TORONTO — Canadians with a hankering for Shake Shack’s juicy burgers and hand-spun milkshakes soon won’t have to cross the border to satisfy their cravings.
Toronto-based private investment firms Osmington Inc. and Harlo Entertainment Inc. announced plans Wednesday to bring the U.S. fast food giant to Canada.
Shake Shack’s Canadian debut will begin with a flagship location in Toronto set to open in 2024, the companies said, with plans for 35 locations across the country by 2035.
The New York-based fast food brand that started out of a hotdog cart in Madison Square Park in 2001 and now has 440 locations worldwide has been eyeing Canada for “quite some time,” said the company’s chief global licensing officer, Michael Kark, in a statement.
He promised the Canadian locations will feature a mix of Shake Shack classics including its burgers, chicken sandwiches, crinkle-cut fries, frozen custard, beer and wine, along with “bespoke Canada-exclusive items.”
An Osmington spokesperson would not say what Canadian items the brand has planned for its menu, what site in Toronto it will open its first location at or what other provinces Shake Shack plans to move into.
Lisa Hutcheson, a retail strategist with J.C. Williams Group, said the announcement was stirring up “excitement” Wednesday because Shake Shack already has brand recognition in Canada.
Many Canadians have travelled to international locations and others visited a one-day pop-up the company held in 2017 at the now defunct Momofuku Daishō in Toronto.
Hutcheson feels fans of the fast-food joint will be looking for Canadian Shake Shack locations to mirror their international counterparts rather than cater to Canadian palettes with revamped menus.
“People have an expectation and they don’t want to be disappointed if it comes here and it doesn’t translate that way,” she said. “They want it to be the same experience.”
That experience will be in the hands of Osmington and Harlo, who Kark has called “exceptional” partners for the company’s expansion.
Osmington, which is owned and controlled by Thomson Reuters chairman David Thomson, was involved with the Atlanta Thrashers’ relocation to Winnipeg and the retail redevelopment of Toronto’s Union Station, while Harlo is behind restaurants such as Mimi Chinese, Kasa Moto and Planta.
“Shake Shack has long been a brand that we admire,” said Lawrence Zucker, chief executive of Osmington, in a statement.
“Their emphasis on community building, enlightened hospitality and exceptional food quality aligns with our values and we are thrilled to be bringing them to Canada.”
Shake Shack’s long-awaited entrance into the Canadian market comes amid a wave of U.S. fast food brands expanding to Canada over the last decade.
Five Guys, Carl’s Jr., Wahlburgers and Blaze Pizza all flocked to Canada before Chick-fil-A and Dave’s Hot Chicken headed north in recent years.
Hutcheson feels these brands were drawn to Canada because the markets and interest levels in fast food are similar.
“We love our fast food here,” said Vince Sgabellone, a food service industry analyst at Circana, the amalgamation of research firms Information Resources Inc. and NPD Group.
“We love our quick service food here and we love to eat out at restaurants, so there’s still lots of room, I think, for expansion and new concepts and new brands to come to Canada.”
Canada’s newest U.S. fast food entrants leaned heavily on chicken, a category that has increased in popularity as some consumers become more health-conscious and shift their diets away from red meat.
Chicken sandwiches were included in 7.3 per cent of all restaurant orders in Canada in 2020, data released by research firm NPD Group found. That amounted to 386.4 million servings.
Some 17.6 million BBQ chicken sandwiches were ordered in Canada in 2020, up 40 per cent from the year before, while 228 million breaded chicken sandwiches were gobbled up, down three per cent from the year before.
However, burgers, the star of Shake Shack’s menu, still reign supreme. They were included in 9.6 per cent of all Canadian restaurant orders in 2020, which translated to 739.3 million servings of burgers.
Canadian companies have coped with the onslaught of American counterparts by expanding their own fast-food offerings. Several added chicken sandwiches and all-day breakfast menus, while Tim Hortons partnered with pop superstar Justin Bieber to launch three new Timbit flavours — called Timbiebs — and experimented with flatbread pizza.
Sgabellone suspects Canadian brands and international companies that have already entered the country will be watching Shake Shack’s expansion closely.
“It’ll make the established players sit up and take notice and they’ll be on their toes right now,” he said.
He expects Shake Shack’s rivals to respond by being even more inventive with their menus — a task that will be all the more challenging after inflation reached a near 40-year high last year, making the cost of dining out harder for consumers to stomach.
Statistics Canada’s latest data shows the price of food purchased from fast food and takeout restaurants in February was up 8.6 per cent compared with a year ago.
Visits to fast food joints in Canada were up nine per cent in 2022, just shy of the 11 per cent gain they saw in 2021, NPD Group research shows.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 22, 2023.