In a month’s time, a relatively simple quick-service restaurant serving burgers and milk shakes opens in London’s Covent Garden Market. No big deal? Quite the contrary.

The reasons this launch is of serious significance are twofold: first, the arrival of Shake Shack, along with fellow US invader Five Guys, could alter the entire burger landscape in this country; second, it represents the first UK venture from legendary New York restaurateur Danny Meyer. 

Meyer is the man behind Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG), which counts game-changing Manhattan restaurants Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern and The Modern – as well as Shake Shack – among its number. He is also the author of Setting the Table, unquestionably the contemporary business-slash-management bible for the hospitality sector, which has to date been reprinted over 40 times in the US.

Shake Shack is the only one of Meyer’s restaurants to expand beyond USHG’s Manhattan heartland (bar a low-key joint venture in Japan, Union Square Tokyo). It now operates 19 sites across the eastern US, and is set to make its debut in Las Vegas in 2014. It also has seven Shake Shacks in the Middle East operated by an international partner, plus one in Istanbul, Turkey, and another set to open later in the year.

But it’s the London opening that is the major undertaking for Meyer, Shake Shack’s CEO Randy Garutti and Diverse Dining, the company they have set up in the UK to operate the restaurant. “If we come to London, we need to know we can do it our way. It’s not growing for the sake of growing,” says Garutti, from an apartment overlooking the site under construction in Covent Garden. “The bigger we get, the smaller we need to act. We have to think as if this Shake Shack is the only one that matters right now. It needs to mirror this neighbourhood, the city and the country.”

“Shake Shack is only nine years old,” adds Meyer. “And it took us five years to open the second one in Manhattan. But I’ve had a love affair with London for the past 15 years or so and been inspired by what I’ve seen. If you view the world as a collection of great cities, as we do, then how can you not be in London?”


Better burger position

USHG’s track record in innovation demonstrates that it is never content to swim in the mainstream. In the late ’80s and ’90s, Union Square Café and Gramercy Tavern recalibrated fine dining in New York, marrying high-end food and first-rate service with a relaxed environment and neighbourhood vibe long before such practice was fashionable or widespread. The Modern is a refined, Michelin-starred restaurant located within the Museum of Modern Art, again precipitating an industry trend. Blue Smoke is a traditional country barbecue joint, of which two now exist in the heart of the Big Apple.

So, in the hugely competitive burger market, what is it that Shake Shack brings to the table? In short, it has applied Meyer’s vision of high-level hospitality to a sector usually defined by its relentless focus on efficiency and volume. In practice, that means the product’s quality and flavour are significantly more refined than its fast-food counterparts, its sourcing is impeccable and the environment conducive to sticking around and enjoying a drink with your meal.

As is characteristic of Meyer’s ventures, the service is also uncommonly good for what remains a counter-service burger joint – or a ‘roadside’ burger stand, as the Americans term it. But perhaps the killer point, when combined with the above, is one of price: the signature ShackBurger sells for $4.60 in the US, just a dollar more than a Big Mac. “And we use 20 times better ingredients – all natural, no antibiotics, no trimmings, or trimmings of trimmings,” says Garutti.

In the UK, that is likely to translate to a price hovering around the £5 mark – a degree lower than the premium hamburger players currently grilling up a storm in this country, such as Byron (£7.75), Patty & Bun (£7.50) and MeatLiquor (£6.50), and some distance from posher practitioners Bar Boulud (£12.75) and Hawksmoor (£15, with fries).

“We aim to offer real value that hits every walk of life: stockbrokers, families, cops, construction workers. Everyone has a reason to come [to Shake Shack] because it tastes good, it feels good and you can afford it,” says Garutti. “We want to use the same ingredients as the guys at the top, but price it just above the fast-food giants. That’s part of the design of Shake Shack that has made it successful.”

“It goes back to our roots in the park [Madison Square Park],” adds Meyer. “In New York, if you’re on public land then you need to have a product and pricing that doesn’t exclude vast swathes of the public.”

The ShackBurger itself is not revolutionary, but every element is analysed first for how it can be improved rather than how much it costs. “When we sat down in 1993, we thought, it’s just a burger on a bun, so what are we going to do with it? What meat? What part of the animal? What animal? What kind of lettuce? What tomato? Do we add sauce? How are we cooking it?” says Meyer.

The team has spent the past two years scouting and building relationships with suppliers in the UK, and testing dishes to ensure they simultaneously meet the standards of Shake Shack in the US and are “true to where we are”. The result is burgers made with Aberdeen Angus beef from Scotland (“whole muscle, ground fresh every day”); bacon from Jimmy Butler’s pig farm in Suffolk; sausages from The Ginger Pig; chocolate from Paul A Young; and brownies, cookies and other items for the ‘frozen custard’ programme from St John Bakery. 

The majority of menu items will mirror the US incarnation (see Concretes and custard, opposite), though the provenance is very different, with a few exceptions. “The Maestro sausage will be a new item, unique for the UK,” says Meyer. “It’s a Cumberland sausage, topped with cheddar cheese sauce, with Shackmeister Ale-marinated fried shallots. It’s taken six months to get right.”

The Shackmeister Ale, created for the group by Brooklyn Brewery, will be available alongside London beer The Kernel, brewed in Bermondsey.


Crossing the cultural divide    

Shake Shack’s landing on these shores inevitably suggests it will be followed up by further branches, once the initial bridgehead is established. Despite Meyer and Garutti’s understandable insistence that their sole focus is on getting the first one right, more will likely come. 

“We wouldn’t be here unless we believed the city could support more than one,” admits Meyer. “Otherwise, how could we afford to have great management on the ground? But we grow slowly, in general.” 

But unlike their long-time US competitor Five Guys, which also debuts just down the road in Covent Garden’s Long Acre this summer, don’t expect a rapid rollout. In the US, the burger market is estimated to be worth around $70bn (£46.4bn), dominated by fast-food behemoths such as McDonald’s and Burger King. Of that figure, a mere $2bn (£1.3bn) is taken up by the ‘better burger’ space in which the likes of Shake Shack, Five Guys and In & Out operate. In the UK, GBK and Byron are the only players in a similar space of any scale, meaning that Shake Shack and their ilk see plenty of potential room for growth.

“What’s exciting is that it’s not a win-lose market-share proposition [in the better burger category] – we’re not trying to dominate markets. I guess we can all take a bit of the share off the classic fast-food players,” says Meyer. 

Garutti points out that the heritage of fast food is different in the UK to the US. “The US has a culture of getting you in, pumping you up and getting you out. It then turned into drive-thru, where they don’t even want you to come, they’d rather you stayed in your car, because that’s how they can make more money. You don’t have that here.”

Shake Shack pushes in the opposite direction: it actively wants you to hang out, come in for a beer or for the evening, while retaining the convenience and efficiency of the quick-service model. “There’s nothing going on here that we invented – we’ve had burger chains for years and we didn’t invent frozen custard either. But we take something that people love, strip it down and see if we can make it better by cooking from scratch, or sourcing better, or making the service more friendly,” says Meyer.

 “One of the things I’m most proud of is that when we open a place, it becomes an essential part of the community,” he continues. “Hopefully, if you live or work near here, your life will get better for the opening. People feel that something is happening  for them, not to them.”


Instinct for hospitality

It is this bigger-picture outlook that has shaped much of Meyer’s career and USHG’s extraordinary journey. For what is, at heart, a small collection of fine-dining restaurants in Manhattan (see State of the union, below), the group punches way above its weight. As for the amiable but focused 55-year-old himself – who opened Union Square Café in 1985 armed with limited restaurant experience, but an instinctive gift for hospitality – he is globally recognised as an authority on front-of-house service and company culture, primarily thanks to the publication of Setting the Table in 2006.

It’s impossible to summarise the myriad themes of the book (which all aspirant hospitality professionals can unquestionably learn from), but in simple terms it expounds the virtues of ‘enlightened hospitality’ and ‘servant-leadership’. The latter means that those with the most power use it in the service of those that work for them, and so on down the line until those at the sharp end are using their power in the service of diners. 

It may feel like theoretical management speak, but it is symptomatic of Meyer’s focus on company culture over and above the product itself or the service process; instead the latter aspects are seen as key parts of the organisation’s over-arching culture. Everything is done in the service of the group’s employees, guests, community, suppliers and investors – in that order of priority. 

But how – in a company that has primarily operated in a tight geographical area within one city – can its leader ensure standards are maintained across different parts of the world? In part through the delicate art of delegation without abdication of responsibility.

“You have to go through the daily exercise of asking: ‘What are those things that I’m doing that somebody else could do as well or better than I can, and am I willing to let go of those? Today, what are those things that I can still do as well or better than anyone else?’ It’s almost like trimming a tree; what happens over time is that you’re constantly refining what you do, but you’re giving other people the gift of growing. And that’s also helping people realise their career aspirations.”

Garutti has worked for USHG for 14 years in a variety of roles. “What Danny has taught us to do is learn what we want from each other. There’s no situation in my professional life I can envisage where I don’t know what he’d think about it. What we teach our guys – from the fry cook to the managers – is what’s important to us. We don’t fix things, we get them to fix it, so when we’re not around they know what to do.”


Waiters carrying chips

As an ambassador for treating the hospitality profession as a serious career, rather than a stopgap, is the UK still behind the US in that regard? “There’s certainly been huge progress in the States. Servers used to have a chip on their shoulder: ‘I’m really an actor’; ‘I’m training to be a teacher’; ‘I’m not really a waiter’. It should be a holistic experience, from the farmer who grows produce to the cook who cooks it, through to the person who serves it, but there was a disconnect in that final part. Now we have plenty of service staff who have trained at the CIA [Culinary Institute of America] as cooks. They love food and hospitality, but realise the gift of presenting it to a human being can be just as pleasurable as creating it.”

“I also had a chip on my shoulder about being a restaurateur – I didn’t want to tell my parents that’s what I wanted to do,” adds Meyer. “I guess that informed our philosophy of treating everyone that works for us as well as we treat guests, or better. I hope that happens in Great Britain, too.”

If the UK has some catching up to do in validating working front-of-house as a career choice, Meyer believes it is streets ahead of the US in terms of provenance and traceability of ingredients. He also cites the diversity of restaurant design as a source of inspiration: “The European influence on style means there’s so much that is fresh when we come here. I’d love to give myself two weeks just to study design.”

If Shake Shack is a success in the UK’s casual-dining sector, could it tempt the group to open a fine-dining restaurant in London? Meyer is circumspect. “This is something that has been waved in front of my nose for many years, but so far wisdom has got the better of us. My heart would love to, but it would be a big deal on many levels.”

In the meantime, Shake Shack looks like shaking things up all on its own. Mine’s a concrete with chocolate truffle cookie dough.