Plus why he doesn't like casinos, how the Las Vegas Shake Shack had to be special and more.
Welcome to a special Burger Week edition of Lifers, a feature in which Eater Vegas interviews the men and women who have worked in the restaurant and bar industry for the better part of their lives, sharing their stories and more.
Shake Shack may be new to Las Vegas, but it started in Madison Square Park in New York City in 2000. The roadside burger restaurant is so popular that CEO Danny Meyer took the company public in January, just after opening, appropriately, at New York-New York. Here Meyer talks about why it took so long for Shake Shack to come to Las Vegas, why he doesn’t like casinos, his thoughts on rival In-N-Out Burger and more.
This has to be one of the longest, most drawn out teases for a restaurant opening in Las Vegas ever. What took you so long?
Well, it actually took a lot longer than that. It took about 20 years to decide to come to Las Vegas, period. I just used to believe it would probably not happen in my lifetime. And that’s because the first restaurants that I owned were restaurants that were so much of their place. I called them our terroir restaurants — Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern. At that point, we owned Eleven Madison Park and the Modern. It just felt like none of those restaurants wanted to be uprooted from where they were. I guess the first several times I came to Las Vegas in the early 2000s, because a lot of hotels and casinos were saying, "Please, bring what you have out here." It just never made sense for me to uproot one of our fine dining restaurants. It just took the right idea at the right place at the right time. Shake Shack was at last ready in terms of having enough seasoned team members from our New York team who said, "We want to move to Las Vegas." That was way too important. Las Vegas is way too important to just phone it in. We really wanted to be the real deal. It’s like our whole team is here because we’re really taking it seriously. Many of them have been here for four weeks.
You moved it too. It was going to be its own separate entity.
Here it is and we’re thrilled.
It just looks like so much fun, even from the outside.
I was here during the lunch rush and it was such an amazing energy. Every one of our Shake Shacks is different from every one of our Shake Shacks because they’re all designed to feel like they belong where they are. We don’t have a cookie cutter design. That’s another reason it takes us a long time to get it right. It’s whimsical Shake Shack. It’s winking at Las Vegas. It’s just right.
I’ve read in the past that you never wanted to open a restaurant in Las Vegas. What made you change your mind?
I think what I said was, "Except maybe Shake Shack." I also said something then that I stick by today. I have a really tough time with the artificial aromas. Whatever gets sprayed in these casinos, it actually comes close to making me feel ill. In the old days, most of the casino restaurants had to be deep in the casino the way the dairy section has to be deep in a grocery store. They know you’re going to get a carton of milk so you have to walk by everything else. The opportunity to have a restaurant associated with New York-New York and yet we’re not in the casino. You can come in the restaurant and it smells like Shake Shack, for better, for worse. It smells like Shake Shack and it doesn’t smell like anything else. That made me really happy.
You’ve tried your hand at fine dining to burgers and barbecue. Do you think you could succeed at any type of food you decide to conquer?
I think if I’m in love with a certain kind of food. I love to eat. I think that’s a story that does not often get told. I love to eat. I’ve already had four burgers today. If I love a certain kind of food, I will do everything I can to find my favorite version of that certain food and then see if there’s anyone on our team who’s excited about it and try to do it as well as we can. I’d rather be a leader than a follower, if that’s possible. Marta [in New York] was the first time we ever opened a pizza restaurant, because I didn’t know if we had anything to add to the dialog on pizza. I’d lived in Rome for a year and a half of my life and I loved eating pizza in Rome. Lo and behold, so did several other people on my team. We said, that could actually add something fresh. There’s so much wonderful pizza in New York. Most of new pizza is more the Neapolitan style, which has a puffier, yeastier crust. So we thought this could be competitive.
This is the first time you can get Shack Shake and In-N-Out Burger fresh in the same city.
That’s cool, isn’t it? I just drove by In-N-Out Burger and I was tempted to go in. I love In-N-Out Burger so much. I’m a Double Double guy. I think In-N-Out Burger deserves enormous credit for taking the fast food model but making it better by cooking a burger to order and really focusing on service, and cleanliness.