Weekly Q&A: Shake Shack creator Danny Meyer brings his burgers to the Strip

Industry expert: Hospitality icon Danny Meyer is finally doing business in Las Vegas with Shake Shack at New York-New York.
Photo: Mikayla Whitmore

Danny Meyer is pretty much an institution when it comes to restaurants and hospitality, which makes you wonder: What took him so long to open a place in Las Vegas? The CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group and creator of iconic New York eateries such as Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern and Maialino (and author of best seller Setting the Table) sat with the Weekly outside his shiny, new, Strip-front Shake Shack at New York-New York to talk business, burgers and more.

So this is Shake Shack Vegas. How is it different from other Shacks? I’d start by saying how similar it is. In some respects it’s the most similar Shack we have to the original in Madison Square Park, for two reasons. It has a to-go window. I think it’s the only other one that’s actually a shack. And No. 2, when you look around the corner to what’s coming, we’ll be adjacent to a real park. So in those respects, very similar. What’s different is it’s far bigger than any Shack we have, and more modern. I just told a colleague that I think I’m jealous of this one, that we didn’t get one just like this in New York.

The new Shake Shack at New York-New York.

MGM CEO Jim Murren told us last year he had to persuade you a bit to come to Vegas to be part of the Park project, that he talked you into it. There’s been about 29 years of talking me into it, and not just on Mr. Murren’s part. I don’t know when things got heated up here, maybe call it the ’90s? Since that point, it’s been like a devil sitting on my shoulder, waving Las Vegas under my nose. One of the first times I visited, one of my partners said to me: You may or may not ever wanna come here, but it’s completely irresponsible to be ignorant. You need to know what’s happening here. And he was right. But really, it was not until Shake Shack that a project made sense and we finally said, let’s do it.

What was the closest call before Shake Shack? There were probably four.

But what was the closest? (Long pause) It’s probably better not to say. Maybe those guys don’t even know they were a close call.

In my mind, every time a new casino has opened, they’ve probably called you about doing a restaurant. Absolutely.

Does being here with Shake Shack pave the way for more projects in Vegas? The honest answer is I don’t know, but you can only do it the first time once and if it’s a really good experience, it kinda makes you want to do it again. It’s just natural. But we’ll see ... We’ve got a couple of businesses I could potentially see here.

Shake Shack is not inside of a casino. Was that a difference maker? Part of my own resistance to being in Las Vegas for years was just that. I never wanted to do that. Here, we are part of a vision MGM has that says, wait a second, it will actually help our business to not bury it, to draw more people down our way as opposed to a hotel driveway with a fountain or something.

This is the farthest west Shake Shack has ever been. How exciting is that? It’s huge. It’s exciting to have access to lot of people for the first time.

We have a lot of West Coast people here who love burgers. America loves its burgers. We would never suggest this is the only burger or the last burger you should have. We just want to make sure Shake Shack makes your rotation, and if we do that we’ll be in great shape.

I think there’s a fun story here about the evolution of the role of the burger in American culture. If you go back to Happy Days, it was the pretext for showing off your car and hanging out with friends. And then someone thought, why don’t we turn that parking lot over quickly with drive-thru windows? And then, of course, fast food took hold. Today, I think Shake Shack comes in a little differently. We’ve kind of spun the clock backward to the parking lot, saying, Let’s enjoy hanging out. And also taking what we’ve learned from our white tablecloth restaurants about how to source meat and introduce quality product and hire people and train for hospitality. Mash all that stuff up and don’t take away everything people love about fast food, like ordering from a window or not having a waiter or waitress. What if you can have all that and still focus on quality?

Speaking of hospitality, Vegas is really good at it. Are you excited to get a taste of the local industry culture? We are absolutely eager to get to know the industry here. One of the first things we always do in any new city is get the team together and go eat at all the restaurants people [are talking about]. This city is built on taking exceptional care of the people in first class and the people in coach class. I mean, who does it better?

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Brock is an award-winning writer who has been documenting life in Las Vegas for 20 years. He currently leads entertainment ...

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