Shake Shack Is Not the Problem

Shake Shack, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, and other big companies are getting millions in government loan money while mom-and-pops go broke. But whose fault is that?

An illustration of a Shake Shack bag with money.
Givaga / Shira Raz / Shutterstock / The Atlantic

In March, Congress passed a small-business bailout known as the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP. The noble goal of the $350 billion program was to lend just about every endangered small and medium-size company enough money to cover two months of payroll and operations. Even better, that loan would be forgiven if those companies didn’t lay off their workers.

But within two weeks, the PPP funds ran dry. In the hunger-games scrum for loan money, large companies—with their finance teams, legal departments, and preexisting relationships with banks—emerged with the biggest hauls.

Most infamously, restaurant chains such as Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Potbelly Sandwich Shop, and Shake Shack took millions of dollars in loans. These are not “small” businesses by any reasonable definition. Shake Shack is a publicly traded company with 8,000 employees and annual revenue of nearly $600 million. Ruth’s Hospitality Group has 59 locations and $87 million in cash on hand.

The widespread condemnation of these loans is righteous, understandable, and completely misplaced. First, these companies legally qualify for the PPP given the state of their industry—the utterly obliterated restaurant sector—and the franchise-based nature of their businesses. Second, they employ a lot of people. One cannot simultaneously mourn the loss of millions of jobs while tsk-tsking companies that use every means available to stave off a bankruptcy that will end with mass layoffs.

The PPP’s original sin was not that it was available to franchises, but that it was way too small to serve all qualifying businesses. Congress thus turned a purported bailout program into a battle royale over funds, which meant that every dollar Shake Shack secured to spare its own employees was a dollar denied to a small suburban diner’s waitstaff. (The low dollar amount wasn’t the PPP’s only problem: By making loan forgiveness contingent on payroll maintenance, it left a sizable coverage gap for the worst-hit companies that had already laid off workers.)

Industry titans are joining the corporate blame game. “I think you’ve seen some pretty shameful acts by some large companies to take advantage of the system,” said Howard Schultz, the former chairman and CEO of Starbucks. On CNBC, Mark Cuban chimed in, saying that public companies that take federal loans under the PPP will “kill the brand.”

These critics are right in one important respect. It is not fair that large companies feast while small companies go hungry. But again, the fault lies with the program’s architects, not its players. And the choice confronting the bigger fish is not exactly easy: either risk public condemnation by taking the money, or risk your company’s future by not using every available financing channel. The former could kill your brand by making you seem heartless; the latter could kill your brand by forcing you to furlough employees.

If a city designs a breadline policy that can serve only one-third of its population, who deserves more blame for the subsequent starvation: the architects who designed the program for inevitable immiseration, or the handful of high-income families who, fearing inevitable shortages, did everything they could to get the bread? The possibility of opportunistic and unethical actors has to be factored into crisis-era legislation, especially at a time when so many companies in the restaurant sector rightly believe that the pandemic could end their business.

During a pandemic, everything is scarce—your time, your toilet paper, grocery-delivery slots, and aggregate consumer demand—except for the federal government’s capacity to spend money. By creating a program that was designed to run out, Washington ignored this, then responded to mom-and-pop misery with big-business finger-pointing. The solution is as obvious today as it was three weeks ago: Add a zero and turn this small-business scramble into a massive government giveaway. We have nothing to lose, except the economy.