Lessons From Shake Shack’s Small-Business Strategy

Say what you want about the Motor City, but there’s no denying this: we have the burger game on lock. From Corktown to Greektown, mouthwatering burger joints pepper the city like park benches.

There’s Green Dot Stables, Mercury Burger & Bar and Wahlburgers.

Townhouse, Jolly Pumpkin and Gold Cash Gold.

Sliders, cheeseburgers and patty melts. Whatever you want, Detroit has you covered.

With so many established burger restaurants already saturating the market, it’s hard to understand why any burger franchise would choose Detroit as its next place to lay bricks.

Then again, there aren’t many places like Shake Shack.

In Spring 2017, Detroit will be the next major market to benefit from the rapid expansion of Shake Shack, a one-time New York City hot dog stand turned publically traded company with 100 locations across five continents.

Despite its explosive growth and presence on the New York Stock Exchange (SHAK), there’s a decent chance you’ve never heard of Shake Shack, let alone are aware of its cult-like following among Millennials. That’s because the restaurant has made a concerted effort to maintain a small-business mentality even as business has soared.

“We have a motto at Shake Shack,” said Edwin Bragg, VP of Marketing & Communications. “The bigger get we get, the smaller we need to act.”

While competitors like McDonald’s spend billions in advertising, Shake Shack does essentially no traditional marketing. Instead, it pours its efforts into a thriving social media machine. The fulcrum of its social media strategy, user-generated content, has helped the brand amass hundreds of thousands of followers and outgun rivals like Five Guys and Smashburger despite a significant size disadvantage.

“A central part of our marketing success is an active dialogue with our community, said Bragg. “Our fans help tell our story.”

Shake Shack’s social strategy is part of a top-down marketing approach that focuses on locality and authenticity. This credo filters down to the restaurant level, where each Shake Shack location exudes the charm of a mom-and-pop shop. This is not a coincidence.

Every Shake Shack location is purposefully designed with a unique aesthetic, such as life-size sliding puzzles in Chicago and an art installation in West Hollywood. The Detroit location will feature a patio that peers over Campus Martius, as well as a special menu consisting of items like Michigan craft beer and location-specific frozen custard concretes.

From developing culture to using social media, there are plenty of lessons for small businesses to glean from Shake Shack’s mostly organic rise, but none are more important than the need to protect your most important asset: the customer.

With every new opening, Shake Shack doubles down on the customer-first values that propelled its growth. Whether it’s using antibiotic-free beef or interacting with fans on social media, Shake Shack not only asks customers what they want, it listens. Even more importantly, it delivers.

It’s a simple philosophy that turned a single hot dog stand into a billion dollar company.

What can it do for your business?