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Michael McGarry, who has been Shake Shack’s vice president of brand marketing for the past three years, says a big part of its outsized presence has to do with the fact that it presents itself as more than just a restaurant.

Shake Shack VP of brand marketing Michael McGarry emphasizes experience over food

A fine-dining heritage and knowledge of its customer base helps the restaurant chain resonate with its audience

Shake Shack has pretty much always punched above its weight. Starting as a hot dog cart in New York City’s Madison Square Park in 2001, it boldly went public in early 2015 with just 63 locations in what at the time was nonetheless one of the biggest initial public offerings in restaurant history.

Since then, the chain has enjoyed national attention, although it remains relatively small with just 518 restaurants globally as of the end of 2023. That’s due in part to its headquarters in New York City, where much of the nation’s media is based, and to the fact that, before the pandemic, at least, it operated mostly in vibrant well-trafficked city centers.

But Michael McGarry, who has been the chain’s vice president of brand marketing for the past three years, says a big part of its outsized presence has to do with the fact that it presents itself as more than just a restaurant.

“We are a restaurant brand, but more so than that we are an experience brand,” he said. 

“We focus on creating uplifting experiences in a category where others might offer a straight-on-the-nose promotion. We often think, how can we make this a little bit more of an experience for people?”

Most recently Shake Shack did that with the Academy Awards, when it promised guests either a free SmokeShack burger or a Chicken Shack sandwich (with a purchase worth $10 or more via the chain’s app or website, or via a kiosk in a restaurant), depending on how long the ceremony ran: If it was longer than three hours and 31 minutes they’d get the sandwich; otherwise, they’d get the burger. The offer was redeemable for a week after the awards.

“The notion was … let’s have some fun with a topical moment,” he said. Making the actual free item contingent on the length of the awards made guests more engaged, he added. 

“Rather than just saying, ‘Hey, we’ll give you a free SmokeShack … let’s try and turn this into a little bit of a moment.’ That has proven to differentiate us from a lot of the noise in the category.”

McGarry also has emphasized the chain’s fine-dining heritage, which is legitimate. Not only is it based in New York, but it was founded by fine-dining restaurateur Danny Meyer and started as part of the award winning restaurant Eleven Madison Park. The original kiosk’s burgers were made of the same all-natural beef that the high-end restaurant used, and that Shake Shack still uses, and the chain has always emphasized quality over speed. 

So from Feb. 27 to March 3 of 2023, the chain turned 10 of its restaurants into reservation-only fine-dining venues to promote its White Truffle menu that included a burger topped with white truffle sauce, fontina cheese, and fried sweet onions, a similarly built mushroom burger, Parmesan fries with white truffle sauce, bottomless canned wine, a chocolate truffle, and a bottle of truffle oil, all for $20 per person.

“That is a fine-dining burger in a fast-casual environment,” McGarry said, “and so we decided to lean into that and make it so guests could actually make a reservation and have a white-tablecloth table service experience at Shake Shack.”

It sold out almost immediately, but more importantly, it created buzz.

“What we heard parroted back to us is exactly what we wanted,” he said. “Like, ‘Looks like someone’s doing a fine-dining experience in Shake Shack.’”

Although not many people could actually take part in the experience, and it certainly didn’t make money, “You were exposed to it either through social [media] or the fact that media was writing about it. … It’s so interesting that they feel compelled to talk about it. So we’re able to get a disproportionate share of cultural conversation through some of those activations.”

McGarry also uses the chain’s understanding of its customers to meet them where they live.

For example, Shake Shack customers workout more than the average limited-service consumer.

“They’re doing something legitimately active two or three times a week,” McGarry said. “So within that ecosystem of active lifestyle there are unique ways that we can get in touch with them, whether it’s through the Strava app … or neighborhood fun runs that we can plug into almost every weekend across the country.”

McGarry is also looking to market Shake Shack more in the gaming world, but rather than just advertising on the IGN gaming network, “we are looking to have authentic Shake Shack livestreams. We’re working with gamers to be part of in a very authentic way. It takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of discipline, but we’ve seen that the ROI is there.” 


Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected] 

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