One of the most important rules of expansion might not be something operators learn on the job or in any kind of training. It might just be something most of them picked up long ago—usually in grade school during arts and crafts.
“It’s like when you trace things from a pattern and cut them out on construction paper,” says Randy Garutti, COO of New York City’s Shake Shack. “If you trace from the cut-outs you’ve made instead of from the original pattern, it starts looking sloppier and sloppier.” Soon the design gets distorted, and the reproduction starts to resemble the original less and less.
“All too often, restaurants start thinking they must improve their business model, their restaurant’s design, and their menu to be able to expand,” says David Scott Peters, founder of TheRestaurantExpert.com. “While change and improvement is critical to any business, the problem usually lies in changing so much that you change who you are.”
The lesson is especially true for small chains that want to maintain the concept’s culture as it expands to new locations. It’s also one that Shake Shack has taken to heart as it opens new units across the nation and world.
‘The Anti-Chain Chain’
Shake Shack didn't set out to become “the anti-chain,” but that's exactly how many people first got to know it when The New York Times dubbed it that in December 2009.
“We didn’t even set out to be a concept,” Garutti says.
When Shake Shack opened, it wasn’t even Shake Shack at all. It was just a hot dog stand that was part of a public art project designed to rejuvenate Madison Square Park.
“We set out to be a community magnet, and then, being who we are, we said, ‘What can we add to the dialogue on classic roadside stands from the 1950s and 1960s?’” Garutti says.
The stand disposed of the notion that fast food had to be precooked or even prepared quickly in favor of quality ingredients and customer experience. The lines for the hot dogs soon became so long that the city and Union Square Hospitality Group, which had operated the stand, decided to open a bigger facility in the same location in 2004.
“We keep looking at ways we can continue to do three main things: consistently deliver the highest quality, most delicious food; create a place where people love to come together in the neighborhood; and offer great value,” says David Swinghamer, Shake Shack’s CEO.