Jonathan Weathington Interview – Shuckin’ Shack’s Success Story Continues Full Steam Ahead in 2022
What has it taken to weather the storm over the last few years? Not to bring up bad memories, but 2020-2021 was a landmark year for the restaurant and bar industry – for all the wrong reasons. Many businesses closed their doors for the last time; some will never open again because the world is different post-pandemic. If you ask us, the adventure started way back in 2020 with shifting public health policies, sudden labor shortages, and a major spike in food prices in 2021, the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades. No matter how you look back on the situation, it wasn’t pretty. Thankfully, things are much less crazy and unpredictable today.
But through it all, Shuckin’ Shack has thrived and continued to grow and expand its footprint west of the Mississippi for the first time despite all of those headwinds. When things got tough, we didn’t fold the sails, wait for the tide to roll in, and hope for the best. We took action, real action, and we’ve weathered the storm pretty well overall. Bar franchise opportunities don’t come to fruition overnight, yet we found the formula for success. And we share that enthusiasm with new Franchise Owners every time we open up a new location.
The 1-2 pandemic punch had us reeling at first
Basically, no one in the restaurant and bar industry knew what to expect after the spring of 2020. All we knew back then was that a horrific contagion from on the other side of the planet was going to force our businesses to close for who knows how long. As Shuckin’ Shack’s CEO Jonathan Weathington put it, “operating a full-service restaurant brand in the spring and summer of 2020 felt like a street fight with one arm tied behind your back.” Now, imagine if you had to bob and weave versus an enemy you couldn’t see or anticipate. That’s essentially what the entire industry faced.
“As we progressed through the remainder of 2020 and into early 2021, and operational muscle memory returned,” Jonathan reminisced, “we began to better adjust to and defend against the uppercuts in the form of capacity restrictions, municipal mandates, and labor shortages.” And that was before the inflation train started to pick up speed.
“Since our inception,” Jonathan explained, “we’ve depended upon a low-labor model and an ultra-efficient cook line to maximize the bottom line. We cross-train back-of-house employees in all positions, allowing for an efficient labor model that utilizes an employee’s cross preparation to best complete tasks.” Not many bar franchises for sale even believe this approach works, but we proved it does.
Pretty soon, you’ll start seeing Shuckin’ Shacks in Hawaii if this pace keeps up over the foreseeable future. Cheers to hoping! Still, that kind of expansion doesn’t happen overnight, and it certainly isn’t possible without staying ahead of the curve and thinking outside the box.
The cliche “sports bars are a dime a dozen” was probably started by someone who’s never had a good time in their life because they’re actually some of the most fun businesses you can create. The challenge is finding the right timing, partners, and support to get the bar off the ground, but this year, the NCAA gave us a gift when they finally loosened up name, image, and likeness (NIL) restrictions. Now (and it’s about shuckin’ time), college athletes can accept sponsorships for their NIL and support themselves while still in school.
As Darren put it, “the past year has seen a lot of companies and brands trying to figure out what this NIL thing really is, and colleges are doing the same thing. This is brand new to everybody, but Shuckin’ Shack is a sports bar. We actually don’t even care what sport is on. If it’s college gymnastics or curling, we’ll watch it at The Shack. It just fits in with our brand.”
Whereas some business owners would balk at trying something new, Shuckin’ Shack decided to take the lead and start working with Icon Source to set up a new sponsorship program. So far, the results speak for themselves because it’s working out better than anyone hoped, which is great for the future of college athletes and potential Franchise Owners. It’s a win-win, no matter how you look at it.
Strategic counter-punches helped us win the fight
If you’ve never actually been in a fight, don’t be in a hurry because it gets rough, to say the least. Now, we didn’t really throw punches with anyone, but that’s what it felt like at all of our locations. We had to adjust and think about how we could batten down the hatches and get through the choppy seas. So, how exactly did we do it? In short, we had a strategy and kept true to our brand’s values the whole way, and we never wavered in our positivity because you can’t let things you can’t control hold you back in this business.
“Dating back to March 2020 and continuing today, pointed communication to our customers has been a primary reason we’ve been able to stay afloat and thrive during uncertain times,” Jonathan said. “As opposed to spending capital on technology and competing with a host of other brands now ubiquitous with online ordering and delivery,” he continued, “We chose to invest in an interactive social media approach, driven by a singular message: We are your choice for seafood and cocktails.”
But we didn’t leave our staff’s needs out of the equation. After all, they’re our life’s blood, and without them, we can’t succeed. As Jonathan said, “pointed communication also extended to our staff members. Yes, we increased wages to be more competitive across the board, but we also took a holistic approach to talk with our employees. Simple conversations improved our employee retention. We focused on employee well-being, offered more flexible work schedules, and tried to listen more to the actual needs of our front-line workers.”
At Shuckin’ Shack, we’re not only business partners, managers, servers, and bartenders. Instead, we become like a family at every location, and that’s the secret to our success.
If students were caught licensing or promoting their NIL, they could lose their scholarship, be expelled from school, or force the college to limit scholarship offers. Thankfully, the courts finally called out the NCAA’s reasoning, which essentially went as follows: “we can’t pay our employees (student-athletes) because our customers (fans) prefer them not to be compensated since, in their eyes, that makes the game pure.” We’ll wait for you to stop shaking your head, but that’s really what the NCAA argued – and ultimately lost to the applause of thousands of college athletes nationwide.
Smooth sailing ahead for future Franchise Owners
“Our marketing team doubled down on our ‘unconventional’ marketing efforts, driven by our soiree into viral trends, with a Shuckin’ Shack twist,” Jonathan added. “We stuck with who we knew ourselves to be and, more importantly, who our customers knew us to be: authentic and fun. Our operations team continued to work on combating supply chain challenges, all the while encouraging our franchisees to roll with the punches and depend on our market pricing structure on key menu items.”
Not only that, but here’s a spoiler: Shuckin’ Shack has a new partnership with Icon Source to sponsor local collegiate athletes at every location. If other seafood restaurants and bars are doing it this way, we’ve yet to hear about it. And the ultimate proof that our model works is our bottom line.
“2021 served as a record-breaking year for Shuckin’ Shack: over $20 million in system-wide sales with 95%+ being on-premise sales, a same-store sales comp of +11% versus 2019, our biggest franchise development year ever, and a renewed faith and dependence upon the guiding principles of our brand,” Jonathan wrapped up.
That’s the long story short about how we were able to keep the momentum going when so many bars and restaurants still struggle to this day.
Visit our Franchise website for more details about how you can join the Shuckin’ Shack family too.