There was only one person I wanted to talk to during my first visit to the South Beach Wine and Food Festival this past February – restaurateur Danny Meyer. Planned visits to his Shake Shack spots had always been thwarted during my stays in New York, and I had equally yet to make it into Eleven Madison Park or any one of his other oft-lauded fine dining locations. Thankfully, a unique afternoon session had been planned at SOBE where Meyer would be pairing Shake Shack menu items with wines from across the country. A session where I could actually, finally, get to taste the deliciousness of Shake Shack – and meet the man? I’m in!
The talk turned out to be a fascinating one, with guests tasting an array of wines with everything from french fries and cheese sauce to the impressive Shack-ago Dog. We scribbled our notes down on a paper grid, noting our imbibery preferences in relation to the salty, smoky, spicy, sweet flavors of the food. I hadn’t ever thought about the combination – who thinks to pour a glass of wine with their hot dog? – but I was impressed by the pairings.
I was equally impressed with Meyer, who was poised, friendly, and relatable, despite his successful status, presenting the session in sandals and beach attire. He was down-to-earth, but confident – and why shouldn’t he be? Over the last twenty-five years, Meyer has built a respected restaurant empire, heading the Union Square Hospitality Group and leading the management of James Beard-awarded, Michelin-starred eateries around Manhattan. Last year, he expanded his dining realm with Shake Shack Miami, his first location outside of New York, and will make the move to Washington D.C. this spring, establishing his Shake Shack D.C. in a prime Dupont Circle locale, along with a center spot at the city’s baseball field, Nationals Park.
From concessions to recessions, fine dining to refined business models, Danny Meyer has seen quite a bit during his career in the restaurant industry – and certainly has a few things to share about his experience.
Q: As a former business owner, I really found the Crain’s New York piece on the closing of Tabla to be a heartfelt read. How is that transition going?
A: It’s everything, it’s sad, and it’s full. I totally miss that restaurant, but even without that restaurant, there are a whole lot of friendships and relationships that we wouldn’t have right now. Happily, we’ll get to continue working with Floyd Cardoz, who’s an extremely talented chef, so I feel great about that.
Q: What do you think has really made the Union Square Hospitality Group so successful?
A: Just continuing to surround ourselves with good people, who are really good at what they do and care really deeply about how they make people feel.
My staff, like Mark here (pointing to a nearby staff member). He comes up with the custard flavors and as much fun as he has concocting them, his greatest pleasure is watching people enjoy them. No matter who does what, that’s who I want to surround myself with.
Q: How do you shift your thinking between your fine dining restaurants and your fast casual spots?
A: It’s not really a shift, it’s more of an addition to. When we opened a jazz club a few years back, it was in addition to our restaurants. When we opened the catering side, it was an addition. I’ll go wherever we can apply something new to the dialogue on whatever that topic is. We didn’t invent the cheeseburger. The question we asked is, how can we do it differently?
Q: What would be your advice to aspiring restaurateurs?
A: Do it for the right reasons. Don’t do it because it’s groovy. Do it because you’re excited about an idea you really want to share with other people so they can be happier than when they came in! (laugh)
Q: How much do the awards and critics influence your business model?
A: They don’t. They make people on the team feel good – and who doesn’t like a pat on the back? If they’re handing out awards, we’d like to win it more often than not, but they don’t influence what we do.
Q: And you have a new Shake Shack location opening up next month. Why Washington D.C.?
A: Because it’s easy to get to, same time zone. (laugh)
*Photo credits: Getty Images, Daily Blender