thing was born, Facebook came out, Twitter didn’t exist, and no one knew what an iPhone was. But that moment of infinite information was happening. People wanted to know more about where their food came from. They required more depth. They wanted to know the ethos they had is shared by the companies they do business with, because it says something about them.

We captured that in the humblest form of worldwide products: the hamburger. We just did it really well and better than what fast food had ruined over time.

In a world where we are all moving way too fast, with every bit of info at our fingertips, we want a place to come together with great friends for every occasion.

As you grow, how do you scale to meet demand while making sure you’re transparent and using the best ingredients?
There’s a sign on my wall that says, "The bigger we get, the smaller we have to act."

I recently toured 15 Shake Shacks in a week, a personal record. Each time I reminded the restaurant’s leaders and team members this is the only shack that matters — the one you’re in right now. You have to act as though this is the only Shake Shack in the world.

If we keep doing that, we’ll keep designing great restaurants, finding the best ingredients in every town, and the people and hospitality to bring that home. That’s a constant struggle. It’s easy to make big decisions for big companies, but it’s hard to make the decisions that seem small
and really matter.

Who drives this effort to localize the locations? What’s the process?
The core menu should be retained, but we should have fun. We should find the best bakers, coffee, and beers in each town — everyone wants to drink local. When we design, we find great artists in the neighborhood. We have them do some work for the shack.

We want to help people understand this is not some template we’re stamping out for the world. Each market represents its own challenges and opportunities so it tastes like Shake Shack, but feels as if it’s the community.

There is uncertainty around whether Shake Shack can maintain its level of buzz with each successive opening. How do you solve this saturation risk?
If you keep doing things the right way, the brand will continue to grow. I visit new Shacks and they’re busy, great restaurants that are having fun. You just got to stay focused and keep pushing great ideas.

You have a great brand message. What role does comms and marketing play?
It’s huge. They have to tell the story. The marketing job is to be deeply involved with the birth of great ideas in our company, especially on the menu innovation side, and really be the people that tell that story. Our biggest mission is standing for something good. Not perfect, because we’re not. We make mistakes every day. We’re trying every day to do good things.

As Shake Shack continues its growth trajectory, are you in the market for an agency to help out with that?
Not right now. From time to time, when we open in new markets, we team up with a local comms firm. Sometimes we continue to work with them, sometimes they’re just there for the launch. We’re always open to learning from people who know a neighborhood better than us. We have about 15 people in marketing, PR, comms, and graphic design.

Ever get tired of eating your own food?
Mostly, my kids want to go. I love our product, but I believe in balance. I don’t think anyone should eat a burger every day.

Photo credits: Chris Alfonzo (headshot); Edison Graff (location shot)

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