Shake Shack owner balances interests

Danny Meyer (right), the creator of the Shake Shack restaurant chain, spoke at a Silliman College Master’s Tea on Friday.
Danny Meyer (right), the creator of the Shake Shack restaurant chain, spoke at a Silliman College Master’s Tea on Friday. Photo by Emilie Foyer.

Danny Meyer, the brains behind Chapel Street’s popular new burger joint Shake Shack, visited Silliman College Friday afternoon for a Master’s Tea.

Meyer is the CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group, which has won 25 James Beard Awards and runs over 30 restaurants, including the Shake Shack chain. During the Tea, Meyer discussed his path to culinary success and his ability to mesh his early interest in public service with his passion for high-quality food. In each of his restaurants, he said, he places an emphasis on developing a positive culture to maintain the happiness of both his employees and his customers.

“The best tomato sauce in the world won’t taste better than the worst tomato you put into it,” Meyer said. “The same applies to hospitality, and I believe you have to put your team first.”

Meyer said he credits his Midwestern upbringing with influencing the way he runs his business. He looks for new employees with a “high hospitality quotient,” or people who enjoy making others feel good, he said. Instead of following the philosophy of “always putting the customer first,” he said that he is more concerned with interactions among his staff and does what he can to ensure that they are cooperating and having fun. Quality service and treatment will follow, he added.

The majority of employees working at New Haven’s Shake Shack, which opened on Sept. 13, had previously been unemployed, Meyer said.

“It’s really a jobs training program in addition to being a restaurant, and we tried to hire from pockets of the New Haven neighborhood that needed employment,” Meyer said.

He said he developed an early interest in public service from his upbringing with a Republican father and a Democrat mother and grew an “idealistic but pragmatic” attitude while working on independent John Anderson’s 1980 presidential campaign.

Though he had planned on becoming a lawyer, Meyer said that on the night before his LSAT exam — while out to dinner with his family at an Italian restaurant — he realized he was unsure if it was the right path for him.

“Sitting over my bowl of spaghetti in that restaurant, the answer wasn’t just staring me in the face but was smashing me in the face,” Meyer said. “Looking back, I realized that even when I was a traveling salesman in New York for a while, I would plan my route not around where I could make the most sales, but around where I could eat the best street food.”

Meyer said he sees his current job as a combination of his love for tasty food and his desire to serve the public ­— he is also a national leader in the fight against hunger through collaborations with charities such as New York-based City Harvest. He added that he values integrating his restaurants into their respective communities. The New Haven Shake Shack, for example, would not work well in New York’s Theater District because several of its qualities, including its architecture and wood from the original Yale Bowl, give it a uniquely New Haven character.

Shake Shack is also collaborating with Rock the Vote in an effort called “Shack the Vote” to encourage registration for the upcoming election, Meyer said, adding that he “[does not] need to run for office to be a public servant.”

Students who attended the Tea were impressed by Meyer’s conviction and commitment to his goals.

“He has a worldview and he’s so sure of it,” Eli Feldman ’16 said.

Spencer Bokat-Lindell ’16 said he was encouraged by Meyer’s transition from politics to food and appreciated that Meyer said, “You don’t have to choose between doing what you love and addressing [the world’s] problems.”

This week, Meyer will celebrate the 27th birthday of his first-ever restaurant, Union Square Café.

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