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Danny Meyer Dishes on Hickenlooper, Hospitality, and Denver’s First Shake Shack

The New York City restaurateur heads to the Mile High City in early October as the keynote speaker at the second annual Colorado Restaurant Show.

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When Danny Meyer, founder and CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group and owner of New York City’s Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, Maialino, Shake Shack, and more, arrives in Denver next month, it will be one of the few times he hasn’t bypassed the city en route to Aspen (for the Food & Wine Classic) or Colorado Springs (where his son attends Colorado College). The show gave us a welcome opportunity to ask Meyer about his philosophy of “enlightened hospitality,” advice for Denver restaurateurs, and details on Shake Shack in RiNo. Here’s a snapshot of that conversation:

5280: You’re coming to the Colorado Restaurant Show as the keynote speaker. What do you plan to share with our restaurant industry pros?

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DM: About 14 minutes ago, I heard for the first time that it will be a moderated conversation with Bobby Stuckey [master sommelier and owner of Frasca Food and Wine, Pizzeria Locale, and Tavernetta]. I have deep respect for him. If I were in the audience, I would feel like it was an opportunity to listen to two guys who are singing from the same hymn book [hospitality-wise], and therefore can go more deeply into real examples as opposed to staying somewhat superficial. I’m sure Bobby and I will talk about how the power of hospitality can set a business apart.

5280: What does the theme of the show—Think Big, Grow Locally—mean to you?

DM: In the case of Shake Shack, our culinary director is already spending time in Denver, getting to know who your top suppliers are, who the top artisans are…whether it’s chocolate or beer or pastries or from a design standpoint. Who are local artists, musicians? Even though Shake Shack is absolutely a chain, we ask ourselves the question: Who wrote the rule that every link in the chain has to be exactly alike? We have what we call “The 80-20 Rule,” where 80% of every Shake Shack is going to be consistent, but 20% should feel local, right down to the materials used in building it, the art on the walls, the specials on the menu, the local philanthropy that Shake Shack supports. Those are all things that we’ve borrowed from our approach to fine dining. But it’s also a way to think big in terms of scaling the culture of thinking locally.

5280: Why bring Shake Shack to Denver?

DM: It’s a really important market for us. We’ve never been in that part of the country, for one thing, and anecdotally, I can tell you that the demand and interest from people in Denver to bring Shake Shack there has been off the charts. Denver will be the first [location] in Mountain Time; it truly opens a whole new frontier for us. It’s also a marketplace that cares about food that I think will be receptive to the culture of Shake Shack.

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I have a story I can share with you: The first time I learned [Shake Shack] might be appealing to people in Colorado was about a year or two after we opened in Madison Square Park—about 2005 or so. I got a call (or it might have been an email) from Pat Miller, known as the Gabby Gourmet, and she said “Would you be willing to meet John Hickenlooper?” I had never heard his name; he had only recently been elected mayor. He wanted to meet because he was looking at a big public park in Denver and how the use of food might help to build community, which is how Shake Shack got started as a very local project in Madison Square Park. She said, “He’s a good guy, he comes from the restaurant/micro-brew industry so you guys will hit it off.”

[Hickenlooper] came out [to New York City] and we met on a Saturday, late morning, and a big line was forming [at Shake Shack]. He looks at this line of people, his jaw drops, probably thinking what this could mean for Denver. And I explained that a percentage of every sale goes right back into the park, so not only is the park safe by attracting people morning, noon, and night, but it also helps to fund the sustained ability to keep the park beautiful, programmed, and safe. He really liked it, and then he asked, “Why do you suppose this line is so long?” “I actually have no idea,” I said. “It can’t be just the burger because there are other good ones out there.” With that, he takes a bite of the burger, gets this huge smile on his face, and says, “It just might be the burger! This reminds me of my favorite lesson from my English professor at Wesleyan. What he told us about writing applies to what you’re doing with this burger and with this whole business. He told us that everything has already been said, but not everything has been said superbly. And even if it had been, everything must be said freshly, over and over again. You didn’t invent the burger, but you’re saying it freshly and superbly, and if you say it consistently over and over again, it will always be different.”

5280: Denver has a lot of great burger joints. What will Shake Shack bring to the scene that’s different?

DM: The great thing about burgers as a category is that it’s not a passing fad like cupcakes or frozen yogurt or kale chips. It’s never been a question of what is the one and only burger I eat in my entire life. If a burger gives you joy, our job is to earn a spot on your rotation of burgers…what Shake Shack can offer is as much about the culture of hospitality and community as it is about the burger. The burger is the license. If you don’t do that well, all bets are off, period.

5280: Can you tell us anything more about an opening date?

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DM: My son is a junior at Colorado College and…he’s asking me this question about once a month. We’re hoping to be open by spring 2018. I told him that he will still be a junior by the time we open; Colorado College’s year ends in May so we better get that done.

5280: What are your dining plans while you’re here?

DM: I need to spend more time in Denver, so I’m excited. Last time, I was there for only 36 hours…I went to Pizzeria Locale for lunch, Mercantile Dining & Provision, and the Kitchen. I think I also slipped in an extra breakfast at Snooze, which was really good. [This visit] I’m going to have to put in a request for Tavernetta.

5280: What’s your advice for our burgeoning restaurant industry?

DM: Go forward with the basics. It’s very tempting to say the answer is delivering food or getting rid of tablecloths or making the music louder or adding a section on your menu for snacks. Those don’t really get to the bottom of why [restaurants] should exist in the first place. We exist to be able to do the things that [our guests] otherwise could not do. When I say go forward with the basics, the thing I always come back to with our team is: Are we doing a really great job of blurring the line between going out and coming home? Are we giving people all the things they needed to go out for: shopping for the food, cooking the food, serving the food, clearing the food, doing the dishes, providing you with an atmosphere that feels transporting, to give you a little adventure? And then, are we doing the things that make you feel like you came home, or at least to the home you wish you had, which is basically giving you a big hug and being like the dog that’s happy to see you after a long day…no matter what happened at work, they’re just wagging their tail and happy to see you. That’s the home I think people wish they could always come back to. And when we do both of those things incredibly well, we’re not going to be put out of business by a delivery company or by anything at all.

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The Colorado Restaurant Show kicks off at the Colorado Convention Center on Monday, October 9 at 8:30 a.m. with an exclusive book signing with Danny Meyer, followed by his keynote presentation from 9:30-11 a.m. The event’s central trade show, open daily during presentations and exclusively both days from 12:30-4:30 p.m., features more than 150 exhibitors showcasing new products and offerings. Tickets to walk the expo floor are free; full conference passes, which include access to the expo, all conference sessions, and Meyer’s keynote are $25. Both are available here. Thirty seats at Meyer’s book signing are available as an add-on to registration, for $150.

Denise Mickelsen, Food Editor

Denise Mickelsen oversees all of 5280’s food-related coverage, and feels damn lucky to do so. Follow her on Instagram @DeniseMickelsen.

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