The Fast Food Architect: David Swinghamer Builds a Shake Shack Empire

david swinghamer The Fast Food Architect: David Swinghamer Builds a Shake Shack Empire“You have to try the hot chocolate–it’s the best hot chocolate in town,” David Swinghamer said. The 53-year-old CEO of Shake Shack was perched atop a neon-orange stool at the back of the newish Shack at the corner of 44th and Eighth. “Especially on a day like today.”

It was Friday, Dec. 17, yet again below freezing. The sky was a glacial blue, and the wind whipped down the avenue. And, yet, the line formed, as it does every day at three other New York locations and one in Miami. Office workers, theatergoers, tourists, all awaiting the same thing: a Shackburger and maybe one of those eponymous shakes.

Such lines–for what are simple, quintessentially American meals that could be had in innumerable locales for less money–has led Mr. Swinghamer, along with his longtime business partner Danny Meyer, to take a shot at stealing the king’s crown, of toppling the golden arches, of going global with New York’s Shake Shack.

“We came to the realization–are we serious about this, are we going to do one or two, or are we really going to give this a shot and prove that our culture can grow, that the quality is there, no matter the size,” Mr. Swinghamer said, eating a crinkle-cut French fry.

For 2011, that means four new stores in the States, all in the Northeast: Westport, Conn., Washington, D.C., Battery Park City; and a long-awaited Brooklyn outlet. Two others are planned, for Dubai and Kuwait City.

“We want every Shake Shack to be better than the last,” Mr. Swinghamer said. “There’s no way we’re going to go backward, like so many others who expand too big or too fast.”

Sorry, hold on.

He rose from his stool, for the third or fourth time during lunch, walked over to the huge swinging back door next to the “handcrafted in Brooklyn”-stamped table and shut it. It had gotten stuck again, and cold air was gusting inside. Confused patrons did not realize the entrance, the line, was at the front of the Shack, not on the corner.

Returning to the table, Mr. Swinghamer took out a business card and scribbled a reminder to have the door fixed. It was working exactly as designed, but he would no doubt engineer a way around that.

It is this attention to detail, such a hallmark of the Danny Meyer brand, that landed Mr. Swinghamer the job of running the now semi-autonomous Shake Shack. Asked over the phone why he had selected him, Mr. Meyer demurred. He said his four partners had a certain everyman expertise that allowed them to share roles within the company. As for the expansion? “It was going to be one of my partners, and there was not anyone who came close in terms of skill set to get this done,” Mr. Meyer allowed of Mr. Swinghamer.

For one thing, Mr. Swinghamer is the only partner with what Mr. Meyer said was “multi-unit” experience, having spent a dozen years in Chicago working for Richard Melman at Lettuce Entertain You, a pioneer in the haute chain business. (Before that, he spent three forgettable years with Chi-Chi’s.) He joined Mr. Meyer in 1995, agreeing to the move after the pair shared a Cubs-Cardinals game that turned into dinner and drinks. Neither man could remember who won the game.

Yet Mr. Swinghamer’s chief asset is one he never thought he would use after abandoning it in college: a few years spent studying architecture at the University of Minnesota, where he also fell in love with restaurants while working as a line cook to pay for school.

“Each Shake Shack has a certain sense of place, a feel, and while the burger is the same, the signage isn’t, even from Madison Square to the Upper West Side,” he explained. “A Shake Shack in Brooklyn is not going to be a Shake Shack in Dupont Circle, and that is why we–I, really–pick all the locations. Even just which side of the street to put it on matters.”

He could have been lecturing at Pratt. That deliberativeness is why it took four years to settle on a restaurant in Brooklyn, that it would be a Shake Shack, that it would be on the Fulton Mall and not Coney Island. It is the reason Mr. Swinghamer moved the stage 20 feet forward at Jazz Standard, to create a more intimate setting with diners. It is the reason a Shack in Nolita was abandoned, because some neighbors objected, even though the majority of them did not. It is the reason there are lines.

“When we opened the second Shake Shack, we really thought we’d see a dip at first,” Mr. Swinghamer said. “But instead, sales went up in Madison Square Park. Now we have four, and last year was our best year ever. And that’s the idea behind this expansion. Not only to make every store better but to make all of them better.”

Just then a class of high-school kids from Bed-Stuy filed in, looking for lunch after a field trip. “That’s what’s so exciting about an expansion–to find the right location, such as downtown Brooklyn, we make, really, a lot of people happy,” Mr. Swinghamer said. “It’s not targeting a certain narrow demographic.”

And with that, he got up to close the door behind them.

mchaban [at] observer.com | @mc_nyo