Seven Questions for Shake Shack’s Danny Meyer

The legendary restaurateur on New York-New York’s new restaurant, consistent hospitality and custard vs. ice cream


Let’s start with the question I asked Mario Batali about a year ago: Why does Las Vegas need another high-profile burger joint?

I don’t know that it does. I just know that we need Las Vegas. I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to tell anyone they need more of anything. I love Shake Shack, and I’m so excited to share Shake Shack with Las Vegas. We have a fantastic setting. If you’re gonna have a hotel called New York-New York adjacent to you and what I think is the first park (MGM Resorts International’s The Park) ever on the Strip, it’s an ideal spot.

How does Las Vegas Boulevard compare with your original location in New York’s Madison Square Park?

There’s nothing, really, to compare to Manhattan. And there’s nothing, really, to compare to Las Vegas. But what they do have in common is uncommon density of foot traffic. The original Shake Shack, and many of our Shake Shacks, are in places that cars couldn’t get to even if they tried. It’s designed for people who want to walk there and want to be with other people. … So if you can have a park that’s right in the middle of an incredibly popular place where people want to be—and I would say the Strip has to be in anybody’s Top 10 list in the world—and you don’t need a car to do it, it’s gonna be ideal.

As a high-end restaurateur, what inspired you to go into the burger-and-shake business?

It was all an accident. We started by being in the hot dog cart business, trying to help out a piece of public art in the middle of Madison Square Park. The artist wanted to have a working hot dog cart to go with his huge [sculpture of] New York taxis on stilts. We volunteered to do that in 2001. Our hot dog cart was so popular that even though the sculpture was only up for that summer, our cart came back for two additional summers. Because it was so popular, we said, “Let’s turn this hot dog cart into a 20-foot-by-20-foot kiosk.” That became Shake Shack, and the rest is history.

What lessons from the fine-dining world carry over into what’s basically fast food?

The biggest one is how we hire. We look for people who have what we call a high HQ—a high hospitality quotient. We’re looking for people who, whether they’re serving black truffles, beef Bourguignon, barbecue or burgers, their greatest pleasure is in making you happy. The price point shouldn’t have any impact on how much hospitality you get.

We’ve learned a lot about how to source premium ingredients. If it’s good enough to be served in one of our highly rated fine-dining restaurants, it’s good enough to be served at Shake Shack. We don’t cut corners.

What’s the secret to a great shake?

What’s interesting is, you could have asked the same question about burgers. The first thing you have to do is stake out a position on what you want to say about burgers or what you want to say about shakes. Then, once you stake out that position, you realize that for 80 percent of people, that may or may not be their favorite way to enjoy a burger or shake. But you have to take a point of view, and you’d better execute it as well as you can.

With shakes, our point of view is the richer and thicker the better. … We use frozen custard as opposed to ice cream. It has a lower butterfat content but a higher egg content. What that means is the flavors sustain themselves, and you really get a sensation of thickness. And then anything we mix into the shakes is completely natural. So we’re using the same Swiss chocolate that our pastry chef uses at Gramercy Tavern.

What will this location offer that’s not available at other Shake Shacks?

As we do in any city, our chef designs concretes [frozen desserts] whimsically and deliciously to pay homage to the city. One is called All Shook Up, using this incredible house-made peanut butter banana cheesecake from [Henderson’s] Gimme Some Sugar mixed in with our frozen custard. And the second one is waffles and strawberries—you eat it, and it feels like you’re eating Las Vegas glitter. It is the most deliciously bizarre concoction that I’ve ever come across in my life. It’s called the Jackpot.

Tell me about your relationship with First Friday.

Every Shake Shack we open, we require that the general manager and the teams select a not-for-profit that they want to support both financially and through any kind of volunteer work possible. … And this particular Shack was very interested in art. So every time someone orders an All Shook Up concrete, a portion of those proceeds will go to the First Friday Foundation.

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