Maintaining trust and executing consistently on customer service and menu quality are the keys to traversing turbulent economic times, the CEO says.
When the first Shuckin’ Shack opened in 2007, CEO Jonathan Weathington didn’t know the financial collapse of 2008 was right around the corner. Without much time to prepare, he did what he thought was best—executing top-notch service and sticking to a menu representative of what customers expected to see when walking through the doors.
Now, 15 years later, as the country is on the brink of another potential recession, Weathington is relying on the lessons he learned during 2008 to guide the concept through.
Shuckin’ Shack is a North Carolina-based oyster bar focusing on responsibly sourced seafood and cold adult beverages. Weathington says roughly 30 percent of revenue comes from alcohol sales, which he describes as a “crazy” figure.
When customers enter a Shuckin’ Shack, the first thing they see is the bar. Weathington says making it the focal point of the restaurant’s design is intentional and reinforces the concept’s mission of being a bar where guests can relax and get fresh seafood.
“We want it visible from the front door,” he says. “We make a statement when we don’t try to tuck it away into a corner. We’re telling people to come in and have a drink, hang out. We’re there to create a community.”
One drink doesn’t dominate sales, and there is no-upcharge policy. If a guest orders a vodka tonic, bartenders won’t ask if they’d like Titos or Grey Goose, but will ask what vodka they’d like. Small details like that add up to a memorable experience, Weathington says, leading to repeat customers.
“It’s not our approach to look at it as a sales opportunity,” he says. “We look at it as a service opportunity where we’re making sure every customer who sits down at the bar is getting exactly what they want. It creates a relaxed environment that has been very successful for us. The customer doesn’t feel like they’re being propositioned all the time, which makes for a very easy exchange. That’s why we see repeat business. We have crazy good repeat business. We see the same patrons over and over again, and I think that’s because they can trust us.”
While bar sales make up a sizable chunk of Shuckin’s top line, Weathington won’t rely on those numbers to weather the potential recession. Instead, the company will count on exceptional customer service from top to bottom to ensure guests get the same experience and product every single time.
Maintaining trust is vital, Weathington says, especially during times of economic unrest. He says one of the worst things a business can do during challenging times is deviate from standard operations. “If you don’t cook burgers, don’t add them to your menu,” he says.
Executing consistently allow businesses to remain open during adverse times. It also sends a message to customers that they can depend on and trust the product.
“People are still going to eat out,” he says, despite current market conditions. “When they make that choice of where to go, we want that choice to be with us.”
In light of ongoing inflation and supply chain issues, Shuckin’ Shack has leveraged relationships with its main suppliers to get better warnings of when an ingredient shortage is coming.
“They’ve helped us tremendously in both observing and reporting what’s going on right now, but also forecasting what’s coming down the pipeline,” Weathington says. “If we sense a big issue with a specific oyster, we can either buy ahead of time or do purchasing contracts, or we can take measures where we might have to do a substitution, which we can then communicate to our franchisees.”
To offset inflation, Shuckin’ altered its menu prices slightly, but not in the traditional sense. Instead of upping prices by a fixed percentage, the chain switched several of its items to market price, a more common pricing structure for fresh seafood. Importantly, charging market price isn’t a foreign concept to Shuckin’s guests since there were already items, like crab legs, going for the market rate. This allows the brand to account for inflation without changing operations to the point customers don’t recognize the menu.
“We can curb some of those natural rising costs within the four walls by doing that,” Weathington says.
All seafood served at Shuckin’ is wild-caught, American seafood, with most of the oysters coming from Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay area. Weathington says Virginia produces oysters year-round, making it a dependable source for the concept’s most important menu item.
“There’s no supply chain interruption there,” he says.
As the leader of a franchise, Weathington has also considered how to approach scaling his concept during turbulent economic times. He says aside from issues outside of his control, like lead times for pieces of equipment, attracting franchisees isn’t as difficult as it might first appear.
During recessions people are unfortunately going to lose their jobs, he says, adding that a lot of folks in middle management who end up unemployed will look for an opportunity to get back on their feet. These are ideal candidates for a franchise partnership because they already have a sense of operational wherewithal. The allure of being your own boss is another enticing factor, Weathington says.
“We love bringing those people into our system,” he says. “They're willing to work hard, they understand systems and procedures, and they see the bigger picture. They understand company dynamics and how to treat both employees and customers. You’re doing something for yourself … which can be scary as hell. It’s not easy. If it was, everyone would do it. That said, the reward factor is extremely high.”
Shuckin’ Shack, which has 16 locations across five states, is looking to grow its footprint by adding between three and five units by the end of the year. Weathington says construction lead times will determine the final number. The three units currently set to open by year's end are located in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, Naperville, Illinois, and Mansfield, Texas.
“The pipeline is good,” he says. “We’ve got quite a few projects underway.”