17 Secrets To Building Danny Meyer's Restaurant Empire

Danny Meyer

Photo: Business Insider

Since opening in 2004, Shake Shack has become a phenomenon: people will wait in lines for hours for a burger made with the chain’s special “shack sauce.”  

It was a brilliant concept devised by New York City restaurateur Danny Meyer, whose Union Square Hospitality Group also includes a host of other restaurants — Gramercy Tavern, Eleven Madison Park and Blue Smoke, among others — employing more than 2,000.

Of the 25 restaurants Meyer has opened, only one has closed — a stunning track record given that 80% of New York City restaurants fail. 

From a detailed profile by the New York Times and an exclusive interview with Business Insider, we’ve compiled the 17 ways Meyer has become New York’s most successful restaurateur.

He's self aware -- and aware of what it takes to make it in the business

Meyer revealed three questions every aspiring restaurateur should ask themselves:

1. Do you really love providing pleasure for other people? (If you're a stock broker, your love is for the game, not for the pleasures of others.)

2. Do you love the topic of wine, food and beverage?

3. Are you a really competitive person? (Because 'someone will nip at your heels within minutes if you're successful.')

He waited until he was ready before opening his second restaurant

After first opening Union Square Cafe in 1985, Meyer waited nine years before opening his second concept, Gramercy Tavern.

He obsesses over minute details

He scouts out the perfect location for each restaurant

The majority of his 13 Shake Shacks are in parks and other high-traffic pedestrian areas he refers to as 'Shackness.'

'We want to find a community that feels just right for it,' Meyer told CNBC.

In the fall of 2011, Union Square Hospitality Group will move to lower Manhattan's Battery Park City -- an upper middle class neighbourhood with a median household income of $107,406 -- and Shake Shack, Blue Smoke and another fine-dining establishment will occupy the Embassy Suites Hotel, which will be renovated and reopened as Conrad Hotel.

He's worked the lines for his restaurants

Meyer told Business Insider that he once worked the lines on a 'really bad night' at his Union Square Cafe -- so bad, that he ended up punching a customer.

The restauranteur advises anyone interested in the profession to get a related entry-level job.

He's learned from his father's mistakes

He knows when to leave his opponents alone

When asked if he should tell a competitor that their burger was on the raw side, Meyer responded:

'As Napoleon said, 'Part of brilliance is winning and part is leaving your opponent alone when he's losing.''

He knows how to reach all types of customers -- and isn't afraid to try out new locations to do so

He's opened a Shake Shack in diverse locations -- from Citi Field to Westport, Conn. to Dubai -- and he's now scouting university campuses.

He's innovative and tech savvy

Meyer has installed live web cams at Shake Shack locations so customers can estimate their wait time. Eventually, he wants to create an app so people can check out the lines no matter where they are.

Meyer also uses Twitter to promote deals and free meals.

He's open to advice and new opportunities

He's a pro at multitasking, and moves quickly

He's not afraid to make tough decisions

He has the perfect handshake

He knows the balance between refined and accessible

With little tweaks, he makes his refined concepts a little more accessible and accessible concepts -- like burgers -- a little more refined for consumers.

Unlike other high-end burger chains (whose meat typically comes from processing plants), Shake Shack's burgers come from a third-generation butcher who blends a sirloin, chunk and brisket specially designed by a former general manager at Wolfgang Puck's Postrio in San Francisco.

He's extremely selective about everyone he hires, and recruits the best chefs in the business

'The vast majority of Shake Shack's management 'began their careers with us in our fine-dining restaurants,'' Meyer told the Times.

Others come from high-end restaurants around the world. He recruited Daniel Humm -- a Swiss chef who earned a Michelin Star by age 25 -- from San Francisco's Campton Place to become Eleven Madison Park's executive chef.

He knows how to network

Meyer's assistant examines lunch reservations to look for 'notable people' -- including how many reservations they've made and where they normally like to sit -- so he can stop by and say hello.

He'll also visit his newest restaurant, Maialino, three times per week during dinnertime, and his other venues at least two times per week.

He has charisma and style

The Times reports:

'At the Modern, Meyer pulled a silk tie out of his jacket pocket, knotted it on and made for a grand cru Chablis tasting in the private dining room. He approached a young man in a thick-napped brown suit: Romain Collet, of the Jean Collet wine dynasty. Meyer introduced himself, in French, and began detailing the long relationship between his restaurants and the family's vineyard.'


Did you know that 80% of New York City restaurants fail in five years?

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