Randy Garutti politely pauses our conversation so he can charge past me and envelop Mark Canlis’s wife, and all three of his children, in an enormous hug in the Canlis lounge. Garutti is the CEO of a little burger operation called Shake Shack. Maybe you’ve heard of it? If you haven’t, you might want to meander down to South Lake Union come mid-2018. Because that’s when the white-hot burger chain will open its first-ever Seattle location. It’s official: Shake Shack is coming to town.
The ebullient, sharply summer-suited CEO flew in from New York this week to visit the site, a 1920 building at 2115 Westlake Ave that pretty much drips historic charm. Its low, wedge-shaped profile sits in sharp contrast to the glossy towers that now rise all around it. Garutti's team spent the last two years looking around the city; rather than target a specific neighborhood, he says, “we like to find a building, a place where people can gather.” Though of course, its proximity to Amazon headquarters did not go unnoticed. Nor did the Whole Foods a block away: The grocer's clientele shares Shake Shack fans’ affinity for things like carefully sourced ingredients and artful Instagrams of frozen custard.
The future Shake Shack Seattle currently houses Wheelhouse Coffee, and until recently a dental practice. Garutti wasn’t kidding about finding buildings. Once Team Shack fell in love with this one, they spent a year coaxing the dentist to relocate. After a major overhaul, the interior will look familiar if you’ve visited any of Shake Shack’s 136 locations, from New York City to Detroit to the newest one in Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighborhood. A big outdoor seating area should be bananas any time the sun’s out.
The company only has a few West Coast outposts thus far—in LA and Las Vegas—but Garutti's long wanted a Seattle location. His ties here run quiet but deep, centered not on burgers, but on our city’s most established fine dining restaurant. He’s on the board of directors for Canlis; long before that he was the restaurant’s general manager, working the front door for nearly two years, under the tutelage of its second-generation owner Chris Canlis.
Garutti met Mark Canlis at the dorm floor meeting on his first day of college, at Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration. The garrulous Jersey guy and the Seattle native hit it off; soon Garutti was coming home with Mark on school breaks to waterski (and, at least in my mental images, dispense fond noogies to youngest Canlis brother Brian). The two even lived with the same family while studying abroad in Paris. Along the way, Chris and Alice Canlis became “my second mom and dad,” says Garutti, parental proxies who could also advise on a career path in fine dining. “Mr. C was always an ear I could call.”
After college, Garutti worked at a few Chart House locations, but made the leap to fine dining when Chris Canlis offered him a job in 1998. When Chris promoted the 23-year-old Garutti to general manager, he told him, “I want to wake up scared every morning, so I’m giving you this job”—his acknowledgment that the evolution of a business is both nerve-wracking and necessary. It’s a line Garutti still uses in his own career.
At the time, Chris Canlis remembers, he wasn’t positive his sons would want to take over the restaurant one day; Mark was serving in the Air Force, Brian was still at Cornell. The elder Canlis saw Mark's college friend as a possibility for the future. Garutti had this charisma "and he ran this restaurant like it was his own," remembers Chris. Of course, the Brothers Canlis did make their way back to Seattle, and proved they know a thing or two about keeping fine dining relevant.
Eventually Garutti, too, felt the pull of home. At one point Chris Canlis showed his young charge an article about an ascendant restaurateur named Danny Meyer and suggested he try to meet with this guy next time he was back in New York. The story of how Garutti finally wrangled a sit-down with the legendary restaurateur is one he repeats often in interviews. Less often, the story of how Meyer’s lieutenant, Richard Coraine, showed up at Canlis at 10pm one Friday night back in 2000: “You said you were a guy who can run a restaurant. I wanted to see if that was true.” Soon after, Garutti moved back to New York to manage Meyer’s contemporary Indian restaurant, Tabla.
He figured he’d spend his whole career in fine dining. Garutti didn’t expect that a hot dog cart, which Meyer launched for the express purpose of raising funds for the park it occupied, would turn into a chain of burger destinations in 12 countries. Or that he’d leave an eventual gig as Meyer’s director of operations to spin Shake Shack into its own entity, a burger joint built on fine dining principles now a publicly traded company. He certainly never imagined he’d return to the dining room where he once worked the door, to discuss the company’s expansion into Seattle: "The Canlis family coming into my life has probably altered the trajectory of my life in a way that is one of the most important things that has ever happened to me."
Beyond the South Lake Union location, he says, Shake Shack is always scouting additional spots in Seattle and elsewhere. But there's no grand plan to blanket the region with 50 Shake Shacks.
The company likes to partner with local brands for special menu items; Austin, for example, lays claim to a burger topped with a jalapeno-cheese sausage from Texas barbecue institution Kreuz Market. It’s never too early to start speculating what those might be in Seattle. Peter Canlis prawn sandwich? Canlis salad concrete? No?
Stay tuned for more specifics, and maybe even a preview popup or two along the way. Meanwhile, Garutti capped off his quick visit to Seattle the same way he wrapped up so many nights of service at Canlis: Late-night greasy burgers. "Tonight for real, I’m going to Dick’s. Why is Dick's so great? It’s a gathering place."