A Hot Dog and a Dream: Ditching Fine Dining for Shake Shack Success

Like the company he runs, Randy Garutti wasn’t supposed to be in the business he's in. Or at least not the segment in which he works.

The Shake Shack CEO has always been fascinated by the restaurant business, but it was the high-end dining experience he’d learned to perfect over the years.

It was a niche he was accustomed to and loved…until he got a call from Danny Meyer, the famed New York restaurateur who oversees world-class operations like Union Square Cafe. The call threw his career plans in a whole new direction.

“I...met Danny (Meyer) in what was the construction site of Eleven Madison Park. I was 23 at the time and I got him to give me 45 minutes of his time and we hit it off.”

- Randy Garutti, Shake Shack CEO

Lifelong Love of Food

At the ripe age of 13 Garutti landed a job at a New Jersey bagel shop where he was employed through his high school years doing everything from taking orders, to pouring coffee, and slathering thick schmears of cream cheese all over fresh bagels for customers.

It was at Bakin Bagels where the eventual Shake Shack chief learned the art of customer satisfaction.

“I think it was serving other people (that shaped my career),” he said. “The jobs in the service and hospitality industry are a noble profession, and I always enjoyed it. I always enjoyed food.”

The embers of his passion for the food industry were ignited and fueled through his early teenage years, but began much earlier. He said he and his brother would always mess around in the kitchen trying to make new things -- having a blast in the process.

“In fact, my brother claims to be the inventor of the everything bagel because he would throw every topping he could on it,” Garutti laughs. “There’s no truth to that, we were just goofing around all the time and having fun.”

By the time Garutti was old enough to really begin thinking about what he wanted to do for the rest of his life, the answer had been staring him in the face for years. It was always going to be the restaurant world. It was just a matter of where and how.

At 17, he landed a job waiting tables at a country club in his hometown and then a decision had to be made: Where to go for his secondary education. The decision, for him, was simple.

“I was looking at college and saying, ‘I don’t want to study history, I don’t want to study math. I want to do food and beverage management. And I got into Cornell. I honestly never thought about anything else. I can't remember a time where I thought there was anything else I could do,” he said.

Through his four years at Cornell, his passion for food only grew – this time maturing – and each summer promised a new beginning and a new adventure in culinary arts. After his freshman year he worked at a hotel in Florida, after sophomore year it was a Chilis in Myrtle Beach for $6 an hour; junior year brought a study abroad trip to Paris, a trip in which he tasted and sampled his way through 17 countries in just one summer. And after graduation, Garutti moved to Aspen, Colo., to work for a restaurant that moved him to three separate locations, including Denver and Maui before ending in Seattle.

“When you follow that track for me, I just loved that pace of the business and to see the world and continue to be a leader,” he said. “It was made better by places where I could ski, surf, and kayak, and have a life alongside.”

From Coast to Coast

Garutti’s move to Seattle brought what would become a life-changing decision. His boss told him to read an article written by Danny Meyer, and suggested that he call Meyer to "meet him and learn something."

So he did.

The day he moved to Seattle, he paused in New York after returning home from a stint in Hawaii.

“I packed my truck and that day met Danny in what was the construction site of Eleven Madison Park,” he said. “I was 23 at the time and I got him to give me 45 minutes of his time and we hit it off.”

Garutti said he remembers thinking during the cross-country drive to the West Coast that he never wanted to live in New York. He wanted to be able to ski and surf and be in the kinds of places he’d spent his very early career working in and enjoying.

“The New York area was a concrete jungle,” he said. “Restaurants were supposed to be in places where you enjoy life: Aspen, on vacation. That’s the experience I’d had at the resort atmospheres where I worked. So New York was just not where I wanted to be.”

If he was ever going to make the move back east, it would have to be for Meyer.

Just a year and a half after that initial conversation, Garutti grew tired of the Seattle restaurant scene and hungered for a change of scenery.

“Danny, in his sincere warmth and welcome of that meeting, we hit it off and I just found a  kinship with him that made me say New York ain’t so bad, and this guy is doing it differently,” he recalls.

With the blessing of his Seattle restaurant manager, Garutti took off for New York, this time to be the general manager of Table, a fine dining venture Meyer had invested in. A position Meyer flat out told Garutti he wasn’t ready to take on…but an offer Meyer took a leap of faith  and offered anyway.

A Hot Dog and a Dream

Through his career with Meyer and his Union Square Hospitality Group, Garutti has had the pleasure – and the challenge – of working through what he calls some pretty unbelievable times including the opening  of Table during New York’s 2003 blackout.

“We used propane stoves, ice, and we had a chalkboard menu. We said, ‘Hey, we have ice and we can make drinks and heat some food up. If you remember, the pizza guys were among the only people open that day because they could use something other than electricity to prepare food. And there would be 500 people on line for the pizzeria on the corner…and then one for us. It was a great moment for us.”

But what he might be most proud of is the little hot dog cart that could – the one that started it all, and turned Garutti’s career completely on its head. Just one year later, as part of a deal with a local artist looking to revitalize Madison Square Park in New York City, Meyer, Garutti, and their team agreed to open a hot dog cart to raise money for the project.

It was an unbelievable success no one expected.

And a venture they continued every summer for three years.

“I was director of operations for the Union Square Hospitality Group at the time,” he said. “So it was one thing I was a part of, but not really where my focus was. Mine was on fine dinning. It wasn’t until 2007 that Danny came to me and said, ‘You have a choice: Do you want to see if we could have a second Shake Shack?’ I thought for two seconds and it was obvious where I wanted to go.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

That tiny hot dog cart that was supposed to run for one summer to raise a little extra cash to make the local park a safer, more fun place to be turned into a full-fledged restaurant business of its own where tourists flock from all over the world to visit. Now, Shake Shack has a presence in five states, and in other markets like the Middle East, UK, Turkey and Russia

So, after his whirlwind career alongside Danny Meyer, what’s Garutti’s best piece of advice for young people who both know what they want to do and those who don’t have a clue?

“Follow your passion and your dreams with pride,” he said. “To raise money for a park without ever dreaming there’d be more than that – when you start with that truth and that sincerity, that allows you to some day have the chance to grow.”