Danny Meyer on Shake Shack Expansion, and What Will Ultimately Halt It

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Danny Meyer, in Philly. Photo: Collin Keefe

Shake Shack opened the doors of its new Philly outpost to the public for the first time this morning, and as expected it drew large crowds eager to line up for a first bite of elusive-no-more ShackBurgers. It's the fifteenth location for the burger, hot dog, and frozen custard chain; and it's one of the largest (and the only one outside of Manhattan to feature the Niman Ranch applewood-smoked-bacon-laden SmokeShack burger on its regular menu). On the eve of its debut, Grub Street caught up with the Shack Master himself, Danny Meyer — every bit as charming, and incapable of trash talk as billed — to learn more about Shake Shack’s continued expansion, and whether there's anything that can halt it. Keep reading to see what he had to say.

What other cities are you going into besides Philly?
We’re going into Coral Gables, Florida, right across from the University of Miami. We’re going into New Haven, just adjacent to Yale. That will open in late August, right in time for school. So with our next two, we’re going to learn how Shake Shack does when its near a university. I think it’s going to be fun, because we’ve never done that before.

Do you have plans to expand more in this region?
We hope so.

What do you look for when deciding upon where to put a Shake Shack?
Well, so far we’ve kept Shake Shack on the East Coast, so its always in our time zone. And we’ve kept it mostly in locations that we find very easy to get to — Westport Connecticut, Washington D.C., now Philadelphia. We’ll be in Boston next year.

Do you plan to open additional Shacks in those cities, too?
Yes. We try to pick places where we think there’s the potential for at least two, and hopefully three Shake Shacks.

What’s the reasoning behind that?
The reason being that a big part of our growth plan is to give our team an opportunity to grow. We want the guy who’s cashier here today to have an opportunity to become a manager one day. And we want today’s assistant manager to become tomorrow’s general manager.

Do you ever feel like you’re spreading the brand a little too thin?
It’s funny you ask that, because usually the question that I get is, “Why are you going so slowly?” People try to compare us to places like Five Guys that went from six to 600 in six years through a franchise model. People ask, “You’ve been around for nine years now, how come you only have fifteen [locations] at this point?”

We grow as quickly as we can grow talent within the company. And whenever we open a new shack, it’s staffed with people who are on our team and who understand the culture. As a matter of fact, tonight, one of the things I’m so excited about tonight is, everyone of our general managers is here. They’re here because they want to help. And they all want this to be an incredibly successful opening. We’re small, but we probably won’t be able to do that for the remainder of our existence.

Is that also how you run your other restaurants?
From that standpoint, yes. Whenever we open a new restaurant, we always begin it with leaders from our other businesses. Our most recent restaurant in New York in the fine dining realm is called North End Grill, and we have people who worked at Tabla, the Modern, Gramercy Tavern, Union Square Cafe, Maialino, Untitled. So we almost look at a new restaurant the way a baker would look at bread. We take the mother yeast as the starter, because we want you to be able to walk into any of our places and just feel that it’s one of our restaurants, even though the food is different, and it looks different, and smells different. The feeling should be pretty consistent.

How do you feel about opening here in Philly on the same block that has Jose Garces and Stephen Starr restaurants?
Honored. We’re huge fans. I also love this gelato place across the way here (Capogiro). And I look forward to getting to know some of the places around here that I don’t know.

How do you maintain the same standards for quality of food and service as you continue expanding?
That’s really the thing we focus on more than anything else, and it’s the hardest thing about the business, because hospitality isn’t like a widget factory. It’s really about hiring the right kind of people who love food, love making other people happy with good food. You can’t teach that emotional skill. You can, however, teach people how to hire for it. And that’s what we really work at.

How do you keep up with the demand, there’s only so much ground beef to go around, right?
How do we keep up, or how does our farmer keep up?

As I’ve said before, the biggest governor to our growth is talent. I would say the second biggest is access to quality beef. We don’t take any short cuts. It’s all natural, antibiotic-free, no growth hormones, proper animal husbandry, Angus prime. And once you start to do that with burgers, there’s a pretty limited production. That’s not what these factory farms are putting out for other burger places. We’re watching it carefully, and we’re fine. If ever there were a day where in order to open a Shake Shack we would have to compromise, we would just stop opening Shake Shacks. And that would be fine.

I'm looking at the menu — where’s your cheesesteak?
You know what? There’s an old expression: Don’t bring coals to Newcastle. The one thing that we are doing is whenever we have an opportunity to use Philadelphia products, either for our beer or for our mix-ins, we’re doing it. On Saturdays, our custard flavor of the day is called Coffee and Donuts, and we’re using La Colombe coffee with Federal Donuts’ doughnuts in our custard. And you know what? One of the great things about taking that approach wherever we go is that we get great new ideas from other cities. We also have pretzels in one of our Concretes, but no mustard.