New York restaurant titan Danny Meyer and his Union Square Hospitality Group have won 21 James Beard awards for their work in restaurants such as the Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern and Eleven Madison Park. A more recent venture, the “better burger” upstart Shake Shack, now has locations in New York City, Saratoga and a recently-opened Miami Beach outpost. The Real Deal talked to Meyer about the expansion of Shake Shack to Miami, the state of Miami’s dining and Shake Shack’s impact on the way New Yorkers eat.
Why did you choose Miami Beach for a Shake Shack location?
We were definitely interested at some point in opening a Shake Shack outside of New York City. We made an early decision that it would be our preference to do something in the same time zone. When we learned about the opportunity at the 1111 Lincoln Road project, it was too good to be true, for a whole host of reasons — it’s an iconic building, and we’ve always been fascinated with iconic locations for Shake Shack. When we heard the vision of the developer, Robert Wennett, we knew we had exactly what we were looking for.
Have you considered bringing one of Union Square’s other restaurants down here?
The conversation with [Wennett] began a handful of months before any of us had thought about Shake Shack. He was interested in the potential to do a fine dining restaurant somewhere in his complex. We’ve entertained [the idea] a lot over the years, but never for more than one conversation with anyone. One of the nice things about Shake Shack as a concept is that it is an extemporaneous decision [to eat there] — when somebody chooses to go, it’s not a place you make reservations at, or plans well in advance. Since it’s not reliant upon a Maitre d’ and guest recognition, it’s something we felt we could do outside of New York City.
What do you think of Miami’s dining scene right now?
I’m just learning about it. When I’m in Miami, it’s usually for about a day and a half, and I tend to eat at least half of my meals at Shake Shack!
How have the dining options changed over the years?
I feel like it’s been dramatically different. I went to Miami as a very young person, so my memories were of Joe’s Stone Crab and a place called Junior’s, which was a delicatessen, also a place called the Lagoon. Today, I’m just as excited about Joe’s Stone Crab as I was then — as a matter of fact, I went there for Christmas with my family. I’ve enjoyed going to a lot of places that never would have existed back then — Michelle Bernstein’s places, or Michael’s Genuine. I’ve gotten to go to Hakkasan. It’s quite a wonderful scene right now. But what’s great about Shake Shack is we’ve been welcomed by many of the restaurateurs in Miami. I’ve been blown away by the warmth and generosity of people like Jonathan Eismann [Pizza Volante, Spartico] and also Mitch Kaplan of The Café at Books and Books.
Do you have any new plans in New York?
We do. In about a month and a half, we’re opening a place called Untitled at the Whitney Museum, and towards the end of the year we’re opening three new restaurants in Battery Park City; one is a Shake Shack, one is a Blue Smoke and one is a brand new signature restaurant we’ve never done before. We’re also opening a Shake Shack in Brooklyn, sometime in the summer, and Shake Shacks in Westport, Conn. and Washington, D.C.
What kind of impact has Shake Shack had on the way New Yorkers eat?
It’s hard for me to say it’s had an impact on the way they eat. I still think Shake Shack has been at the forefront of what I would call the “better burger” category, which is to say, it’s somewhere between fine dining and fast food — certainly no one has ever accused Shake Shack of being fast. Most people don’t eat cheeseburgers and fries every day, but when you have it, it’d better be good. I think Shake Shack has filled a different niche than New Yorkers have had in the past, where if you wanted that experience, it had to be a classic fast-food sandwich, which was a whole different deal.