From Manhattan hot dog cart to Leicester Square and UK expansion: The story behind upmarket burger restaurant Shake Shack

William Turvill
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Shake Shack recently launched a new UK flagship restaurant in Leicester Square (Source: Shake Shack)

Upmarket US burger company Shake Shack started as a modest hot dog cart in Madison Square Park in Manhattan in 2001. This month, it opened a new flagship UK store in Leicester Square, its fourth this side of the pond, with two more – in Victoria and Canary Wharf – to follow early next year.

Shake Shack is also present in the Middle East, Russia, Japan and Turkey. But chief executive Randy Garutti, who has been at the company since its humble inception, appears most excited about the UK.

“I feel more at home in London than anywhere else in the world except for New York,” he gushes. “I just love getting off the plane there. And I just feel that our cities share a kinship.”

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Shake Shack has grown steadily over the course of this century. The hot dog cart – which served food from the upmarket restaurants of co-founder Danny Meyer – was only replaced by a permanent kiosk, where the Shake Shack name was born, in 2004.

It then took another five years to open a second shack. That restaurant turned out to be even more popular than the first, and Shake Shack now has more than 100 outlets across the world.

“We never dreamed that we’d be in London or Japan or Tokyo,” Garutti tells City A.M. “It’s been amazing.”

How fast is Shake Shack, which listed on the New York Stock Exchange in early 2015, growing now? In the last year, Garutti estimates his company opened 20 restaurants in the US and a further 10 abroad. He says a similar growth is expected next year.

Shake Shack may be growing, but it’s a long way behind other burger outlets in terms of size. It’s no McDonald’s, which has more than 30,000 across the world, for instance.

“We’re not the company that’s going to start opening hundreds of restaurants at a time,” says Garutti. “We like to take our time, do it patiently, and really do what we do with extra thought and care, and do it right.”

Garutti believes Shake Shack has grown because of a change in food habits: people still like burgers, but they don’t like fast food as much.

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“We serve one of the great mass appeal products in the world: hamburgers, fries and shakes, right?” says Garutti. “What happened and why Shake Shack happened... 2004 was really the beginning of the time when people really wanted to know where their food was from. They wanted better ingredients, and they were finished with the generation that I grew up in, which was: eat fast food and eat quick, didn’t matter.”

He suggests it is no coincidence Shake Shack was born in the same year as Facebook in 2004, saying the company has grown up with the “social media generation”.

“We came up in this moment of: when I go do something, I’m gonna tell the whole world about it. So I all of a sudden have a pressure to make a really good choice in my life,” Garutti says. “And that causes people, who want to eat a hamburger – and know they shouldn’t do it every day – to want to do it right.”

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