New York City restaurateur Danny Meyer seems unstoppable. Since opening the doors of his first establishment, Union Square Café, back in 1985, he’s gone on to create legendary institutions such as Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Eleven Madison Park and Four-Star Gramercy Tavern; start a cult burger sensation with Shake Shack (which became a publicly traded company in January); and change the way New Yorkers think about food in their museums with the well-received Untitled at the Whitney and Four-Star The Modern at the Museum of Modern Art.
Meyer, Union Square Hospitality Group’s CEO, came to Austin, Texas, in May, just after being named one of the “100 Most Influential People of 2015” by Time, to open up his first Shake Shack in Texas. (The Lone Star State location is the 41st nationwide and 68th in the world.) The infectiously friendly entrepreneur sat down with us to talk about his love of barbecue, his greatest inspirations and the power of a good hug.
When Shake Shack first started as a little hot dog stand in Madison Square Park, did you ever think it would blow up like this?
N-O W-A-Y. I wish I could say it better. Never in a million years. Never part of our vision or dreams or anything. We were trying to revitalize the park and say something fresh about burger stands. I think the one thing we were very conscious of is that New York does not have a parking lot culture but it does have a park culture. We wondered, “What if we could have people use a park the way they used to use a parking lot, which was just to hang?” And maybe they were showing off their cars or taking a date out or just having a carload of friends, but who ever wrote the rule that you can’t also hang out with your friends or a date or show off whatever it is you’re showing off in a park as well? No one was probably more surprised than we were — it took off right away.
Has the menu changed a lot since those early days?
[When we had] the hot dog cart, we cooked everything in the private dining room of Eleven Madison Park. The hot dogs were actually cooked in court-bouillon. We were doing this fancy stuff with herbs and spices. So, if you got it from the hot dog cart, it was coming out of water. We didn’t have a griddle as we do now. So, the hot dog has evolved over time. But from the very beginning, we dragged it through the garden, Chicago-style, with all the Chicago toppings. So, it was really just plumbing our past. What are the things we always loved that didn’t really exist in New York City? And lo and behold, the whole seemed to be greater than the sum of the parts.
What inspired the Shake Shack concept?
We didn’t do any research besides plowing from our own past and growing up. A lot of inspiration came from the roadside shacks I visited growing up in St. Louis — the smashed burgers, the crinkle-cut fries, the hot dogs that were split open and griddled on a flat top. We were also working with all the same purveyors and suppliers we used for all of our fine-dining restaurants, so that’s where Pat LaFrieda came in. He was our original beef provider and, at that point, he was not known for burgers. He was known for being a great butcher and, I think, Shake Shack sort of super charged his career as a burger maestro as well.
Why did you decide to come to Austin?
Shake Shack was born in a city and it now works in all kinds of places that aren’t cities, but we always had a love affair with cities and we always said we wanted to be in our favorite cities in the world. Austin has been on our mind and on our list really since we first crossed the threshold of saying, “We are going out of town.” Really we’ve been talking about this for about five years!
Even before we had Shake Shack, we had opened Blue Smoke [in New York City] and Kreuz [Market in Lockhart, Texas] came up for our first-ever Big Apple Barbecue Block Party. So, it’s fun to circle back and say, “That’s how we first got to know Austin was through its barbecue.” Why wouldn’t we bring a little homage to that right onto the Shake Shack menu [with the smokehouse burger, a cheeseburger crowned with a Kreuz Market sausage]?
Can you talk a bit about The Modern and Untitled? How do you hope they change or contribute to the type of food historically found in museums?
We love working in the environment of a great art museum. Who could ask for a better context to frame what we do? Our goal from the outset was to send a message that “captive audience dining” is no longer relevant. What if we could provide dining experiences that are so compelling you’d want to be there even if it weren’t in such a spectacular cultural institution?
Who would you say is one of your inspirations in the food business?
My late maternal grandfather, Irving Harris, who taught me such an important lesson when he told me: “For whatever reason, you’ve chosen to be in a very public business, in which people are going to say all kinds of really nice things about you and even some things you won’t like very much. Just remember that you’re never quite as good as all those good things they’re saying, and you’re never quite as bad as all the negative things. Above all, know your center. Stay centered and follow your compass for what is right and what is good.”
What are some things you’ve learned over the years that have contributed to your continued success in the hospitality industry?
I’ve learned something that is adjunct to the Golden Rule. Rather than “doing unto others as you would want done unto you,” it’s even stronger to do unto others as you believe they would want done unto them. It’s a subtle, but powerful difference. In hospitality, one size fits one — not all!
What elements would you say have contributed to Union Square Hospitality Group becoming a global innovator in hospitality?
It’s connected to the humility of knowing that our first customer must be our employees. We believe no guest will ever have a better experience dining with us than our team has working for our company.
What are your predicted food/service industry/hospitality trends for the rest of the year?
Quicker, less expensive, healthier, less fancy and, above all, better than ever! It’s a hard equation to get right, but those are undeniably powerful human needs, and they are not going away. Nor is the need for a good hug, which is where hospitality comes into play.