Inside Shake Shake Inc.

The corporation—a greedy, bureaucratic behemoth built on mysterious and morally questionable ventures . As a burger chain with over 100 sites worldwide, Shake Shack would appear to fit that description. But not so fast.

Last Friday, Shake Shack’s Regional Director of Operations Mike Iaia held a Q&A at their local Chestnut Hill location for high school journalists. In exchange for tasting new food items, Iaia fielded questions about anything relevant to the company.

Here are some interview highlights, edited for style and clarity. 

Origins
In 1985, fine-dining restaurants where very stuffy, very formal; a buttoned up waiter would hand you your meal and call you sir. And what our founder, Daniel Meyer, wanted to do was open up a restaurant that felt more like home. He really thought there was a lack of hospitality in the hospitality industry. So Danny opened this restaurant, Union Square Cafe in Manhattan that aimed to serve great food and make people feel great. When people started flocking to it, Danny opened up more and more fine dining.

Two of those restaurants were across the street from Madison Square Park, which was not the nicest park in the world. Finally, the park said we want to put a standing restaurant right in the middle of park. Danny won the bid. And he opened up the first Shake Shack, which is still around today.

Hiring
The most important thing is that we hire the right people. It is not easy to do. In order for the Shake Shack in Chestnut Hill to feel like the one in Dubai, we have to have the same kind of person working there. And those people have to buy into the same philosophy.

We believe that a person is made of two sets of skills. The 49 percent set deals with the technical skills—can you come to work and cook a burger? Can you spin a shake? The 51 deals with the emotional skills. Those are what we look for when we interview a person. And those include work ethic, empathy, self-awareness, curious intelligence—are you asking questions, are you interested in what is going on around you.

Many other companies use similar methods. Chipotle does the same things but calls it the 13 characteristics. Many other up-and-coming companies, such as Sweet Green, are coming to this philosophy because they realize that you are not going to succeed if people are not happy.

Menu items and local flavors
What’s different on every menu are the desserts. We go around to local bakeries and we try to find the most awesome local baker in the city. We take their most awesome treat and blend it in so that it is a nice connection with the community.

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Photo by Sam Ravina ’17.

We have a Director of Culinary, Mark Rosati. He has been with us since the beginning and was a chief at one of Danny’s fine dining restaurants. Mark and his team travel to the cities that we want to go to and eat.  They meet the local chefs. And they also might say, “This is best bakery, we are going to work with them.’” Or, “Wow, Texas needs something with this sausage, because that is legitimately Texas.” Very jealous of Mark.

What we wanted to do was take that burger and fry experience that everyone knows from McDonald’s or Wendy’s and we wanted to elevate it. We wanted to make it a little bit different and special and little bit more fun or whimsical. Hospitality is all about meeting the guest where they are, so we have to have something for everybody. It’s all about elevating the experience.

Employee compensation
We try to stay ahead of the curve. We want to make sure we are taking care of our people as much as we can.

Community Engagement
We want this to be a place where people come hang out after school, after games, to study on the weekends. While we do not exclusively prioritize young people, we want to bring Shake Shack to as many young people as possible.

We have a great management team that is really tuned into their community At the locations in Harvard Square, New Haven by Yale, University City in Philadelphia, we will do trivia nights because we know those are popular in those cities. We also do something called Shake Track and Field in certain neighborhoods or cities where people love to run. Folks will get together on the second Tuesday night of every month, go out for a run, and come back to Shake Shack for fries on us.

Biggest challenge
In the next five-to-ten years, we plan to open up about 450 Shake Shacks in the United States. The biggest challenge for us as we continue to grow is keeping the standards for hospitality as high as we had them in the beginning. There’s a lot of great burger places out there. We have to make sure we are your favorite. We want you to come and feel great hanging out, feel great talking to our team, feel great about the space, feel great about the music. It is a challenge every day to keep doing better.

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