Last week, the enormously popular New York burger chain Shake Shack opened its first Texas location in Austin.
Cue the judgment! It’s no secret that Texans are serious about their bovine, especially when a newcomer waltzes into cow town. But Danny Meyer—the CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group, which owns Shake Shack—is nonetheless determined to win over the Lone Star state.
Below, Meyer discusses his love for barbecue, Texas ingredients, and committing burger polygamy.
What inspired you to go into the burger business?
I grew up in St. Louis, and from the moment I got my driver’s license at sixteen, my friends and I spent every weekend night visiting roadside burger and shakes joints, mostly so we could hang out in the parking lots and be together.
When we had an opportunity to open a place like that in the middle of a beautiful New York park, we jumped at the opportunity. I should also mention that we’ve had a great burger on the menu of my first place, Union Square Cafe, since the restaurant first opened in 1985.
I have to ask: What makes Austin over any other Texas town the right location for a Shake Shack?
We absolutely fell in love with Austin—and the entire Hill Country—beginning fifteen years ago when we started our research for Blue Smoke.
We’ve been back to participate in the Austin Food & Wine Festival and SXSW, and each time we came, we couldn’t help but want to come back again and again. The town loves to eat and have fun. If we continue to enjoy the rousing welcome Austin has given us, we’ll for sure want to explore other Texas towns.
Texans are very, very serious about their burgers. That being said, how did you approach deciding whether or not Texans would accept an out-of-town burger venture?
Each time we’ve introduced Shake Shack to a new town it is usually because someone on our team wants to live there and also because we have friends—sometimes chefs or restaurateurs—who have been asking us to come. We love going to places that love burgers. After all, New Yorkers can’t get enough of them.
Most true burger-lovers are polygamists when it comes to the category. So long as they’re good, they love their burgers in all different shapes and sizes and don’t pledge their loyalty to just one. We just hope Shake Shack will earn a spot on the rotation.
Will there be any incorporation of local vendors, meats, etc at the Austin location?
Shake Shack’s culinary director Mark Rosati is an expert in scouting out the most delicious bites in a given city and figuring out how to incorporate them into our menu so that each Shake Shack can feel like it belongs to its local community.
We’ll be serving a Lockhart Link Burger using a jalapeño cheese sausage from Kreuz Market. Our Uchi-konkrete features a miso hazelnut blondie from the excellent Uchi & Uchiko, and the Shack Attack concrete blends in dark chocolate chunks from Kiskadee. All of our beers will be local, too, like Hops & Grain, Independence Brewing Co., Karbach, Real Ale and Austin Eastciders.
Are there any burger joints or restaurants in Austin or Texas that you admire?
I love Uchiko. The general manager, Leo Barrera, was a colleague of mine back at Gramercy Tavern and Tabla. I’m also a huge fan of Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Taylor Cafe, Louie Mueller’s, South Side Market, Cooper’s, and of course, The Salt Lick. And I never have enough time to try all the tacos I want to sample or to dance at The Broken Spoke.
Out of pure curiosity, do you notice different food interests among your locations?
Some locations sell more beer and wine than others. We expect that to be the case in Austin. Other than that, our sales mix is pretty consistent. Even though we are called Shake Shack, it has taken some newer cities a little longer to understand how amazing our frozen custard is.
In all your years of business, what is the one thing you would say you’ve learned most about the burger business?
There’s a reason it’s the single biggest and most beloved food category in the United States. It’s satisfying, doesn’t ask for a special occasion, can be eaten with one hand, and provides all kinds of options for how to prepare.
Let’s say you’re designing your perfect Shake Shack meal. Lay it all out for me.
Cheeseburger with a slice of raw onion, fries, and a Fair Shake - our awesome coffee shake. Often, I’ll throw in a hot dog – griddled until crispy and topped with fried shallots and sport peppers.