Restaurateur Danny Meyer on his plans beyond New York

29 May 2008 by
Restaurateur Danny Meyer on his plans beyond New York

Danny Meyer, the man behind Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Cafe could easily sit back and enjoy his retirement. But there's a new venture in the pipeline for the great man, and plans beyond New York, as Fiona Sims finds out

Danny Meyer has a string of successful restaurants in New York and over the years he has had loads of offers to open elsewhere. Now, at last, he may be on the verge of doing exactly that

Is there a restaurant in New York more beloved than Gramercy Tavern? Actually, I didn't originally ask that question - revered restaurant critic Frank Bruni posed it in his New York Times column. "For nearly 13 years it has held a place in the hearts of New Yorkers and visitors to Manhattan that's arguably unrivalled," he wrote last June, before dissecting dinner there after a new chef had come on board. And yes, the review was good. But then, Gramercy's owner, Danny Meyer, must be used to the praise by now.

Meyer is one of the country's - sorry, make that one of the world's - most successful restaurateurs. His New York ventures have 17 James Beard awards between them and his four fine-dining restaurants have earned three stars in the New York Times - not to mention the fact that five of his eight restaurants are in Zagat's Top 40 (two of which have been number one and two for the past decade).

You might have read his recent book about the subject. Setting the Table (HarperCollins) has been published in five countries and has been translated into Korean, Japanese and Portuguese. Anyway, the man knows how to run a restaurant. And we meet at Bruni's favourite, Eleven Madison Park. I wonder if it's Meyer's favourite, though?

"My favourite is the one I'm sitting in at the moment - I'd tell you the same sort of thing if you asked me which one of my kids is my favourite," he insists. "But there's only one first kid, there's only one first restaurant, and there will never be another restaurant that will get that much of my blood, sweat and tears."

New breed

He's talking, of course, about Union Square Cafe, which he opened in 1985 when he was just 27 years old. It was a new breed of American eaterie, combining innovative food and carefully sourced wine with caring hospitality in comfortable surroundings - and offering great value for money. Sounds perfect, doesn't it? And yes, it still lives up to expectations.

It was a success right from the start - and brave, too, because it opened in a part of the city not used to such finery, helping to regenerate the area, shooting to the number one slot in Zagat's Survey as the city's Most Popular Restaurant, which it held for an unprecedented six consecutive years, from 1997 through to 2002, and then again in 2004.

The first question I want to ask him is what's the secret of his success? But I think I already know what he's going to say. I've just watched about 40 young, attractive staff file out of the door after a post-lunch service pow-wow - a meeting he holds as early, and as often, as he can with the company's newest recruits - making sure that they know what he's about and what they're about, too.

I couldn't hear that much from my pitch in the bar, but I did catch one bit of Meyer's staff speech. "If you leave this meeting and don't feel jazzed up, I want you to have respect for yourself and realise that this is where you spend a third of your life and you shouldn't waste it with us. Listen to your heart," he tells the gathered workers. I'm a fan already.

I read somewhere that Meyer puts his staff first, and his customers second - which is rather novel in service-obsessed North America. Is that right? "The most important aspect of the hospitality business - the number one thing for me - is how my staff make my staff feel. Look over there," he says, pointing to a group of three, smartly turned out employees chatting casually to each other on the greeter desk, all smiles.

"I guarantee that they are fretting over how to make someone happy tonight," he declares. "If I walked in right now I would look at that and that would be all I'd need to know: they are focusing on their jobs but doing them in a way that means they are also enjoying what they do. If they are having fun taking their job seriously then you as a guest are going to get a great experience."

Feeling valued

I remember my first visit to Gramercy Tavern seven years ago. We hadn't booked, but arrived early for lunch to queue dutifully for a spot in the busy bar. A smattering of celebrities and a fair few suits breezed past us to their (reserved) tables in the restaurant, We were treated just as graciously, questions about the menu met with impressively informed responses. In short, we felt valued.

Meyer once told another interviewer that the traditional Irish pub was a big influence on his idea of hospitality. So does he still stand by that? "The very basic hospitality is a dialogue between the person giving it and the person receiving it. If you take an Irish pub, there's a dialogue going back and forth - the bartender knows your name, your favourite drink, and your hardships. You leave feeling better than when you came in - you feel hugged. It's so elementary. I just find it fascinating that, as restaurants get more and more refined, we have forgotten the basic reason people come in. Yes, we want to be intellectually stimulated by a chef's latest creation, but not at the expense of a hug. We want to know a restaurant is happy to see us," he explains.

"Restaurants exist to provide restoration for human beings and what restores people is this remarkable alchemy of what we feed them and how they feel hugged, and both of those things have to work really well - one or the other is not cutting it," he says, now sounding a tad messianic. Does he enjoy his new role (especially since the publication of Setting the Table) as a spokesperson for the industry?

"I enjoy it for lots of reasons," he replies. "It comes at a time when our industry is increasingly getting known for how it gets portrayed on reality TV with its bad-boy chefs. But guess what? Anything that attracts really smart, engaging people into our industry is a great thing. I wanted to show that there's another side to the industry - the large number of people in it with huge hearts doing it because they love taking care of customers and they love how their food makes them feel. I am delighted to have our industry cast in a positive light, it helps our people feel safe about coming into it."

It's all I can do to stop myself punching the air and whooping my support. Don't you just love this guy? His staff plainly do. "What drove me into this business in the first place was wanting to treat people the way I wanted to be treated," he adds, with a shrug.

So just how did a political science major, who has worked on a presidential campaign, end up running restaurants? "Food, food, food and wine - in that order," he insists.

Born and raised in St Louis, Missouri, Meyer grew up in a household that loved, you guessed it… food. While working for his father's travel business as a tour guide in Rome, and then in the Italian capital again to study international politics, he spent more time in its trattorias than in the classroom, later landing his first job running an Italian seafood restaurant in New York - much to his parents' disapproval.

"I was ashamed when I went to my parents and said I wanted to get into the restaurant business and they said, ‘that's not why we sent you to college'. I don't want anyone to feel ashamed about their choice to go into the business," he urges.

It's not politics he chooses when I ask him what career path he would have followed if he hadn't been a restaurateur. "A writer like you," he replies, instantly. "I've always loved writing. Have I got a novel in me? Who knows - you've given me a good idea. But I'd have to retire from this and I ain't ready to do that for a long time yet."

In fact, the Union Square Hospitality Group, which includes Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, Eleven Madison Park, Tabla, Blue Smoke, Jazz Standard, Shake Shack and the three restaurants at the newly renovated Museum of Modern Art, were recently joined by Hudson Yards Catering - a new departure for Meyer and his investors.

The initial motivation for it came about because there wasn't enough space allocated for the kitchen at his venture at the Museum of Modern Art, so he created a catering kitchen elsewhere. Then he thought: hey, this is an opportunity at last to say yes to all my clients over the years who have asked me to cater for their dinner parties and weddings. "It's a challenge, sure, as we are known for our brilliant food and our great hospitality, and on any given night we might be fielding a team of 100 people who have worked for someone else the night before, so our very trademark is at risk. But I think we are doing a good job of it," he says.

Second Shake Shack

And at the end of the summer Meyer is opening up a second Shake Shack, on the Upper West Side - the first time he has ever done a second version of anything. But judging by the queues when I swung by the original in Madison Square Park, which snaked away into the distance - on a cold, rainy, mid-week spring day - New York could do with another one of these.

Meyer must have been asked a million times to open up restaurants outside the city - why hasn't he been tempted?

"I've always wanted to stay as close as possible to our staff and customers. The biggest offer I had was Las Vegas. It feels like free money, but it's not. I think that if you open in a place like Las Vegas it's ‘there goes the soul of your restaurant'. I never started these things to be ATM machines - though we have now gotten to the point where we can't just stay in New York, mainly from a real estate standpoint. It gets harder and harder to justify paying more money in rent than we can possibly earn back, and I don't relish the idea of going to work for a landlord. It's a hard decision, but yes - someday, somewhere, I will do something outside New York, but it will be a restaurant with soul," he promises.

London, perhaps - pretty, please?

Danny Meyer on…

New York being number one for restaurants
All you have to do is look at the breadth and depth of what we have in every category. And at how many of the world's greatest chefs want to be here.

People he admires
My favourite restaurateur of all time just died - Jean-Claude Vrinat at Taillevent in Paris. His standards were mind-blowing - he could push the envelope on refinement, and push the envelope on welcome, which is an unnatural mix for many of us. It's something that I'm constantly trying to figure out with every restaurant I do.

…and in New York?
I have a huge amount of affection for Drew Nieporent, and Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich - we have a huge alumnus after doing this for 22 years in the city. We've see each other's mistakes and triumphs.

On what a Chief People Officer might be
He is to people what our purchasing director is to our chefs. He's there to make sure we pick the right kind of people and that we sustain a culture where they can grow. He makes sure the soil of our company is fertile. You can get the best rootstock in the world - but if you've got diseased soil, it will die.

Cooking at home
I do it a lot, especially braising, grilling and roasting. We have three barbecue pits at my other home in Connecticut. I love entertaining friends and family.

Meyer picks UK initiative

Danny Meyer has looked to the UK for a staff retention and training programme that he just couldn't find in the USA.

Union Square Hospitality Group has adapted Talent toolbox from Learnpurple to ensure important HR areas such as induction reviews, appraisals and exit interviews motivate staff rather than worry them.

Its customised format is funky, fun and in keeping with the strong culture Meyer has created. It also adds to the bottom line. Return on investment is derived from: increased control improved communication greater data capture for talent management (benchmarked over time) time-savings, increased motivation and productivity more accurate targeting of learning and development investment better succession planning (less external recruitment) and better retention of key talent.

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