The Authentic Experience: Shuckin’ Shack
Shuckin’ Shack started out in 2007 as a 960-square-foot seafood shack just an outfielder’s throw from the water in Carolina Beach, N.C.
Today, the chain has 16 restaurants, most along the mid-Atlantic, serving seafood boils, fresh shrimp, po’boys and its highlight: fresh oysters. Restaurants feature a full bar and a beach shack environment.
These efforts to stay true to its roots are key to Shuckin’ Shack’s success, says CEO Jonathan Weathington. Guests, he says, come to the restaurant for an authentic beach shack vibe. “It’s a very relaxed experience,” he says. “We don’t believe seafood, especially oysters and shrimp, has to be served on white tablecloth. That’s been kind of the norm, at least for the last couple of decades in our industry. We don’t believe it has to be dressed up with fancy accouterment or nice tablecloths or anything like that.”
The chain’s beach shack environment is supported partly by the decor — surfboards, life preservers, etc. — but also by the type of people Shuckin’ Shack hires. While bringing on employees with restaurant experience is good, the chain prioritizes finding people who can have an easy, natural conversation with guests. It’s key to the authenticity the chain provides, Weathington says. “I wouldn’t invite you into my house and say, ‘Welcome to the Weathington household.’ I would invite you in and say, ‘Hey, sit down, let me get you a drink.’ We strip away everything that doesn’t matter, including the words that are just fake, for lack of a better term.”
Operationally, the chain also stays true to its roots through its sustainability efforts. Shuckin’ Shack participates in the James Beard Foundation’s Smart Catch program, which encourages and supports the use of sustainable seafood. In addition, the company participates in programs to recycle its oyster shells, which can be used to build reefs used in oyster farms. Shell recycling, then, is not only good for the environment, but it also helps ensure a plentiful supply of oysters for restaurants like Shuckin’ Shack.
While Shuckin’ Shack faced plenty of pandemic-related challenges in 2020, it didn’t respond to them like many other restaurants. Weathington says the cut third-party delivery services take out of every sale is too big for the chain to stomach. Instead of working with these platforms, the chain set out to stay in contact with its customers via social media and pushed to-go meals, including meal kits for at-home seafood boils.
This strategy works well for Shuckin’ Shack. While sales dropped in 2019 by about 18%, Weathington says at Shuckin’ Shack they bounced back in 2020 and are even up more than 10% versus 2019.
Looking ahead, the chain expects to open 5 stores in 2022 and double its store count in the next 30 to 36 months. It could likely grow faster, Weathington says, but the company continues to focus on growing unit count and average unit volume at the same time. As for markets, the company thrives in smaller cities like Durham, N.C., and particularly in residential areas. These locations allow guests to get the full beach shack experience.
“We need to be around rooftops,” says Weathington. “We want to be where people are. [We say] in our words and even in some of our marketing materials — we like to be where people can drive, bike, walk or stumble home.”