Cult-adored burger chain Shake Shack went public on January 30, and its share prices skyrocketed right off the bat for a surprising reason: PETA gobbled them up. Yes, that PETA. The controversial organization is growing up, learning that it can speak more loudly with its dollars than with buckets of red paint and other more shocking tactics. Unsurprisingly, PETA has set its investing power to the fast food industry, where it’s influencing menu options and sourcing with shareholder power.
Though we’re more accustomed to seeing reports of rallies and flashy protests of animal rights activists aligning themselves with PETA, the organization has learned that it’s far more effective to quietly buy its way into shareholder meetings where companies will pay it more attention. In a press release, the animal rights organization announced its intentions to sway Shake Shack CEO Randy Garutti into putting vegan burgers, dogs, and shakes on the menu.
On the surface, PETA is taking a more moderate, dignified approach to changing the industry through shareholder activism — a refreshing change — but the agenda is clear: It still wants animal products off the menu, and it’s still relying on the same tricks to get there. Shake Shack is already a fast food chain you can feel good about, using only vegetarian-fed, humanely raised, hormone- and antibiotic-free 100% angus beef and dairy products. The Shake Shack motto is “Stand for something good,” which extends from the ingredients it sources to the recycled materials used for building its shacks.
The ingredients are locally sourced and the beef is fresh-ground every day, not pre-pattied and frozen. The oil for frying the fries is recycled into biofuel. As a member of 1% for the Planet, 1% of all water bottle sales go to cleaning up water sources worldwide. Shake Shack offers vegetarian and gluten-free options at all locations. If you’re a meat eater in search of a quick burger in the Northeast, this restaurant is as virtuous as it gets.
It’s just not good enough for PETA, which is accusing the chain of not living up to its motto until vegan foods are staples on the menu. Even with targeted investing, the organization is still up to its old tricks.
In typical PETA fashion, Executive Vice President Tracy Reiman graphically describes the horrors of the dairy industry you’re supporting by buying a non-vegan shake. In a 275-word press release, 168 of them are of the standard, off-putting, shock-and-awe language of the PETA we’re all used to. In the letter Reiman sent to Garutti the day the company went public, the VP of PETA covered the “hot trend” that veganism will be in 2015 as well as a vivid description of cow slaughter. It’s clear that when communicating directly with the top dogs, so to speak, PETA could still work on corporate diplomacy and playing nice: Saying things like “Vegan options would also help Shake Shack work toward its ‘vision’ to ‘stand for something good'” could be more effective without the snarky quotation marks. Old habits die hard.
Still, PETA’s newer methods of talking with its money are proving effective. Just days before buying Shake Shack stock, furniture giant IKEA officially declared to PETA that it would roll out vegan Swedish meatballs after almost four years of petitioning for the animal-free menu option. PETA’s made headway with Burger King, Hardee’s, Denny’s, and even McDonald’s, though still deep into its public-facing McCruelty campaign against the latter.
According to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission rules, shareholders in possession of $2,000 or 1% of a company’s stock for at least one year can submit a shareholder resolution. PETA owns stock in more than 80 top meat producers, clothing retailers, fast food and grocery chains, and pharmaceutical companies, with a growing number of shareholder resolutions submitted every year. The organization still prides itself on using “graphic language to show other shareholders how the companies in which they invest abuse animals” and the statements read at annual shareholder meetings are “always accompanied by equally damning news releases.”
The method to this madness? As PETA puts it, “many companies often prefer to negotiate with PETA to get us to withdraw the resolution or forgo the annual meeting. Using this tactic, PETA has won major concessions in behalf of animals from companies such as Burger King, Carl’s Jr., Hardee’s, McDonald’s, and Denny’s.”
With a year left until PETA can submit its first shareholder resolution, we’re just seeing the beginning of the campaign to get Shake Shack’s menu less meaty. Considering that it’s a burger, hot dog, shake, and frozen custard joint, it seems unlikely that the chain will ditch the animal products. With veganism on the rise, though, it could prove beneficial to Shake Shack’s shareholder value to provide one or two meat- and dairy-free options. Food research company Technomic has listed veganism under one of their 10 Trends to Watch in 2015. Gallop polls have shown that there are twice as many vegans in the U.S. as there are people diagnosed with Celiac Disease, and that’s a lot of purchasing power at the ready.