Danny Meyer’s ‘Shack’ shakes up local fast-casual dining scene

Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer congratulates his staff on a dish a few days before the opening of the restaurant in the Central West End. Photo: Eric Berger

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

Danny Meyer, founder of Shake Shack, did not need any grilling. He seemed to know the question was coming. 

Before the interview at his new restaurant in the Central West End had really even started, the Jewish restaurateur said, “My mom is so excited about this. She has probably been wondering for my entire career when or if I was going to open a restaurant in St. Louis.”

So why did it take the 59-year-old so long to come to his hometown?

“It took five years to open a second Shake Shack in New York,” after starting the original in 2004, Meyer said. “And it took another five years to open anywhere other than the East Coast.

“We finally opened in Chicago [in 2014] and that went really well. And we said, now we’ve got a team here, now we understand how to get food here, because we’re not a clothing store where we just ship boxes of clothing. That’s when I really started saying, ‘If we don’t open in St. Louis, I’m going to be really upset.’ ” 

On Monday, the Ladue native finally did. Shake Shack, a chain famous for its burgers and milkshakes, opened a location in the Central West End at 60 North Euclid Ave. 

When Meyer explained his approach to food, it was apparent that even if he had not opened a restaurant in St. Louis, the food scene and culture here had played a role in shaping his business. 

He talked about being a teenager, looking for a parking lot where he and friends could hang out and eating at Steak ‘n Shake a couple times a month. 

When he opened the burger place in Madison Square Park in New York he said he wanted to turn the “park into the parking lot and make Shake Shack the thing that would make people want to use the park, in the same way that Ted Drewes [Frozen Custard] did for me.”

The John Burroughs School graduate opened his first restaurant, Union Square Café, in 1985 in Manhattan. Its focus was on local, seasonal ingredients, long before farm-to-table became a common phrase. He has since opened other restaurants like Gramercy Tavern and Eleven Madison Park, which earned stars in the Michelin Guide, the preeminent report card for restaurants, and of course, Shake Shack, which now has locations around the world. He has also been a proponent of a new approach to hospitality: no tipping. He has eliminated gratuity at most of his restaurants in New York and instead factored that into the menu prices.

The New York Times and other media have described Meyer as “kinder” than other restaurateurs and an “all-around good guy.”

“Ask someone in Boston what they think of New York, and unfortunately, the brand of New York is closer to arrogance or the New York Yankees or Donald Trump than it is to Danny Meyer from St. Louis,” said Meyer, who wore a pair of red Cardinals socks. “I think St. Louis is a kind, humble city. I couldn’t believe when I went to my first Mets game in New York that a fan favorite would strike out and the fans would boo him.”

He attributes part of his leadership style to his Jewish background and Sunday school at Temple Emanuel. (His father was one of the founders of the Reform synagogue in Creve Coeur, Meyer said.)

“What I learned there was Jewish ethics and Jewish culture. I moved to New York and my Jewish friends couldn’t believe that I never had a bar mitzvah but to the degree that there is a strong Jewish culture of giving back more than you took, I got that,” said Meyer, whose St. Louis restaurant will donate five percent of sales from its Pie Oh My concrete to Forest Park Forever, an organization that promotes conservation and aims to sustain the park. 

Meyer said part of what spurred his company to finally open a Shake Shack in St. Louis is the buzz around the city’s food scene. For example, Bon Appetit recently ranked Nixta, located in Tower Grove and owned by Ben Poremba, an Israeli, as one of the best new restaurants in America. And the James Beard Foundation awarded Kevin Nashan, chef and owner of Sidney Street Cafe, as its best chef for the Midwest this year. On Sunday, Meyer invited chefs and restaurant owners from around St. Louis for a preview party at the restaurant. 

“Everytime I come here, there are more really good places that I am dying to try — and different kinds of restaurants, too. And it’s just really clear to me that St. Louis is far away away from being the meat and potatoes, toasted ravioli place that it was when I grew up here,” Meyer said.

Not that he is disparaging toasted ravioli or one of St. Louis’ signature ingredients: provel cheese, as seen on Imo’s Pizza. Meyer said Shake Shack operates on an 80/20 model, meaning that 20 percent of the products at a particular restaurant are different and local as compared to the universal menu.

The local Shake Shack will offer the Mound City Double featuring provel cheese and “something we call ‘kitchen sink sauce’ based on my earliest memories of going to the Fitz’s Root Beer stand.”

Meyer said others in his company determined the location of the St. Louis restaurant. 

“And yet where we are sitting right now is a block from where I was born at Jewish Hospital and a block away from where my dad grew up on Lindell and West Pine, and it’s goose-bumpy,” Meyer said.

Now that Shake Shack is off to a successful start here — there was a line down the block when it offically opened Monday — some local Jews may be asking about another place that Shake Shack has not yet entered: Israel.

After all, the company is already in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. (They called him.)

“I didn’t wake up one morning and say, ‘Let’s go to Kuwait,’ ” Meyer said. But a company that licenses Starbucks in the Middle East approached him and said, “We want you to be our burger place.”

Meyer, who is married and has four children, visited Israel for the first time with his family last Christmas. He has no plans to open one there, but he may not need to. He was walking down Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv when he spotted a shack in a small park that “looked an awful lot like Shake Shack.”

“As it turned out, it was opened by a guy who worked for me many years ago,” he said. “And on a rainy day, they were packed.”