Shake Shack founder and chairman Danny Meyer, who lived in Hartford in the late 1970s, says his Hartford experience influenced his business philosophy.
“My heart is here,” said the Trinity College alum and trustee, who has launched fine dining restaurants and other Shake Shacks around the world.
Meyer said moving from St. Louis to Hartford in the late 1970s inspired him to explore the city’s economically depressed, but ethnically vibrant neighborhoods.
“We actually would go to restaurants in neighborhoods because we could explore ethnic cooking. I just was never afraid, but I will say the economic divide was just as apparent then as it is right now.”
Seeing the way good food was successful in drawing him and his classmates off the Trinity College Campus later encouraged him to try launching fine-dining restaurants in what were formerly some of Manhattan’s struggling areas.
“No one was going to Union Square. It was a dangerous place - it was a drug-ridden park in 1985. No one was going to Madison Square Park,” Meyer said.
Today, his restaurants Union Square Café and Shake Shack are credited with helping those areas turn around for the better, and he hopes Shake Shack will also be an instrument for change in the communities where they open. Meyer said the chain is careful to source products from local businesses, and they work with local partners to hire employees from disadvantaged backgrounds. Five of the West Hartford location’s new employees come from the Kitchen at Billing’s Forge, a non-profit job training program based in Hartford’s Frog’s Hollow neighborhood.
Long before Shake Shack was looking at a Hartford county location, Meyer said he was impressed by the program at Billing’s Forge and the food at their fine-dining restaurant, Firebox.
“I think restaurants like this give courage to other businesses and it takes acts of courage, many acts of courage, for neighborhoods to change,” he said.
While a freshman at Trinity College majoring in political science, Meyer interned with the state legislature. He said he is particularly mindful of the choice Shake Shack, a publicly-traded company, made in deciding to open in West Hartford instead of Hartford. UConn’s new downtown campus, and recent efforts by Trinity College to bring more of their students downtown, Meyer said are a sign that things are looking up for the troubled city. If the West Hartford location proves successful, he said he’ll set his sights on opening a Shake Shack in downtown Hartford.