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

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 Shacks 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?
Were going into Coral Gables, Florida, right across from the University of Miami. Were going into New Haven, just adjacent to Yale. That will open in late August, right in time for school. So with our next two, were going to learn how Shake Shack does when its near a university. I think its going to be fun, because weve 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 weve kept Shake Shack on the East Coast, so its always in our time zone. And weve kept it mostly in locations that we find very easy to get to Westport Connecticut, Washington D.C., now Philadelphia. Well 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 theres the potential for at least two, and hopefully three Shake Shacks.

Whats 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 whos cashier here today to have an opportunity to become a manager one day. And we want todays assistant manager to become tomorrows general manager.

Do you ever feel like youre spreading the brand a little too thin?
Its 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, Youve 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, its staffed with people who are on our team and who understand the culture. As a matter of fact, tonight, one of the things Im so excited about tonight is, everyone of our general managers is here. Theyre here because they want to help. And they all want this to be an incredibly successful opening. Were small, but we probably wont 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 its 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. Were 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 dont know.

How do you maintain the same standards for quality of food and service as you continue expanding?
Thats really the thing we focus on more than anything else, and its the hardest thing about the business, because hospitality isnt like a widget factory. Its really about hiring the right kind of people who love food, love making other people happy with good food. You cant teach that emotional skill. You can, however, teach people how to hire for it. And thats what we really work at.

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

As Ive said before, the biggest governor to our growth is talent. I would say the second biggest is access to quality beef. We dont take any short cuts. Its all natural, antibiotic-free, no growth hormones, proper animal husbandry, Angus prime. And once you start to do that with burgers, theres a pretty limited production. Thats not what these factory farms are putting out for other burger places. Were watching it carefully, and were 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 wheres your cheesesteak?
You know what? Theres an old expression: Dont 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, were doing it. On Saturdays, our custard flavor of the day is called Coffee and Donuts, and were 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.