The Secret to Danny Meyer's Exceptionally Good Taste

The star restaurateur is always expanding


You were a downtown pioneer, you were a farm-to-table pioneer, and you apprenticed in the kitchens of Europe. So how is it that you started a burger chain called Shake Shack?
Shake Shack started off as a summer hot dog cart in Madison Square Park. It was not meant to be a company—it was completely accidental. It started off as an expression of community building. Madison Square didn’t have the opportunity to have a Greenmarket, but I had seen the power of what happens when you give people a good reason to use a park. So we raised all this money to make the park beautiful, then decided to match it with art—to make it a great outdoor sculpture park. We collaborated with the Public Art Fund, and they brought in a Thai sculptor who did a piece called “I ❤ Taxi.” He dressed up a hot dog cart to look like a taxi—but he needed somebody to operate the hot dog cart. We offered to operate the cart. We did it out of the kitchen of Eleven Madison Park.

We said to ourselves, “Let’s take something as mundane as a hot dog cart and apply our theory of hospitality to it.” ... These were not dirty-water dogs. We had Chicago-style hot dogs—nobody else was doing them. We had eight toppings, lemon verbena lemonade, beet-stained potato chips and Rice Krispies treats. It was the summer of 2001, and we had 60 or 70 people waiting in line.

Yes, I remember seeing that.
We lost money because no other hot dog cart in the city had four people working it. But by the summer of ’03 we ended up making $7,500 and contributed our profits to the Madison Square Park Conservancy. And then we said, instead of doing a hot dog cart, how about we convince the city to put out an RFP for a permanent kiosk in the park? The rent flow would go to the park, and we would own the business. And we’ll blow up the hot dog part—add shakes and burgers and fries. And, lo and behold, we won it.

And people are still standing in that line.
People have just shown up. But this was never Danny sitting in a room saying, “I’ve got a great strategic idea—let’s get into the burger business!” It all started from the standpoint of trying to do the right thing for the community. And we did this for five years before opening a second one.

Still cautious, huh?
My history has been to grow the roots as deeply as you can before going on to the next thing. That’s why it took 10 years to go from Union Square Cafe to Gramercy Tavern, and another 10 years to go from Blue Smoke’s first location to its second, and five to go from Shake Shack 1 to Shake Shack 2.

I’m not sure how to say this tactfully, but there’s no shortage of places to get burgers and fries in this town. Why are people waiting in line for yours? I mean, what’s the mojo?
It’s true. There’s nothing we serve at Shake Shack that you haven’t had for years and years, in many different ways and in many different places. We try to answer that question ourselves every single day. We struggle with that.

You mean, you still don’t know?
Our philosophy is that if we can keep making the food irresistible, accessible, and hire the same kind of emotional skills at Shake Shack that we would hire at Union Square Cafe or Gramercy Tavern, so that your experience is one of feeling welcome, there’s an alchemy there that just works.

Why have you chosen Shake Shack for aggressive expansion?
I wouldn’t call it aggressive. I would call it very careful.

OK, but there are still 21 locations of Shake Shack and relatively few of your other brands.
Well, yes, it’s the only concept we have that’s not in New York City. But the business is absent so many variables—chefs, sommeliers, florists, bartenders—that exist in a full-service restaurant. It’s the restaurant version of prét-à-porter as opposed to haute couture, and we can teach the system to people who have natural hospitality skills.


You’re seen as an industry pioneer in terms of elevating the status of restaurant work. A quote on your website struck me: “We take care of each other first; our next priority is the guests.” In an industry notorious for turning and burning its workers, you preach “enlightened hospitality.” That’s radical thinking, isn’t it?
Well, I didn’t name it that until I wrote Setting the Table. I didn’t wake up one day and say, “The right way to do business is this.”

But you were already doing business that way.
I only had two restaurant jobs before I did this, and both added up to less than one year. And while I loved being around really good food and wine, what I loved more than anything was the sense of family that came from being on the same staff. Whether it was cooking for each other, taking care of each other or even talking about how bad your boss was.

Well, the restaurant industry doesn’t have the best reputation in terms of how it treats many of its employees.
It doesn’t. And it made me ask myself: Why can’t your boss be part of what you love about your job—in terms of what they teach you, in terms of their job being to foster a healthy sense of family? Secondly, to your question, I had to break through some barriers with my own family in terms of this not being a career path.

That’s how the public saw it. People forget that restaurant work wasn’t seen as a profession until fairly recently.
“That’s not why we gave you a good education … ”

You mentioned earlier that the pre-digital age gave you more time to learn. If you were to start out today, would you have had the same success?
It would be a whole lot harder. The one thing that would still work today is good intentions. People can always feel if you’re trying hard—and we were. But that’s not experience, that’s just character.

In the mid-’90s, when you’d firmly established yourself with stalwarts like Gramercy Tavern, Blue Smoke and Eleven Madison Park, your restaurants had impressive food, wine and ambiance, just like the rest, but there was a difference. When guests walked in, they didn’t get that tight-chested feeling of being in a fancy restaurant. Can you tell me about creating that casual mood, why it even matters?
I had a chorus of voices saying, “Danny, do you realize how many people work in this company now? That there’s only one of you dividing yourself among five restaurants? You have to put down on paper what matters to you.” So finally, after all these voices had kept me up at night for a year or so, I decided to write Setting the Table. The book allowed me—forced me—to make intentional all those things that had been intuitive.

In your book, you repeatedly talk about the importance of making a restaurant not just good, but “accessible.” Had you been put off by the snootiness of fine dining as it existed at the time?
Yes, but fine dining wasn’t the issue; it was the absence of hospitality. I adore going to a very, very fancy restaurant—as long as the spirit is genuine, like it’s their pleasure to welcome you. One of my great teachers was the late Jean-Claude Vrinat of Taillevent in Paris. It had the longest string of three Michelin stars of any restaurant in Paris, and yet delivered with a twinkle in the eye, a sense of playfulness and warmth that said, “We’re delighted you’re here.”

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