Austin got its very own outpost of Shake Shack yesterday, the mega-successful 'fine casual' burger chain founded by New York restaurant legend Danny Meyer. The South Lamar Shack will be followed quickly by a second location at The Domain, slated to open later this year. Danny Meyer and Shake Shack CEO Randy Garutti spoke with Eater about their first foray into Texas, and the reason they're building a global brand team-first.
Why bring Shake Shack to Austin?
Danny: I fell in love with Austin when we were doing our research for Blue Smoke. Blue Smoke opened in 2002. For two years prior to that, we were spending 60,000 miles on the whole barbecue trail in this country. I will get in trouble for saying this, but I don't think there's another barbecue city that compares to Austin and the Hill Country. I am so happy when I'm eating this food.
I actually talked my way out of a speeding ticket in Taylor, Texas. I was doing seventy-five in a fifty-five zone because I wanted to get to Louie Mueller before they closed. I was sure I was cooked with my New York license plate. The cop says, Are you in a hurry to get somewhere? And I say, Yes, I have to get to Louie Mueller before they close. He gave me special dispensation for that, and told me to be careful next time.
We've been saying for five years if and when Shake Shack grows beyond the East Coast, we have to go to Austin.
Randy: It's easy to fast forward to today and say it was obvious this company would become what it is, but when we started thinking about this Shake Shack, our company was less than half the size it is now. We always wanted to be in Austin.
Did you always know you were going to do a barbecue burger?
Randy: No, that came together in the past few months. It seems so obvious now. We thought maybe we'd put pulled pork on it, or brisket. Then we remembered we love that jalapeno cheddar sausage from Kreuz. We put it on top of a burger and said, This is it.
Will they be able to fulfill all the orders you'll need?
Randy: We hope so. We're not sure they understand how busy it will be.
Danny: We had their sausage on the menu at Blue Smoke when it first opened. Back then Kreuz didn't have a USDA license to ship, so we had to put the kibosh on that. This is a second go-round.
I actually talked my way out of speeding ticket in Taylor, Texas.
What's the timeline on your Domain location?
Randy: That will be toward the end of the year. We just started construction there. This location was supposed to open last year. We would never plan for them to be so close to each other, but this whole project was so far behind. Now that we're open here, give it about six months, and then Domain will open up.
Your press releases have always emphasized the fact that this is Texas's first Shake Shack. Are you looking at other Texas cities?
Randy: We're always looking. We knew it had to be Austin first, and when you see what we're building in the Domain, you'll see why it had to be two.
Danny: It will have solar panels, a bocce court, Adirondack chairs. It will be a really cool hang spot for that area.
Randy: It wasn't supposed to appear to be so fast. Like everything that has ever happened for Shake Shack, nothing is strategically planned.
Since the IPO, Shake Shack's pace of expansion will accelerate, yes?
Randy: Not necessarily. We opened ten restaurants this year ourselves, and we opened eight the year before. This year we plan on opening around ten. We're only going to open restaurants where we know we have the team in place. The general managers here, one of them worked for Gramercy Tavern, and the other started out as an intern for me in the office five years ago.
We're only going to open restaurants where we know we have the team in place.
So if you wanted to know if Shake Shack will expand to a city, you should see if there are Union Square Hospitality alums living there?
Danny: That's not a joke.
Randy: The single reason we opened in Atlanta last year is because one of our top operators, his wife got moved to Atlanta. He said, I have to quit. And we said, You're not going to quit, we're going to open in Atlanta.
Danny: The culture of how it feels when you're here, that is a direct connection to the people running the show. That is basically our growth strategy.
For In-N-Out Burger, expansion is driven by the location of their distribution center. It's about product. For you guys, it's about people.
Danny: It's the people and then we figure out the product.
Randy: [In-N-Out is] probably a lot smarter than we are. Hats off to them. But the good news is we always do figure it out.
Danny: For example, when we opened in Moscow, we knew American beef would not happen. Putin was behaving amazingly well back then. We started off making it work with grass fed beef from Scotland. Then Putin got into a fight with Great Britain, so we sent our team down to Australia to get grass fed beef. Then he got into a fight with Australia.
Randy: And then it was Uruguay, they were the only ones left. We're now serving Russian beef because these Texas cowboys opened a huge ranch in Russian when times were better there. They're teaching Russians how to do proper Angus cattle.
Even though we don't have a growth strategy that puts distribution first, our team is amazingly athletic when it comes to figuring out distribution. And a lot of our distribution is working with local suppliers.
The frozen custard here is absolutely the best closing argument for barbecue that exists.
Austinites are very devoted to local businesses, and Austin can be a tough market for out-of-towners. How do you make yourself relevant to the city?
Randy: We're going to do what we do and respect the incredible burger joints that have been here forever, and hope people add us to their rotation when they're having a burger.
Danny: Just don't forget that first bite. When you bite into your first Lockhart Link burger, or your first Shack burger, just remember that sensation. That's what it's all about.
This is going to sound crazy, but when I was a young kid, the flavor of Dairy Queen following barbecue was the absolute best in the world — until you have our frozen custard. Shake Shack is not called Burger Shack. The frozen custard here is absolutely the best closing argument for barbecue that exists.
Where's your favorite barbecue in Austin?
Danny: I'm so bummed Franklin is closed on Mondays. If I have like thirty-five minutes to leave here at some point, I'm going to go to John Mueller's and have some of those short ribs. If I had one more hour today, I would have gone up to Taylor and gone to Vencil Mares's Taylor Cafe. I make a pilgrimage any time I can. (To Randy) This guy opened his place right after World War II. His brisket is absolutely remarkable. I love Cooper's. Meyer's in Elgin. I love them all.