Steph So joined Shake Shack as vice president of digital experience in December, just before the pandemic flipped the world upside down.
Since then, So has seen the New York City-based burger brand go from a concept that considered itself a gathering spot to one in which the bulk of its dining rooms were shuttered to slow the spread of COVID.
A prime example of that shift has been the chain’s swift introduction of curbside pickup.
“It certainly was not on the radar in March,” So said.
Curbside pickup began organically at Shake Shack in March, with workers at some units offering to run orders out to waiting diners. Since then, the program has expanded from test to pilot program in about 40% of the chain’s 193 locations.
“We really felt like there should be a digital enablement of [curbside pickup],” So said. “We very quickly put in an agile development team and, over the course of a very short time, we were able to test it quickly with a small group of pilot units.”
Not all stores are a good fit for curbside pickup. For one, they need to have a spot for cars to briefly park while they await their orders. At Shake Shack, with its strong portfolio of urban-centric real estate, that’s not feasible at all locations, she said.
“There are a few Shacks for which it’ll not make sense,” she said.
By next year, though, about half of all units will have either curbside pickup or a walkup or drive-thru window, part of the chain’s Shack Track initiative, she said.
Shake Shack has added a curbside pickup option on its app. Users type in their car’s color and type and pull into a designated pickup spot. Once there, they go back into the app and indicate they’ve arrived.
The chain has redeployed its “hospitality floaters,” workers who typically clear trays and keep the dining rooms clean, to run orders out to cars, So said.
Shake Shack is eyeing several upgrades to its curbside pickup operations, including a geotargeting function that would allow customers to skip the step of checking in once they’ve arrived.
Curbside pickup is new at Shake Shack, but So said the chain is already pleased with how it has boosted traffic and check averages.
“It’s super encouraging and validates the point of why we wanted to launch this in the first place, that added convenience would be the reasons to come to Shake Shack more frequently,” she said.
In recent months, Shake Shack has added about 800,000 new digital users, So said. That’s about 4 times as many as during the same period last year.
Before the pandemic, the chain had to work hard to convince people to even download the app, she said.
“The current environment with food ordering propelled people to the app,” she said. “COVID has just really accelerated digital growth, maybe even by a decade. It has really accelerated our investment. It has accelerated our road map. There’s so much traffic flowing through those channels.”
The chain is now working hard to keep those digital customers coming back, with personalized offers and other features, So said.
All the while, Shake Shack is looking to develop hospitality of a different sort, one that doesn’t rely solely on restaurant dining rooms. The chain’s marketing team developed a virtual summer camp in a box as well as online cooking videos, and social media campaigns as the company looks at “ways that our guests are virtually gathering,” So said.
Next up: Shake Shack is diving into delivery via its app, with tests planned to start in Q4, she said.
“It’s challenging us in a really healthy way as we modernize our brand,” she said. “As we think about that, it doesn’t mean gathering physically.”