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A Q&A with man behind Chicago's first Shake Shack

'I would call this category fine casual. It's certainly not fast.'

Shake Shack, the upscale New York burger shop from restaurateur Danny Meyer, is opening its first Chicago location on Tuesday.

Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group runs a variety of restaurants in New York, including its first restaurant, Union Square Cafe, which opened in 1985. Shake Shack started in 2001 as a cart selling Chicago-style Vienna Beef hot dogs in New York's Madison Square Park. A Shake Shack restaurant opened in New York three years later, since expanding to cities including Philadelphia, Washington, Beirut, Istanbul, Kuwait City, London and Moscow.

Shake Shack's first Chicago shop, at 66 E. Ohio Street, is opening in a spot previously filled by a Harley-Davidson store. Next year, it plans to open a unit in a hotel going into the Chicago Athletic Association building across from Millennium Park.

The Chicago Tribune spoke with Meyer on Monday afternoon. Meyer, who grew up in St. Louis, counts as early mentors Lettuce Entertain You's Rich Melman and Levy Restaurants' Larry Levy.

"I looked to those guys early on to teach me about the business side of the business," he said.

What follows is an edited excerpt of that conversation.

Q: Why should someone come to Shake Shack instead of any other of the "better burger" places?

A: The first thing I would say is, don't come to Shake Shack instead of your favorite place. We may never be your favorite place. We may never be your favorite Chicago style hot dog. In fact, we don't even do it authentically well. We lost the neon from the relish ... (Meyer said a supplier wouldn't put the coloring in) … I would say come to Shake Shack and soak in the full experience … It may not be the same hospitality you get at Gold Coast or the Wieners Circle, but it's not bad.

Q: Talk a little about the local vendors you're using for this location.

A: We found that frozen custard has been a fantastic canvas for bringing in local bakers, doughnut makers, sometimes coffee roasters, sometimes beer producers.

The Publican is making our sausage for us. The sandwich is topped with our own fried shallots that have been marinating in Shackmeister ale (a beer exclusive to the chain) and then deep fried, and our own cheese sauce, but the sausage is made right here by someone we respect a lot.

Mark Rosati, our culinary director, was working at Gramercy Tavern before Shake Shack. Whenever we go to a new city, Mark will stay there for up to a month meeting chefs, meeting butchers, meeting bakers and literally tasting his way through the city looking for who he thinks is the best version. In Istanbul, he found the best producer of baklava, and that goes into one of our frozen custard desserts. It's fun, because it takes us longer to do it that way but it ends up feeling like we didn't just land on someone else's city like the house in the "Wizard of Oz" landed on the witch's legs.

Q: What do you think of the dining scene in Chicago?

A: I love it. I was just here two weeks ago and I went to a place I adore, which is one block away, called Joe's. I'm also a fan of the James Beard set. … I love the city. It's a very, very particular type of food town. On one hand, Chicago seems to me to be more traditional meat and potatoes food than you'll find in any other town in the country, and then on the other extreme Chicago is willing to push the boundaries of avant garde more than many, many cities. It's kind of fascinating to have both ends of that spectrum represented in one city.

Q: Food costs have gone up in general. How are you keeping control of that?

A: We are using all natural beef from an amazing farm in Kansas called Creekstone. It's no growth hormones, no antibiotics, it's the best of the best. And the price has, in one year, gone up probably a good 60 percent. And, meanwhile, we're trying to keep a lid on our prices (The mainstay ShackBurger costs $4.95 ). We're getting hurt by it, but we just feel that a huge part of this story is value. If you're someone who always ate fast food, for a couple of dollars more you can eat the same quality that you would get in one of our fine dining restaurants. If you're someone who is used to eating in our fine dining restaurants, for a whole lot less you can have the exact same quality. So, we love where this is positioned. I would call this category fine casual. It's certainly not fast. Pricing is a big pressure point.

jwohl@tribune.com

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