21 August 2014

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Interview with Shake Shack’s Danny Meyer


danny meyer 2013 - Danny-Meyer__Ellen-Silverman_2013.jpgUS burger hit Shake Shack launches its first UK branch today, in London’s Covent Garden. Square Meal caught up with the restaurateur behind the brand, Danny Meyer – whose New York destinations include the perennially popular Union Square Café and Gramercy Tavern – to find out what’s in store for diners.

Were you worried that the trend for fancy burgers would fizzle out before you got here?

No, because burgers have been around for so long they’re almost beyond being a trend. Burger restaurants were originally a reason for people to come together, but once the idea exploded as fast food, it became about how quickly the restaurant could get you in and out, how cheap they could make the burger, and how many calories diners could ingest as quickly and cheaply as possible. I think now what we’re seeing is a throwback to what we had at the beginning, which is an easy, convenient and tasty meal enjoyed with people.

Apart from burgers, what else can London diners expect from Shake Shack?

We’re not just a burger joint; we’re also an ice-cream shop. We call our ice cream ‘frozen custard’, and it’s made fresh on site all day, every day. Frozen custard is a premium soft-serve ice cream. It has a lower butter-fat content and slightly more egg than normal ice cream, so the mouthfeel is incredibly rich. We serve three flavours every day: vanilla, chocolate and a daily changing special. The frozen custard is also used in our shakes.

We’re introducing the ‘concrete’ to London, which is frozen custard that we pack with other ingredients to make it more solid. All of the concretes that are being served in London have been designed for and named for London and they all use ingredients from local producers – we’ve got chocolate chunks from Paul A Young, and hazelnut brownies and brown-sugar biscuits from St John Bakery.

Have you changed anything else for the British market?

We always design our restaurants around the place – they have to be a reflection of their community. In terms of sourcing, we found British suppliers; for example, instead of American beef we’re using Angus beef from farms in Scotland. Jimmy Butler supplies our bacon from the Suffolk coast, and we’re using Cumberland sausages in our hot dogs. Plus, with the exception of our exclusive house Shackmeister ale, which is brewed in Brooklyn, we’re using British beers such as Thornbridge.

Will you serve wines with the burgers, too?

Oh yes. We have wines specially made for Shake Shack by Californian winery Frog’s Leap. It’s quite an extensive wine list, and great value. We look at our wine list in the same way as a typical burger joint looks at its condiment list – it’s more sauce.

shake shack 2013 - atmosphere_beer-cheers_Shake-Shack-2013.jpgWhy have you brought Shake Shack to Britain rather than another of your restaurants?

Shake Shack is ready in a way that our fine-dining restaurants aren’t. I think it’s important to note that we’ve never, to this day, opened any of our fine-dining restaurants outside New York City, whereas we have done so with Shake Shack, so we’re much more confident that we know how to do Shake Shack in other cities. Also, bear in mind that Shake Shack doesn’t need the trappings of a fine-dining restaurant – there’s no reservations manager, maître d’, hostess, florist or tablecloths, and so on, so in that sense it’s simpler to establish abroad.

Do you have any plans to bring any more of your restaurant models over to England?

It’s been tempting because we’ve certainly had a lot of people in the industry asking us to consider it. I’m not saying it cannot be done – restaurateurs such as Daniel Boulud and Keith McNally have done a fantastic job with their London restaurants. So I would never say never, but we have no plans to bring any other restaurant here at the moment.

Did you talk to McNally and Boulud about what to expect when setting up a restaurant over here?

No – we’re not the sort of people who read the review before we see the play. We just want to be us and do the best job of being us we can do. However, we did check out Shake Shack’s competition in the run-up to its launch. I love the burgers at Hawksmoor, Bar Boulud and Tommi’s Burger Joint. Bubbledogs is also fun to go to.

When launching their London restaurants, McNally paired up with Richard Caring, and Serge Becker with Will Ricker. Did you think about finding a British partner for Shake Shack?

We’ve got great relationships with London restaurateurs, and over the years certain people have reached out to suggest opening a restaurant together. But for Shake Shack, we created a team on the ground here, supported by the US, which works for us. We want to make sure that when we open a new place, it still feels like us. If you are coming here from New York, we want you to experience something that tastes like home but feels like London. If we can do those two things, we have won.

Finally, at the start of this year, there were rumours you would take over the restaurant at Claridge’s now that Gordon Ramsay has closed his offering. Was there any truth in them?

There sure were rumours! I stayed at the hotel one night when I was in town on some business that had nothing to do with the restaurant world. All of a sudden I was reported to be opening a restaurant there. We were actually quite flattered by all the attention, but we wanted to channel that interest into the thing we were actually doing: Shake Shack. I honestly don’t know who will take over at Claridge’s, but I sure as heck know it’s not me!

This interview was conducted in May 2013 and published in July 2013.

Read Square Meal’s review of Shake Shack.

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