Tag Archives: shak


Download PDF



The long term investment appeal of well established franchising companies is accepted by the investment community. Most of the prominent franchisors’ equities sell at price to trailing twelve month EBITDA multiples in the mid to high teens (Denny’s (DENN), Dine Brands (DIN), Dunkin’ Brands (DNKN), Pollo Loco (LOCO), McDonald’s (MCD), Restaurant Brands (QSR), Wendy’s (WEN), even higher in a couple of instances Domino’s (DPZ), Shake Shack (SHAK), Wingstop (WING), lower in a number of “challenged” situations like Jack in the Box (JACK), Red Robin (RRGB), Brinker (EAT), Fiesta Rest. (FRGI).

The attraction of asset light franchisors revolves around the presumably free cash flow for franchisors, a steady stream of royalty income unburdened by capital expenditures to build stores. The operating leverage is at the store level.  Franchisees are responsible for building the stores, then controlling food costs, labor, rent and all the other operating line items. Franchisors receive the royalty stream and have the obligation of supporting the system with brand development, site selection advice, marketing support, and operating supervision. These supporting functions, it should be noted, are optional to a degree, and we have written extensively about system support sometimes being short changed by corporate priorities such as major stock buybacks.


We acknowledge that in every franchise system there will be some operators less satisfied than others. In the same way, customer reviews on Yelp or Facebook are more frequently written by critics. Bad news is more noteworthy and more customers are inclined to criticize than applaud, so we have to listen to the complaints but dig further for the reality. With that in mind, we hear the following from franchisees of various restaurant systems:

“I’ve been in this business for thirty years, and I’ve never seen it this bad. Everyone is making money but me; the landlords, the franchisor, the banks. My margins have been killed, and I’m up against my lending convenants”.

“All the franchisors want to do is build sales to build their royalties. The dollar deals are trading people down. My franchisor doesn’t care about my margins. I can’t maintain my margins, especially with the increasing cost of labor, let alone build it”.

“The franchisor is putting pressure on me to sell, even though I’ve always been considered a good operator, with high performance scores. I’m up to date on my development agreement, but they want somebody else to take me out, and the new buyer will agree to what I consider to be a ridiculously aggressive development contract”.

“The franchisor has replaced experienced long term field support with lower priced (and inexperienced) younger people. They’re cutting corporate overhead, but these kids, who never ran a store, are telling me to how to control costs.””

“I’m doing my best with the development objectives, but it is almost impossible to build stores with today’s economics. Rents are too high, labor costs are killing me, and I can’t raise prices in this promotional environment”.

“As if things aren’t tough enough, I’m being nickeled and dimed with demand for higher advertising contributions and fees on services (including software) that I thought would be provided”.

The valuations provided to the publicly held companies do not reflect the situation as described by the admittedly anonymous franchisees. The commentators quoted above don’t want to aggravate their franchisor, and we don’t want to be unfair or misleading to particular companies by relying on just a few conversations, though they do support one another. For the most part, franchisees are strongly discouraged from talking to the press or investment community. The companies will say that “competitive” issues require some secrecy, but there are few secrets in this industry.

The optimistic view, as represented by the valuations in the marketplace, is that the comments above are not typical or representative of the health of the subject franchise systems. Allow me to provide a short story which leads to a suggestion.


Twenty six years ago, in 1992, IHOP had just come public. I was a sell side analyst, thought the numbers were interesting and the stock was reasonably priced. The company, led by the now deceased CEO Kim Herzer, invited me to attend their franchisee convention, which I did. I obviously had the opportunity to interface with many franchisees and it was clear that, while all was not perfect, the franchisor was providing a great deal of support that was embraced by an enthusiastic franchise community. IHOP stock tripled over several years for me and my clients who owned millions of shares. I attended several more of their annual conventions and maintain some of those relationships to this day. Obviously, the conviction I gained from their open attitude was critical to the success of the investment. I should add, that many of those buyers in 1992 owned the stock for many years, not living and dying on quarterly reports.


As you are no doubt by now anticipating, my suggestion to publicly held franchising companies: open up your franchisee conventions to the investment community. The companies may quickly respond that lenders are already invited to franchise conventions, but franchisees are unlikely to express their system oriented concerns when they are making a pitch to a potential lender. Companies may also respond that their lawyers think it would be a bad idea, not consistent with full disclosure and analysts would be getting “inside information”. Let’s not allow the lawyers to provide “cover”. A good lawyer will provide a solution to the problem, not just provide the pitfalls. Analysts attending a franchise convention are not being told what sales or profits are going to be. Attending a franchise convention is  a “channel check”, no more than talking to a supplier or customer of a manufacturing company, which any decent analyst will do.

The anecdotal critical comments, as described above, have likely been heard by others, but may be atypical of most restaurant franchising companies. There are no secrets in this business. One of the investment appeals of this industry is its transparency. Notable news is going to leak out anyway. The objective of any publicly held company is to build stock ownership by well informed investors. Investment analysts pride themselves on their ability to “build a mosaic”, enhance the information provided in quarterly reports, SEC filings, and conference calls, with “channel checks”. What channel check would be more pertinent than meeting the franchisees of a company that is dependent on franchisee success? Putting it another way, and taking the highest valuation relative to EBITDA as an example: Wingstop (WING) is a company I have the highest regard for. However, you could call it irresponsible to pay almost fifty times trailing EBITDA for Wingstop stock (and I haven’t) if I couldn’t talk to franchisees of my own choosing?

There’s no particular need to invite this writer if I’m not considered influential enough. I have not spoken to these analysts on this subject, but qualified industry followers such as David Palmer, Nicole Reagan, Matt DiFrisco, David Tarantino, Jeff Bernstein, Andy Barish, Bob Derrington, Mark Kalinowski, Michal Halen, Gary Occhiogrosso, Howard Penney, Jonathan Maze, Nicholas Upton, John Hamburger and John Gordon provide the beginning of an invitation list.  I rest my case.

Roger Lipton

Download PDF


Download PDF


Before discussing Q2, we refer you to our conclusion from the extensive report we wrote on 5/10. For those readers with an active interest in SHAK, we encourage you to read the full report.

CONCLUSION – From 5/10/18, after SHAK had run up 30% following Q1 report

As you no doubt suspect, while we have the utmost respect for this management team, our conclusion is that SHAK is priced beyond “perfection” at approximately 100x ’18 projected EPS and perhaps 70x what we consider an optimistic view of ’19. If you like EBITDA as a measure, based on “Adjusted Corporate EBITDA” of $65B  in calendar ’17, the $2.2B market capitalization represents 33x TTM EBITDA. Especially considering that store level economics, while still more attractive than many other restaurant companies, are not as alluring as back in the day when Manhattan locations were annualizing at $7.4M and paying for themselves at the store level (before depreciation) in fifteen months. Management here is as good as it gets, but they are not magicians. This is still a people business, serving burgers, not providing a proprietary cancer cure.


The report was generally in line with analyst expectations, which were largely echoing management guidance. Same store sales were up 1.1% (on top of a 1.8% decline a year ago), which might have been a fraction of a percent less than some analysts hoped for. What might have cooled the ardor was that traffic was down again, 2.6% this time. Keep in mind that only 50 Shacks are in the comp base, less than half the company operated system. Also in line with guidance, but a small dose of reality, average weekly sales for domestic company stores declined 3.3% to a still impressive $89,000. Again, as predicted, store level profit (EBITDA) declined 60 bp to 28.2%, or 27.5% normalized for the one time benefit of deferred rent. Importantly, G&A expenses increased to 10.8% of revenues, up from 10.6%, and, especially with the expense of “Project Concrete”, are unlikely to be leveraged by the higher sales in the next year or so. Of course, the tax burden was lower than a year ago, 17.5% versus 29.2%, allowing net income after taxes to be up 29.1%. More indicative of the current operating progress is the operating income that was up a more modest 10.9% and “adjusted EBITDA” that was up 12.9%. Management here is, appropriately, “playing the long game”, investing in corporate functions as well as store level management and crew (with industry leading compensation levels) to build on the admirable operating culture that is  in place.

Guidance for the balance of 2018 was maintained, and that was part of the problem. Analysts were hoping, and the stock price was discounting, an improvement in some of the operating expectations. Cited were some delays in getting the last portion of the stores planned for 2018 opened in time to contribute to results this year.  Other than that, the costs of Project Concrete, to be spread over 2018 and 2019, was increased from $4-6M to $6-8M.

We can’t resist pointing out that management is fortunate that analysts seem willing to treat a substantial “investment” in G&A,  dubbed “Project Concrete” as a non-recurring event, as if additional infrastructure will not be necessary as Shake Shack expands their brand around the world at what we consider a breakneck pace. It’s good to be “king”, with probably the highest  investment community regard (and valuation) among publicly held restaurant companies.

For more background information, we refer readers to our discussions dated May 10th and our full descriptive report dated  12/13/17.

Current Conclusion

SHAK has come down because it has been priced beyond “perfection” and never should have run up after Q1. The concept, as good as it is, can be expected to do an AUV somewhere between $3-3.5M per unit as the system is built out. Store level EBITDA will end up in the 20-23% range. A 23% EBITDA generation on $3.25M of sales would be $747K of EBITDA, or a 37% store level cash on cash return on the $2M investment , an admirable operating model.  If we look down the road a few years to when SHAK has a couple of hundred units, growing not quite so fast, and growing after tax earnings and EBITDA at perhaps 25% annually, the stock might have a 40x multiple on expected after tax earnings. The problem is that the P/E on ’19 EPS estimates (that could be a reach) is twice that. It will therefore take SHAK several years beyond ’19, until 2022, for the fundamentals to catch up with today’s stock valuation of $2B.  Of course, it’s possible that the P/E on next twelve month earnings could be even higher than it is currently, but the P/E range that the stock sells at will likely be contracting as time goes on. This expectation  is under the optimistic assumption that there are no major mistakes along the way, in which case there would obviously be an immediate major adjustment downward.  This discussion may be one reason why there has been almost continuous liquidation of common shares by insiders and private equity owners, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars ever since SHAK came public early in 2015.

Roger Lipton





Download PDF


Download PDF



36% of the stock float was sold short, so the numbers came through “adequately”, and the stock didn’t go down, so the short term traders panicked, covered their positions and drove the stock higher.

Before we look at the facts, we must restate that there is no publicly held restaurant company that we hold in higher regard than at SHAK. However, the Company is one thing, and the stock is another.


Comps were up 1.7%, price and mix were important so store level traffic was down 4.2% (on top of a negative 3.4% Q1’17. Factoring out a promotion in Q1’17 traffic was still down 2.2%. Weather was a negative factor in Q1’18 but delivery pilots and an early Easter helped a bit.  The table that follows shows line by line performance over the last three years, as well as Q1’18.

As shown in the table above:

As predicted since SHAK came public, average weekly sales for domestic  company operated shacks continued lower, at $81,000, down 6% YTY. Trailing twelve month AUVs were $4.5M, down $100,000 from the prior quarter. This latter number is predicted to be $4.1 to $4.2M for all of ’18. Store level “operating profit”, store level EBITDA in essence, was 25.0% of store revenues, up 28.5% on a 29.6% increase in shack sales so store level EBITDA contracted 30 bp. CGS was down 50 bp, Labor was up 20 bp, Other Operating Expenses were up 90 bp to 11.2%, Occupancy and Related expenses were down 30 bp to 8.0%. Below the store level EBITDA line: G&A was up 90 bp to 11.9%, Depreciation was up 40 bp to 6.6%, Pre-opening was down 110 bp to 2.0% (with unit expansion back loaded in ’18). Operating Income was up 15.7% (on an increase in Total Revenues of 29.1%). Income Before Taxes was up 15.7%, down 70 bp to 6.6%. After taxes at 19.4% (vs. 30.0% in ’17), Income After Taxes was up 28.9%. The summary is that the stores controlled costs rather well in a difficult sales (and traffic) environment, the corporate burden was higher, and lower taxes salvaged the quarter’s bottom line.

Investors, of course are primarily concerned about the future. Growth is continuing at what we think is accurately described as a “breakneck” pace, with 32-35 new domestic company locations to be opened in calendar ’18 on a base of 90 at 12/31/17.  Company guidance was essentially “maintained” for ’18. Aside from the new openings, total Revenue expectations was raised by a nominal $2M to a range of $446-450M. Licensing revenue is expected to be $12-13M vs. $12.4M in ’17. In terms of line by line expectations, as shown in the table above, under “Guidance”, Same Shack Sales are now guided to 0-1% positive vs. “flat” previously. AUVs, as indicated earlier will be $4.1-$4.2M for ’18, vs. $4.6M in ’17. Store level EBITDA  will be 24.5%-25.5% (affected by the new lower volume units), vs. 26.6% in ’17. G&A will be $49-$51M (plus $4-6M for “Project Concrete”) or 11.1% (plus 1.1%) of Total Revenues. Depreciation will be about $32M (7.1% ). Pre-Opening will be $12-13M (2.8%). Adjusted Pro Forma effective tax rate will be 26-27% (vs. 30.0% in ’17 and 19.4% in Q1’18.


Putting this all together for ’18, the Street estimates range from $0.54-$0.57 per share. Growth will be there, but operating leverage will likely not take place either at the store level or after the corporate support. The more interesting part of the exercise takes place in calendar ’19 and beyond. The Street estimate for ’19, according to Bloomberg, is $0.735 per share, up 35% from $0.543 in ’18. While the Company has not provided formal guidance for ’19, analysts must be expecting margins to be maintained from ’18 to ’19, both at the store level and the corporate level. We consider this to be possible, but far from a sure thing.

Looking at the income statement, line by line: Comps may or may not be flat to up in ’18 or further out, which would of course affect the entire equation. After an astounding rise in late ’15 and early ’16, the sales and traffic picture has been challenged. McDonald’s has gone to fresh beef, and Shake Shack is not quite as rare a phenomenon as it was a few years ago. The competition, in beef and otherwise, is not standing still. As shown in the table above, The CGS line has been very well controlled in the area of 28%, but is unlikely to come down materially. Labor is another story, most likely to move higher and the recent test of a “cashier-less” store has apparently not been a resounding success. Other Operating Expenses have moved steadily higher. Occupancy and Other had a downtick in ’17 and Q1’18 but we see no reason that rents, etc. will come down. The increase in D&A from the mid 5% area to the mid 6% area over the last three years has more than offset the decline in Occupancy and the Company has guided to a new high of 7.1% of sales in ’18. The Corporate Burden, recently running at 11.9% is not coming down in ’18 vs ’17 (at 11.1% +1.1% for “Project Concrete”) and it remains to be seen whether it comes down as a percent of sales, even in  ’20, let alone ’19. When questioned on the conference call about G&A “leverage” in ’20, management responded: “I think we’re in such an early stage of our growth journey, the right thing for us to do right now is to be focused on that 3 yr. and then longer term target…..and investing across the business to  make sure we’ve got a strong foundation to execute against those plans. Longer term, sure, further down that growth journey, we would expect to be delivering some G&A leverage…. and so you will continue to spend where we believe it makes sense.” Our conclusion: G&A leverage is unlikely for the next two years at least. Store level margins are more likely to contract (more than projected) than expand as a result of labor pressure, higher occupancy and other store level expenses. Below the store level EBITDA line, depreciation is increasing which lowers GAAP results.  We shouldn’t ignore the potential for licensing revenues to grow substantially, but this implies an ongoing G&A burden as well (which should leverage over time).  Over the next few years, the expense of flying a dozen trainers to Hong Kong and other overseas locations offsets the licensing income for a while.


We can all look back fondly to the prospectus of early ’15, describing store level economics from calendar 2013. Manhattan AUVs were $7.4M, with store level EBITDA of approximately 30%. Non-Manhattan shacks averaged $3.8M with EBITDA of about 22%. The store level “cash on cash returns” were 82% and 31% respectively. It is unclear whether that calculation included pre-opening expenses as part of the cash “investment” and most restaurant companies these days, including SHAK do not. It is interesting that the original prospectus provided guidance very much in line with today’s expectations, namely that “since the vast majority of future shacks will be non-Manhattan locations, we are targeting AUVs in the $2.8-3.2M range, with operating margins in the 18-22% range and cash on cash returns of 30-33% (in line with the 31% pre-’15 history).

The future, that investors are buying into, consists primarily of non-Manhattan stores, augmented to be sure by licensing revenues all over the world (averaging $3.1-3.2M annually so far). Relative to all important unit level economics, the latest description of investment per store, per the 2016 10-K and 2017 10-K are as follows

Per the 2016 10k – “in fiscal 2016 the cost to build a new Shack ranged from $1.2 to $3.4M, with an average near-term build cost of approximately $1.8M, excluding pre-opening costs.”

Per the 2017 10k – “In fiscal 2017 the cost to build a new Shack ranged from approximately $1.1 to $3.3M, with an average near term build cost of approximately $1.7M, excluding pre-opening costs. The total investment costs of a new Shack in ’17, which includes costs related to items such as furniture, fixtures and equipment, ranged from approximately $1.7M to $3.7million, with an average investment cost of approximately $2.2M.

We don’t know why, in the 2017 10-K the Company chose to insert “which includes ….furniture, fixtures and equipment” . Also, we have found nowhere a distinction that the non-Manhattan store investment differs materially from those in NYC. Our assumption is that the costs are similar because the non-Manhattan locations we have seen do not look like cheap imitations. The sites are prime and the investment looks to be substantial.

The vast majority of new domestic Company operated shacks will be non-Manhattan and we will assume that they do $3.2M, the high end of the prospectus’ guidance (and also the high end of the most recent range of $2.8-3.2M company guidance).  If we use 22% store level EBITDA (which is also the high end of the store level EBITDA 18-22% guidance), that would throw off $704k annually. The total cash investment, including pre-opening of $400k would be $2.6M so the cash on cash EBITDA return would be 27.1% (32.0% without pre-opening). However, depreciation is still a GAAP expense, with good reason since stores must be maintained. 7% depreciation would subtract $224,000 from store level EBITDA, leaving $480k. An incremental corporate burden of a modest 4% or more would subtract another 128k, leaving 352k, before taxes. $352,000 of “G&A burdened” GAAP store level profit (after depreciation ) of 13.5% of sales, before taxes. This is obviously a long way from the 82% C/C in Manhattan and 31% C/C outside of Manhattan originally cited in the IPO prospectus. It is important to note that the above discussion relates to company operated locations, and licensees have a further expense. As cited earlier, since the average volume of existing licensees is reported to be in the $3.1-$3.2M range, which could move up (or down), it does not appear that the existing licensees around the world are minting money, at least not yet.


Analysts and investors might well remember the age old “sales to investment” ratio, which originally was designed to provide a revenue comparison to the “gross” investment, including land, building and equipment. Since rent is an  “investment’ by the landord, that overhead must be carried by the operations, so rent expense should be capitalized and added to the cost of leasehold improvements, the equipment package, and even pre-opening expense. The theory is: no matter how skilled the operator is at leveraging his investment, with rent, equipment leases, or borrowing (think “build to suit”), the overhead in terms of occupancy expense must be carried, and that’s where the revenues come in. We assume that SHAK is paying rent of at least $200,000 annually for the high visibility sites outside of Manhattan, which capitalized at 10x (a 10% return to the landord) would imply a $2M investment in land, plus perhaps $2M in leasehold improvement and equipment ($2.2M in ’17, $1.8M in ’16), plus $400k of pre-opening expense, adding up to $4.4M of gross investment. Not too many analysts would say that $3.2M of anticipated revenues in non-Manhattan sites is fabulous when compared to the gross investment of  $4.4M (at least, because we suspect average rents are closer to $300,000 than $200,000, increasing the gross investment by an additional $1M).  This is  called leverage (provided in this case by landlords), and if sales come in 10-20% lower than expectations, the profit margin after depreciation will be negligible. Don’t forget about the “local G&A” and royalties for a franchisee and the incremental G&A burden for company operations. Maybe that’s why 163 franchised Applebee’s just declared bankruptcy. In good times, with a hot brand,  it all works, not so much as a brand matures, especially  in a difficult economy.

We hasten to add that the cash on cash calculations, incorporating the leverage provided by landlords, and ignoring depreciation, that Shake Shack presents is consistent with the way that most retailers present their “story”. We are trying here to separate reality, in terms of sustainable return on investment calculations, from  power point presentations. A major reason that a sales/investment ratio of so much less than 1:1 can “work” these days, when many companies ran aground with a sales to gross investment ratio no better than 1:1 is that today’s very low interest rates and very high equity valuations provide almost free capital for expansion, but “this too shall pass”.


We know of no other restaurant company, at the size of SHAK, that has expanded company (as opposed to franchised) locations at a 35-40% pace on the existing base, not close to home, let alone nationwide and while supervising worldwide licensees as well. Management could say that going from 44 to 64 company operated units in ’16 and from 64 to 90 in ’17 was even tougher and it gets easier from here forward.  Rather than burden you with “war stories”, we will just say that we have heard that argument before. We are not predicting disaster, just unexpected inefficiencies and challenges, not fatal, just requiring periodic “adjustment”, therefore providing a substantial extra measure of current risk to this situation.


As you no doubt suspect, while we have the utmost respect for this management team, our conclusion is that SHAK is priced beyond “perfection” at approximately 100x ’18 projected EPS and perhaps 70x what we consider an optimistic view of ’19. If you like EBITDA as a measure, based on “Adjusted Corporate EBITDA” of $65B  in calendar ’17, the $2.2B market capitalization represents 33x TTM EBITDA. Especially considering that store level economics, while still more attractive than many other restaurant companies, are not as alluring as back in the day when Manhattan locations were annualizing at $7.4M and paying for themselves at the store level (before depreciation) in fifteen months. Management here is as good as it gets, but they are not magicians. This is still a people business, serving burgers, not providing a proprietary cancer cure.



Download PDF


To access this content, you must purchase Website Subscription.


  • Broad economic insight. As described in “Restaurants/Retail – Why Bother?” the restaurant and retail industries provide a leading indicator of far broader economic trends. You no longer have to be the last to know.
  • Two to three analytical pieces per week (“Roger’s Rap”) personally written by Roger Lipton describing corporate developments within his industry specialization, including their relevance to the broader economy.
  • Periodic “macro” discussions personally written by Roger Lipton, analyzing fiscal and monetary matters that will likely affect your investments and your business.
  • Opportunity to “Ask Rog” about your personal concerns, regarding individual companies or broader economic trends. Roger will use his best efforts to answer questions submitted, obviously limited by the number of requests . He may answer your question by email directly and/or include your question with his “Roger’s Rap” releases.
  • You are provided access to “Friends of Rog”, depending on your financial and operational needs. The outstanding individuals suggested here, have been personally “vetted” by Roger over decades. Roger receives no compensation based on whether or not use their services.
  • A free copy of the legendary best selling book, How you can Profit from the coming devaluation, as shown at right, written in 1970 by Harry Browne, which predicted the 2000% rise in the price of gold. This profound piece is more relevant today than ever, so Roger re-published it in 2012. This book will help you preserve the fortune you are in the process of accumulating.


Download PDF


SHAK came public at $21 a little less than 3 years ago, ran to a high above $90 in June of 2015, and has been in a trading range between $30 and $50 during 2016 and  2017. The stock was “fully valued”, to say the least, at $90.00 compared to the $0.32 per share reported in 2015 and $0.46 in 2016. It is obviously more rationally valued in the high 40s versus the Street estimate of $0.52/share in 2017 and $0.54 in ’18, which could turn out to be $0.65-.66 with the new tax bill. This leaves SHAK valued at about 70x a “tax adjusted” estimate of EPS in ’18. We hasten to point out that, in our mind, there is no other publicly held restaurant company that has more well regarded management, a better store operating model, and a virtually unlimited runway for future expansion. However, a number of the operating parameters (such as AUVs, store level margins, and EPS growth rate) are “coming down to earth” Furthermore, the very aggressive growth of company units (35-40% on the base) has its own set of risks. In fact, we can think of no other restaurant company, in the last thirty or forty years that has expanded from 90 to 125 or so high volume company operated stores, in diverse geographical markets, without a noteworthy degree of inefficiency (to say least). As admirable as this operating team is, we suspect that the Street estimates going forward will prove to be overly optimistic, that same store sales, AUVs, and correlating store level margins will be at least modestly disappointing. It therefore becomes a question of what the stock is worth, in terms of the current P/E relative to the expected, and the actual, growth rate of EPS and EBITDA over the next several years. The last time we opined, early in ’17,  with SHAK in the low 30s, it was on our “watch list” as a potential buy. In the high 40s, with EPS growth in ’18 lower than it was, and what we perceive as continued operational risk from the unprecedented rapid expansion of company units, we consider SHAK fully valued. 70x expected ’18 (“tax  reform adjusted”) EPS more than adequately values this fine management team, and the ongoing value of the Shake Shack brand.

SHAK: Company Overview    (2016 10-K)) Q3’17 Release, Q3’17 Conf.Call


Shake Shack Inc. is a New York City-based chain begun as a hot dog cart in 2001,  to raise funds to renovate a city park,  by founder Danny Meyer, the legendary restauranteur and chairman of the Union Square Hospitality Group.  At the end of 2016, SHAK (which came public in early 2015) operated and licensed 114 units in 16 states including Washington, D.C. and 13 countries generating system-wide sales of $403M. The company bills itself as a fine casual operator with a core menu featuring premium hormone- and antibiotic-free burgers, chicken and hot dogs, crinkle-cut fries and handmade shakes, frozen custard & specialty beverages.  It also serves beer and wine.

SHAK devotes significant resources in the creation (including collaborating with top chefs) and testing of items to supplement its core menu with LTO’s and enhancements derived from seasonal and local products to provide novelty, drive return visits and also for brand awareness.  For example, in April 2016, to promote the brand in the Washington DC, Maryland and Virginia area, the company teamed up with a celebrated chef of Chinese cuisine to offer “Crispy Peking Chicken” (crispy chicken breast, on a n LTO basis only in area stores. The company is also investing heavily in technology to provide customers with state of the art mobile conveniences.

Given the company’s commitment to all-natural proteins that are hormone- and antibiotic-free as well as vegetarian fed and humanely raised, which inherently has some of the same supply chain risks as Chipotle, the company stipulates it has established rigorous quality assurance and food safety protocols throughout its supply chain and that it further addresses its risks by limiting the number of suppliers for major ingredients.  For example, in 2016 all beef patties were purchased from 7 suppliers (70% was purchased from one of them) and it has 10 butchers located throughout the country to produce burgers fresh daily. As to distribution to the stores, the company contracts with a single broadline distributor which is responsible for supplying over 80% of core food and beverage ingredients and all paper goods and chemicals to each Shack from 12 regional distribution centers.

Of the company’s $268.5M of revenues in 2016 96.6% was generated by the company’s 64 stores (all domestic), while the balance was licensing revenues from the 50 licensed units (7 domestic, 43 international).   The company believes there is the potential for at least 450 domestic units. In 2016 the company units averaged $4,981K (down from $5,367K in 2012 (an average skewed by high proportion of Manhattan units with AUV’s>$7M).  Indeed, the concept’s exceptional brand appeal, as evidenced by press and social media acclaim, has broadened its acceptance domestically and internationally. The company has continually predicted that AUVs would come down as more locations opened away from the original NYC region, and that has finally been the case during Q2 and Q3’17. Store level profitability, though still among the highest in the restaurant industry has, has come down as well, as expected, from an impressive 28.3% in calendar ’16. Shack units, which are all leased, average 3,000-3,500 sq ft (seating for 75-100) and require a cash outlay of $2.M including our estimate of pre-opening expense.  In 2017 company earlier in the year planned 22-23 new units, year generating AUV’s of “at least $3.2M and Shack-level operating profit margins of at least 21%.” As it turns out, 24-26 company units will have opened, at those expected AUVs and store level profits. Even at these modest levels of productivity, materially lower than had been the case through calendar ‘16, cash-on-cash returns would be about 30%.

Considering the modest number of stores in the system, and as a public company for less than 3 years, its continuing robust unit level-performance, including locations far from its NYC roots, is probably the best current gauge of SHAK’s promise. The company’s heavy SGA and pre-opening expense, typical of an early stage enterprise, still weigh on margins. To this point, the consolidated EBIT and EBITDA margins in 2016 were only 10.4% and 15.8%, respectively, down from 11.0% and 16.4%, respectively, in 2015. Similarly, ROE, at 10.1%, while not all that impressive to date, is still expected to expand as a critical mass is reached that more efficiently carries the G&A structure necessary to support the rapid unit growth.

SHAK’s balance sheet debt includes $13.2M of deemed landlord financing (essentially capitalized lease obligations), $34.8M of deferred rent, and $2.6M of other long term liabilities, against $231.8M of equity.  The company also has a $280.1M tax liability payable on behalf of its pre IPO Series B shareholders as they convert their shares into Series A shares.  SHAK is financing its rapid growth (24-26 company stores in 2017) internally which consumes virtually all its cash from operations together with cash on hand.

Shareholder Returns:

Shake Shack came public on 1/29/15, selling 5.75M shares at $21.00 per share. The stock traded, parabolically,  to over $90.00 by May’15, came down to $30.00 in early ’16, has traded in a range from the low 30s to low 40s since, before breaking out to the high 40s recently. A secondary offering was done on 8/12/15, 4.0M shares for selling shareholders, at $60.00/share. There is no dividend. There has been very consistent “insider” selling from late ’15 to the present.

SHAK: Recent Developments: Per Q3’17 Earnings Release, New Slide Deck, Conf. Call




In its Q3’17, SHAK generally met expectations for revenues, comps and EPS, though not “surprising” on the upside to the extent that it has often done in its first two years as a public company. Company revenues grew 26.9% YOY on a negative 1.6% comp (on top of a positive 2.9% in “16Q3 and what will be 38-41% company operated unit growth in ‘17. Since stores don’t enter the comp base until 2 years after opening, the comp base is small (only 39 of 89 US company stores). Traffic in Q4 was down 3.8%, offset by price increases of 2.2%.  This pattern of higher ticket and slowing traffic is consistent with the industry, but in SHAK’s case the price increase has been relatively modest with the ticket mix boosted by premium LTO’s. AUVs for domestic company operated Shacks decreased noticeably, for the second quarter in a row, to $91,000/week, versus $103,000 in Q3’16. Shack level EBITDA decreased 160 bp to a still admirable 27.2%.  In terms of “prime costs”, CGS was down 10 bp to 28.3% in Q3, Labor was up 80 bp to 26.1%. Other Operating expenses were up 90 bp to 10.1%. Occupancy and Related expenses were down 10 bp to 8.3%. Below the store operating line, G&A was down 90 bp to 9.7%.  The Company continues to point out that the averages have likely been boosted by units opened in high density markets, and continues to guide to $3.2M annually for upcoming units.

Adjusted pro forma net income was up 13.1% in Q3’17. Adjusted EBITDA was up 19.9%, Net Income A.T., increased 15.7%, all less than the revenue increase of 26.9%, as a result of lower store level EBITDA margin. At the unit level, labor costs have been up all year because of increases in the compensation structure implemented at the beginning of the year. The company proudly proclaims it already pays above current and minimum wage levels, a policy that allows it to attract and retain high caliber employees.

Management raised guidance slightly for FY17 revenues to $354-355M-$353M, as a result of extra openings, more than offsetting slightly lower comps.They also increased the guidance for licensed openings in ’17 to 18, up from 15 previously. They guided to store EBITDA of 26.5-27.0%, 50 bp lower on the top of the range.


Preliminary, and partial,  guidance for ’18, included 32-35 new company domestic openings and 16—18 licensed stores,  36-40% and 24-26% on the respective base.  AUVs of the new stores are guided at $2.8-3.2M, but management confirmed that both classes of ’16 and ’17 are annualizing above that range. During the conference call discussion, management confirmed that store level labor will continue to rise, modest price increases will likely be offset by traffic headwinds, cost of goods will deleverage slightly, short term at least.  Below the store level EBITDA line, higher technology expense (the mobile app, ordering kiosks, etc.), training and other pre-opening expense, the bi-ennial manager retreat, a new corporate office, and “materially higher” depreciation expense will drag on bottom line results. As management put it, “across the board, it is a year of investment”. As indicated in our conclusion, this discussion leads us to believe that margins, at the store level and bottom line, are more likely to be lower than higher.

The conference call discussion included:

  • 20% of new company stores in’18 will be in new markets, and  in various formats: 1/3 urban, 1/3 free standing, and 1/3 in premier mall/lifestyle centers.
  • The licensing program, with premier partners abroad, is especially successful in South Korea and Japan, less so in the Mideast, with new arrangements in Hong Kong, Macau and Shanghai.
  • Innovations include split kitchens to get more throughput, kiosk only cashless approach (at Astor Place in NYC), ongoing mobile app development and emphasis, delivery pilots with DoorDash and Caviar.
  • Corporate office moving, with a new innovation center for menu creation and kitchen design.
  • There was discussion of new disclosure, by region, of AUVs and store level margins. Basically, the $5.0 AUV generates 28% store level EBITDA margin, 56% C/C first year return, 78% thereafter. Even at $2.8-$3.2M AUV, there is an 18-22% store EBITDA, with 14% C/C in year 1 and 34% thereafter. The point the company makes: even at the lower AUVs, which may apply to many new stores, the long term returns are excellent. Whether that is enough to satisfy analysts, at 60 or 70x expected earnings, remains to be seen.


Overall, we consider SHAK to be one of the best managed companies in the fast (or “fine”) casual restaurant segment, especially considering their relatively early stage which includes almost unprecedented unit growth of company stores. The “culture” is in place, but is not taken for granted by management. When unit level growth is so high, we suggest that many expenses are shuttled (or arbitrarily allocated) between unit level and corporate support. For example, trainees (charged to pre-opening) help out in existing stores (possibly reducing hours for more experienced crew), supervisors (charged to corporate) spend a lot of time in relatively young locations. The result of these examples would be store profits overstated, offset by higher pre-opening and higher corporate G&A. A “steady state” situation is not really in place, but in this case, no matter how expenses are allocated, the 9 months of 2017 pre-tax operating income, at $28.0M, or 10.7% of revenues, with corporate EBITDA at 16.6% is an admirable starting point from which to leverage the situation over the long term. Store level margins have become to come down, with the expected lower volumes at new stores, but the G&A percentage against higher overall sales will no doubt be leveraged over time, though possibly not in ’18. Licensing revenue of $9.1M for 9 months of ’17 certainly helps, but there was no doubt material G&A expense against that contribution and licensing income is not going away. Putting it all together, we can’t think of another restaurant company, over the years, that has produced results this impressive at a similar stage.

SHAK stock is a somewhat different discussion. See our comments above for our current conclusion.

Download PDF


Download PDF


We have written many times of our admiration for this company, founded by the legendary Danny Meyer, in terms of the employee culture, operating skills, and their successful management of an extremely aggressive expansion plan. The “cult” of Shake Shack goes far beyond their NYC roots, and openings literally worldwide have supported this notion.

In a nutshell: when a stock is “priced for perfection” ($37) at over 70x calendar 17 earnings and over 60x estimated ’18 earnings, all operating parameters have to be “in gear”, hopefully accelerating, certainly not decelerating. That means: same store sales and traffic, unit growth rate, store level margins, new unit “productivity” of sales and margins.

We don’t have time here to go into all the details of the current results, but in a nutshell: reality is setting in:

Management has continually pointed out that AUVs away from NYC will be closer to $3M annually than the incredible $7M/store within their hometown. It was pointed out that store level EBITDA would be closer to 20% rather than the previous 30% range, at the lower levels. Analysts, and investors heard this, but haven’t wanted to exactly believe this, as  new stores continued, until recently, to open materially above $3M, and average volumes held close to $5M. We will come back to this parameter shortly.

Yesterday, the third quarter report met estimates of earnings, same store sales were down, but a little less than expected, due to menu price increases, traffic was down more, but the expansion rate was increased for next year. Labor costs are up, as expected, especially since SHAK prides themselves on treating employees very well. Overall store level margins are expected to contract further, and G&A expense will not decline as a percent of sales due to the acclerated rate of company store expansion (35-40%) on the base. All of this could be “accepted” by analysts and investors, but here’s the rub:

Each quarter the Company tells us what the weekly AUVs were for domestic company operated stores. This is the way it has gone:

Q3’16    $103,000     Q3’15   $103,000               even

Q4’16     $90,000       Q4’15    $89,000               +1.1%

Q1’17      $86,000      Q1’16    $90,000               -4.5%

Q2’17       $92,000      Q2’16    $102,000            -9.8%

Q3’17       $91,000      Q3’16    $103,000            -11.7%

Clearly, new units are opening “lower”, by our calculation, at about $3.3M. Analysts explored this development on the conference call, and the company confirmed that this range applies, has been predicted all along. The supplemental slides showed that the cash on cash return for a store at $2.8M -$3.2M is 14% in the first year(after $400,000 of pre-opening expense) and 34% thereafter. While more than acceptable, this is a sobering reality compared to the 56% year one cash on cash return for a $5.0M unit, with 79% thereafter. Since the aggressive expansion plan is obviously focused on markets away from NYC, analysts have to assume that the margins will more rapidly approach the lower numbers than they had previously modeled. This is especially true since management was very clear that labor expenses will continue higher, commodities will provide no relief, and corporate G&A will be ratcheted upward to support growth and technology requirements.

In summary: Only the growth rate, of units, is “in gear”, accelerating in fact. Same store sales and traffic are challenged, which is an industry wide issue, store level margins at existing stores won’t improve and will be materially lower at new stores, and G&A won’t be leveraged in the short term. Worst of all, new stores are opening at the previously predicted lower volumes, which removes the possibility of earnings surprises on the upside. A case can also be made that a growth rate, for company stores, of this magnitude, has its own set of dangers, in addition to the more predictable unit level challenges. Investors and analysts have appropriately, in our view,  reacted cautiously to the latest news.

Download PDF


Download PDF


Danny Meyer, founder of Shake Shack, is no longer actively involved  in management of this leader within the “fine” casual dining industry.  His cultural influence is no doubt being maintained as one of the restaurant industry’s most progressive voices.

Shake Shack, no doubt anticipating the inevitable material rise in the cost of labor, has just opened a unit at Astor Place in Manhattan which has no cashiers.  You can’t accuse Shake Shack, no doubt channeling its founder, Danny Meyer, of lagging the crowd in terms of anticipating changes within the hospitality industry. Combined with mobile order and pay, about 10 POS “kiosks” allow customers to place orders as well as pay. Cash is not accepted. We took a twenty five second video at 1:00pm today (link below), the third day of operations, panning the store interior. On the viewer’s right is the array of ordering stations. SHAK management is not naive about the need to explain the new system and provide customers as much “training” as necessary, so several employees are circulating among the customers, helping where necessary (including myself). I found the system fairly easy to navigate, and used the chip on my card to pay. The customer then moves to the center of the store, and waits in front of the pass through section where names are called out. Mobile orders presumably are handled over the same counter. There is a drink and condiment station, left of center, where customers can set themselves up as they wait for their orders. There is a modest amount of seating as the camera pans to the left, indicating that the Company feels that most orders will be taken off premises.  I will briefly discuss my reaction after you have viewed the video below:


The business model is “a-changin”. Danny Meyer literally wrote the book in dining hospitality, “Setting The Table”.  His fine dining restaurants have distinguished themselves from this standpoint and he is appropriately viewed as one of the long time greats in the industry. At Union Square Hospitality Corporation, his elimination of tipping two years ago was his effort to equalize compensation between the back of the house and front, and this (I call it “unresolved”) experiment has continued to this day. USHC, however, is privately held, and the operating margins (which we suspect have suffered) don’t come under the  line by line scrutiny of analysts and investors. Shake Shack (SHAK), publicly held, must bow to the needs, and demands of the publicly held constituents. Growth rates, and operating margins, have to be maintained or valuation will suffer. We can’t prove it, obviously, but SHAK (if still private) might not be moving quite so aggressively in eliminating cashiers (which includes a significant personal “touch”) and going to a production based model.

FROM THE CUSTOMER’S STANDPOINT: SHAK will not lose its cult-like status any time soon. We don’t expect volumes to suffer substantially with this new approach, however: at the end of the day, it’s (mostly) a burger, fries, and shakes, preferred by many, but not by all. Lot’s of Californians  think In and Out is the ultimate, some prefer the fresh cut fries at Five Guys, and the burgers at Schnipper’s here in NYC are pretty good if there is not a Shake Shack nearby. I believe that what has distinguished Shake Shack, as much as anything else, as been the hospitality quotient. Their staff has been a cut above the big three burger chains, just as been the case at Starbucks. Credit the influence of founders, Howard Shultz and Danny Meyer. Cutting to the chase: the absence of cashiers is not going to gain customers, and could cost some.

FROM THE EMPLOYEES’ STANDPOINT: Shake Shack is no doubt going to try to maintain the hospitality experience, as best they can, but eliminating cashiers is not an upgrade. There are lots of young people who correctly view a job at SHAK (or Starbucks) as a stepping stone in the retail/hospitality industry. They get an on-the-job education and get paid (modestly) at the same time. I’ve written about the Starbucks barista who told me “working at Starbucks makes me a better person” and I suspect that there are more than a few Shake Shack crew who feel that way as well. The new business model increases the value of “production” rather than customer contact, so it is going to be a lot less satisfying for that young person who really loves to interact with people, but is now just pumping out product.

Bottom Line: No Cash, and No Cashiers, may be progressive, even necessary, but will likely have unintended consequences, for  employees, customers & shareholders.


Download PDF