If Danny Meyer could travel back in time to 2004, when he opened the first Shake Shack in New York City's Madison Square Park, he'd give himself one piece of advice:
"Buckle your seatbelt, because you have no idea where this one's going."
In seven short years, Shake Shack has become a mecca of fast food, completely redefining the genre for the 21st Century. From almost the first minute they opened, people were asking about expansion, something not planned for in Shake Shack's original concept.
This week, with a new location in Fairfield County that Meyer calls natural for the company, Shake Shack finds itself catering to a crowd and environment more in line with its foundation.
"What we never thought or dreamed or even wondered was whether there would ever be a second Shake Shack or a third Shake Shack, and I'm kind of glad we didn't open our second Shake Shack until four years later," Meyer told Patch. "We learned what people like, we learned about ourselves, how to make it better, and what was great was that because we hadn't planned for this to be more than one, we didn't build a chain from scratch…we built a place with soul. And I think people can taste that."
Shake Shack Westport opened Wednesday, and the latest incarnation is unique in the fact that it has brought Meyer and his partner, Shake Shack CEO and Rye, N.Y. resident David Swinghamer, back to their original concept. With a large parking lot in a suburban setting, the Westport Shack is more reminiscent of a 1950s roadside burger joint than any of the other locations.
"That's what Shake Shack was designed to be in the first place in New York City. But we exchanged a park for a parking lot because New Yorkers don't drive cars around," Meyer said. "And what was really exciting for us about being in Westport is that it really gets us closer to what the antecedent was for Shake Shack in the first place. So in a way this gives us a chance to come home to our real roots."
So why Westport?
"We have been asked that a lot and the answer is pretty straightforward," Meyer said. "Each time we open a new Shake Shack we're really trying to learn something new. The big learning that we've wanted to do for a long time is to figure out how Shake Shack will play in a non-urban environment. And what are the kinds of communities we can figure that out in close enough to New York that we can get to easily, but far enough away so that we can actually do some real learning, so that it's not just a suburb of New York.
"We have been in the restaurant business for a lot of years, starting with Union Square Café in 1985, and Gramercy Tavern in 1994 and we have just hundreds and hundreds of loyal friends and guests who actually live in this area — not necessarily Westport, but Southport, Darien, Greenwich, Weston, Wilton: the kind of towns that are pretty easy striking distance," Meyer continued. "So for years we've been hearing from people who weren't necessarily talking about Shake Shack, but were saying 'could you guys please do something up here.' And so it all kind of came together, and we said this is where we want to do it."
And with early returns in, it seems it's playing out extremely well.
One woman walking out Wednesday with a paper bag filled with ShackBurgers, fries, and a tray of shakes and concretes stopped to thank Meyer for coming to Westport.
"I'm going to be the most popular person in the office," she said, struggling to get into her car.
Another told Meyer, tongue firmly in cheek, "I may be back, I don't know…"
And a group of smiling teens passing by simply gave Meyer fist bumps as their seal of approval.
Despite more than a quarter century of accolades, Meyer has maintained humility, particularly when it comes to the gauging the local dining scene.
"I've had some great meals in Norwalk at Pasta Nostra, I had a great meal at L'Escale in Greenwich," said Meyer. "I have a lot to learn, but the good news is that this will be on the beaten path of my life's journey. I'll be learning."