In Conversation

Shake Shack founder — and Yale parent — shares insights on business, the liberal arts, and the Elm City

YaleNews spoke with Danny Meyer to learn more about why he chose New Haven, his background, and some of his own favorites on the food scene.

New Haven welcomed a new culinary addition on Sept. 13 as Shake Shack opened downtown at 968 Chapel St., across from the upper Green.

A modern-day “roadside” burger stand, Shake Shack is part of the Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG) founded by noted restaurateur Danny Meyer. USHG includes such New York City restaurants as Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern, and Blue Smoke. The first Shake Shack opened in Manhattan’s Madison Square Park in 2004, followed by other locations in New York, as well as Westport, Miami, Washington, Philadelphia, Dubai, and Kuwait City.

Shake Shack is the newest tenant of University Properties, which manages Yale's commercial properties as part of the University's community investment program. Abigail Rider, director of University Properties, noted at the store's opening that “Danny Meyer has elevated the roadside burger stand to high art, and a cosmopolitan foodie mecca like New Haven is a perfect location for his creation.”

YaleNews spoke with Meyer to learn more about why he chose New Haven, his background, and some of his own favorites on the food scene.

Yale students enjoy a meal at New Haven’s newest eatery, Shake Shack, in its opening week.
Yale students enjoy a meal at New Haven's newest eatery, Shake Shack, in its opening week. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

Shake Shack is located in the heart of town, on the historic New Haven Green. What do you think of when you look out on the Green? What do you like about New Haven?

The commanding view Shake Shack affords onto the Green is new to me — and will be to locals as well. It brings the park into the Shack — and really reminds me of where Shake Shack was born in the first place, in New York’s Madison Square Park. I love that New Haven is beautiful and gritty; historic and modern; extroverted and introverted — all at once. I love the city’s longstanding love affair with food. We’re excited to be here.

You have incorporated some salvage items in the restaurant. Tell us about them.

We have a core belief at Shake Shack that the bigger we become, the smaller we need to act. And knowing where we are is hugely important to that path. We always build using sustainable — sometimes reclaimed — materials. When we learned that wood was available which had once been bleacher seats in the original Yale Bowl. We acquired all we could.

You majored in political science at Trinity College in Hartford — not exactly the training all chefs pursue. What about a liberal arts education has served you well in your life and career?

My course load at Trinity provided an extraordinary window into life beyond college. It’s amazing how many of those tools I’ve put to work in my career as a restaurateur: writing, French, Italian, international politics (studying at Trinity’s Rome campus), community development and urban renewal, and jazz (was news director and a jazz deejay at Trinity’s radio station WRTC). And it would be disingenuous not to acknowledge the role my fraternity life (Alpha Delta Phi) played in terms of teaching me a thing or two about the hospitality required in throwing a good party.

Your daughter is a Yale student. If you were advising high schools students or their parents about college, what would you tell them about Yale and what makes it distinctive?

It’s the quality of the students. Everywhere you turn, there’s someone from whom you can learn something, no matter your background or biases. The student body is truly remarkable. And I love how Yale builds so many smaller communities within itself — residential colleges, academic and special interest clubs, singing groups, Greek societies, sports teams, theater … that gives everyone a sense that this otherwise largish institution is actually quite manageable.

Lots of people love New Haven apizza. Do you have a favorite place or favorite pie?

For years I’ve made pilgrimages to New Haven for apizza. It’s gourmet food on a world-class level and should not be taken for granted. I’ve learned to appreciate several places for various reasons. Sally’s is probably my overall favorite. Even though the line takes five times longer than the one at Shake Shack, it’s worth the wait. Zuppardi’s (alright, it’s in West Haven) makes my favorite clam pie, especially with freshly shucked clams. I love the sausage and mushroom pie at Modern Apizza, and appreciate how nice everyone is who works there. Bar is my choice when I want a salad to go with my pie, and the mashed potato pie is weirdly good. The Spot generally delivers the goods when what you really wanted was Sally’s or Frank Pepe’s, but just couldn’t bear the lines.

What are your favorite new things on the New Haven food scene these days?

These places are not new to New Haven, but since my earlier forays during my college years were usually for apizza, they’ve been new to me, and each one has been a pleasure: Zinc, Heirloom, and Union League Club. Next up for me: Caseus, Miya’s Sushi, and Barcelona. I’ve also enjoyed local favorites like Claire’s Corner Copia, Blue State Coffee, and Ashley’s Ice Cream Cafe.

Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer discusses the opening of the restaurant's New Haven location.
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