How the CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group came up with the idea for Shake Shack. Plus, why his 21st birthday was the best meal he’s ever had.
Question: Describe your first impressions of New York.
Danny Meyer: Well I moved to New York because I couldn’t get it out of my system. I’m a mid-westerner and I really thought that I’d end up maybe in Chicago; I felt like St. Louis might not be quite big enough for me, but I had gone to school in Connecticut at Trinity College and I spent a lot of my weekends down in the city just eating the city, literally. I went to the horse races, I would go to broadway shows, I’d go to watch jazz, restaurants obviously, and I just liked looking at people. I liked the jolt of energy that I got when I drove off the FDR drive into the city for the first time, which I presume is still there but now that it’s part of me I don’t feel it quite to the same degree but I could literally feel a jolt. I just am curious; I like to look at how any block on the street can change, literally, from day to day. A storefront can change, you can look up and see windows up above that have changed, the kind of human beings that are seemingly from every corner of the earth who have something to say and something to express or hear. That’s what I wanted when I first came to New York. I didn’t think I would probably be here for more than a year, but one year has now turned into a quarter of a century and I’m still here.
Question: Where did the idea of Shake Shack come from?
Danny Meyer: I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri and I basically have two incredibly fond memories of being a teenager there, as soon as I could get the keys to my parents’ car. One was going to Ted Drewes for frozen custard and one was going to Steak and Shake where back in those days they had curbside service. So you would have, after a party, go to Steak and Shake or after going to a rock concert you go to Steak and Shake and it was -- it dawned on me when we had an opportunity to create a reason for people to use this beautiful park, Madison Square Park, morning, noon, and night. That makes a park safer when people are using it. That in New York, where we don’t have an automobile culture necessarily, we still have reasons that human beings want to get together. So whereas these burger and shake stands from the 1950s, 1960s, even the 1970s, really grew up in areas where people use their cars and they would hang out in the parking lot. We said, “Well, why can’t a parking lot be a park?”
That’s how it came to be and I’ll tell you what. We envisioned or we dreamed of what it could be but never imagined that people would fall in love to the degree that they have.
Question: What’s your favorite thing to order at Shake Shack?
Danny Meyer: Shack Burger. But I’ll eat almost anything on the menu. It’s not really a very long menu. I mean, I am very happy getting a Chicago Dog; I love the Bird Dog, which is the chicken bratwurst. I’m in total love with the Shroom Burger. My favorite custard of all, which I just asked people to make for me, and sometimes it’s on the menu is the just getting vanilla custard with coffee in it.
Question: You opened your first restaurant at 27. Who’s your closest mentor?
Danny Meyer: There’s no one that I look to now for any one thing but there are definitely people, sadly many of them are no longer living, that I think about when I get to a crossroads. I think about my dad who entirely gave me my love for food and wine and showing people a good time. He had been in the travel business and even had a couple restaurants before he died. I think of my maternal grandfather who really helped to show me that it’s reason enough to invest in your community, because it’s the right thing to do but also that it’s good business to do that. And from a professional restaurant standpoint I think of another person who passed away a few years ago from Paris named Jean-Claude Vrinat who ran a fantastic restaurant called Taillevent and he really showed me that having a really, really refined restaurant to not need to be exclusive from having a good sense of humor that you could have fun taking service seriously.
Question: What’s your favorite meal of all time?
Danny Meyer: Oh, boy. I probably think about my 21st birthday at Trattoria in Rome and it was a simple meal but it was great. The antipasti was perfect. The spaghetti a la carbonara was right on the money. Liters and liters of cheap red wine that was just fine. It was just perfect. For me, a great meal has as much to do with the people I’m with and the comfort that I feel in the setting. The food has to be absolutely delicious but I think that sometimes people put too much emphasis on always having to find the best. If I hadn’t answered that particular mean in Rome, the other place I was thinking about would be just getting a great pizza. I could have a sausage and mushroom pizza at one of a handful of places in New Haven, Connecticut and be just as happy as a clam, no pun intended.
Recorded on September 17, 2009