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Xavier Rousset interview with Danny Meyer

08 May 2015
Xavier Rousset interview with Danny Meyer

In the third of our series of interviews by Xavier Rousset, the Texture restaurant co-founder speaks to legendary operator Danny Meyer and discovers that his philosophy for the Union Square Hospitality Group is that if his staff are happy, then his guests are too

Xavier Rousset (XR) Thank you, Danny, for joining me. In each of these interviews, I've asked restaurateurs about the importance of location. How key is it to a restaurant?

Danny Meyer (DM) I believe context is even more important than location. For example, I think restaurants can open in locations that stores couldn't. But in the context of a neighbourhood in the making, a restaurant can help a location as much as a location can help a restaurant.

XR So it's taking a little bit of risk at the beginning, but in time things will change?

DM Yes. Location, location, location is more important for a chain than an independent.

XR Everybody thinks location is key to success.

DM

XR Do you believe that the success of a restaurant is based on food or do you think that's less relevant? Is it as much about atmosphere, design or people?

DM I think it's as much about food as it's ever been; I just think there's more great food than before, and so it's not enough. No-one's going to come back to your restaurant just because you have good food, and they definitely won't come back if you don't. Let's say there are 50 other places whose food is just as good as yours - that's where hospitality comes in.

XR How much do you believe in good design? Does it make or break a restaurant?

DM No, it doesn't make or break a restaurant. There are many restaurants where what's on the plate and what's in the glass and how good the welcome is matter much more. That doesn't mean that good design can't improve a restaurant, but we've all had wine where the label was better than the liquid in the bottle, and so it can be with restaurant design.

I would start off with making the experience great, even with a modestly designed restaurant, and once you have a following you can always make the decor nicer. That doesn't mean you shouldn't care about the design - we put a lot of thought into the design of Shake Shack - and I think there's a correlation between higher-revenue restaurants and those that care about design. However, it's still not as important as the product and the quality of the hospitality.

XR In London it's hard to find staff; to motivate them and keep them. How do you keep your staff? Is it the money, the hours or the training? Some of your staff are very loyal.

DMIt's like being a winemaker - there are four processes involved, three of which you can control. You can control the rootstock and where you plant it - the terroir. So, did you hire the right people? Because the wine's never going to taste any better than the worst rootstock, and we're never going to do any better than the worst person we hired.

The culture is incredibly important. Let's say we hire the right person, but the culture, the way we do things in the restaurant, is toxic - that employee's not going to thrive. The third thing is training the vines. So get the right rootstock, keep the soil healthy and train it. Lastly, we cannot control the vintage or the climate, but a good winemaker makes the best wine, even in a bad year, and a good restaurateur has the capability of having the best staff, even when the economy's not great.

We pay close attention to what our customers and social media have to say about us, but we pay more attention to our annual employee survey, where we ask 'How does it feel to work here?'. We think that metric is what ends up driving the external metrics. If our own employees, year over year, said it got better working here or worse, I guarantee that is going to correlate with how our guests feel. So that's where we start, with the
employee experience and, as a result, our staff turnover is low. We listen and we follow up and if there's a great suggestion, not only do we take it, but we give that employee the credit and that fosters more trust.

XR Here, to be a waiter or waitress is a student job, whereas in the US or France you can be a head waiter or restaurant manager for life. It's a culture thing. Cheffing has been promoted a lot on TV, but there aren't many kids wanting to run a restaurant when they grow up. How can we make front of house more in demand?

DM It's a tough one and there's no light switch you can immediately flick to change that culture. Unfortunately, in many societies, the restaurant guest is the master and the person in front of house is the servant. Therefore, when we hire people, we really make it clear that hospitality is our game.

The first stakeholder that receives our hospitality is our own team, and that means you will be responsible for us, for how well you take care of each other. The cooks take care of the waiters, the waiters take care of the cooks, the cooks take care of the cooks, and if we can start a virtuous cycle by uplifting human energy among people who work there, we believe that becomes infectious and then everyone wants to take good care of our guests.

I can't do that overnight, but I can tell you, having been in the restaurant business for over 30 years, that putting your own team first and putting customers second enables you to attract people who are able to break out of that master/servant relationship. Because if their own boss is empowering them to use their hearts and minds to do great things for each other and for the customers and the community, it's a more highly respected pursuit.

If you don't talk about things like that, it will invariably lead to not just a master/servant kind of relationship, but sadly a mercenary relationship, where people think 'I'm only working here for this quick transaction'.

If you come to my restaurant, at its core is the base transaction of 'you give me money and I give you food'. However, we try to teach our staff that if somebody comes in and orders a cheeseburger or a milkshake or a Cumberland sausage or an ale, pretend the food is free, and pretend that what they're really paying you for is the hospitality. How did you make each other feel, and how did you make them feel? That's what's going to make people come back.

Here's an example - recently we went to a fantastic restaurant called Palomar. We sat at a counter and all the staff were right in front of us, and what I noticed was that this was not transactional, this was experiential. The staff members were having so much fun with each other that how could I not have a good time? And they were cooking really good food. They even stopped at a certain time, poured out a shot and said: "It's shot o'clock". Maybe they only did that because I was watching, but it was fun.

XR When you're expanding, do you wait for a site to become stable before you move onto the next one, or do you just say "roll it out"?

DM I would say wait until your team is truly ready to grow. Pretend you're a baker and wait until your mother yeast is well developed so you can take some of it and bake a new loaf. If you don't take that mother yeast culture with you, it's not going to taste right.

There's always going to be another building, and if you're fortunate, there's always going to be another investor willing to take a risk. The question is, are there enough leaders in your company so when you do open a restaurant, it feels like your restaurant? That's the biggest governor on our growth: people.

XR I have seen a reduction in food critic power, and a rise in bloggers and people-to-people sites like TripAdvisor and Twitter. Are food critics still as influential as they were?

DM I think it's a lot like my answer when you asked if food is as important as ever. I would say that critics are more important than ever. There's more of them than ever before, and everybody who has a smartphone is a critic - with a megaphone and a soapbox to stand on - and that never used to be the case.

I think professional critics are still influential. There's a fascinating dance between social media and professional critics, because the pattern I see today is that everyone in the media reads other people in social media. Everybody who writes for classic publications also reads social media, and so opinions are being formed, whether you acknowledge it or not. If you're a professional restaurant critic it used to be that you'd go to the restaurant and that would be your first opportunity to experience it. But today, by the time any professional critic arrives at a restaurant, I guarantee you that they have already read tweets or blogs.

If your question is can a professional critic shut down a restaurant, I would say possibly. Can a professional critic make an otherwise not busy restaurant very busy? Possibly. But I would say that by the time the professional writes the review, many opinions have already been formed and many opinions have been influenced by others.

Yesterday I went to a fantastic new restaurant in London called Portland. I'm not a professional critic, I'm just a restaurant-goer, but I want to illustrate my point. So I went to the restaurant and I was fortunate enough to have my photo taken with the owners, Will and Daniel, and I tweeted a picture. I didn't say a lot, but here's the point I want to raise - before there was social media, I would go home and if a friend said 'I'm going to London' I would say you have to go to Portland, and that would be it. Whereas yesterday, instead, I was able to send a picture and say "Spectacular lunch at Portland, thanks to another gifted duo named Will and Daniel". Furthermore, 5,739 people read that, 444 people engaged with it, meaning
they clicked on the picture or Portland's twitter or my name, and 1.4% of those people even checked to learn more about me.

There are more impressions than ever. We're still very interested in what a professional critic has to say, it's just highly unlikely that that's going to be the first time we hear about the good stuff, the bad stuff, the so-so stuff, and it's also highly unlikely that it's the first time the public will have heard about it.

XR So do you think food guides are becoming obsolete?

DMNo, I think they're becoming more competitive, either to get to that restaurant sooner than everyone else so your opinion came first, or to get there last so your opinion is the final word. Or, if you're one of the ones in the middle, maybe you have an opportunity to write something that's the opposite of everyone else so you can get the attention.

It doesn't mean the critics aren't important, but it's another important element in what it takes to be a great restaurateur, which is what I call the static theory. Remember decades ago they had these things called ham radios, which were so powerful that I could be sitting in my home in St Louis in Missouri as a kid, and if I had the right ham radio and I tuned it in very carefully, I could pick up signals from Japan, Russia or Britain.
But the problem with a ham radio was because it was so sensitive it picked up everything, including static. And the problem with so many reviews, whether they're from amateurs, bloggers or professional media, is that you're picking up so much information that it's very, very easy to pick up static.

The key thing for a restaurateur is to know your business well - it's important to listen and look for patterns. So, in other words, if I read 50 things, whether they were by an amateur or a professional, if one of them says "I love everything about the restaurant except the uniforms", that's OK. If four of them say it, listen carefully.

Professionals have to be more competitive with each other and so there's pressure. I've heard of restaurants that have had a visit from a professional critic on night one! That would be like Jancis Robinson basing her wine reviews on barrel samples as opposed to waiting until the wine had time to rest in the bottle.

XR You've opened quite a few restaurants and Shake Shack is the only one you've replicated. I really fell in love with Gramercy Tavern. You've never considered a Gramercy two, three or four in New York? And if not, why not?

DM So far, our history has been that Gramercy Tavern is a restaurant that has a terroir - it tastes like where it was planted. So does Union Square Café - that's why I'm having such a hard time finding a new location for it, but that gets back to your first question about context. For our restaurant, the Modern, at the Museum of Modern Art, the terroir is the museum. My concern is that you could take the vines and graft a vine from this vineyard onto another vineyard - I don't think you can take the whole vineyard and take it somewhere else and expect it to taste the same way.
So, to this day, after 30 years, the only restaurant we've ever replicated is Shake Shack.

Actually, we have replicated Blue Smoke, because I don't believe that Blue Smoke is what I would call a terroir restaurant. The context of Blue Smoke on East 27th Street is less important than the concept of Blue Smoke, which is southern cooking on a barbecue. But a restaurant like Gramercy Tavern isn't a high-concept restaurant, it's a terroir restaurant. It has been tempting, for sure. We've had many very generous invitations but, so far, we've resisted them.

XR Coming from an academic background, do you think you view restaurants differently to someone like me, who has been bred from within the hospitality industry?

DM I think you're probably right. Let's put it this way, Union Square Café is now three years older than I was when I opened it, so I've been
doing this for a long time. It's hard for me to remember, but I felt pretty young when I was 27. I had only worked in restaurants for one year when Union Square Café opened. Nine months in the dining room and three months in the kitchen, and that was it.

XR So do you consider yourself crazy to have had the guts to do that when you were 27?

DMNo, I think any entrepreneur would do it, whether they're opening a restaurant or a shoe store. I don't know that we're crazy, and I don't even think we're courageous, because I don't think we understand that this could possibly fail. If you truly believe in what you're doing and you're so excited about it that you just don't have any choice but to share it with other people, and you don't even imagine it failing, you're not even courageous - you're just an entrepreneur.

And maybe all entrepreneurs are crazy, but I think when you have to open a restaurant, you have to open a restaurant. My mother would say, "Stop scratching a mosquito bite or you're going to get a scar", and I would try everything I could not to scratch it, but ultimately I would scratch it because I had to. And that's how these restaurants are. I think entrepreneurs get that itch and that's how you know you're an entrepreneur - when you just don't have a choice but to do it.

Danny Meyer

Danny Meyer is the chief executive of Union Square Hospitality Group, which includes Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern, Blue Smoke, Jazz Standard, Shake Shack, the Modern, Maialino, Untitled, North End Grill, Union Square Events and Hospitality Quotient.

Born and raised in St Louis, Missouri, Meyer grew up in a family that loved getting together to eat great food. Thanks to his father's travel business, he spent much of his childhood eating and travelling, sowing the seeds for his future passion for food and wine.

In 1985, aged 27, Meyer launched Union Square Café, which pioneered a new breed of American eatery, combining imaginative food and wine with caring hospitality, comfortable surroundings and outstanding value. In 1994, Meyer opened Gramercy Tavern, offering refined American cuisine in a historic landmark building.

In late 1998, Meyer opened Eleven Madison Park and Tabla. After 12 years, Tabla closed its doors in December 2010 and Eleven Madison Park was sold to its chef and general manager in 2011.

In spring 2002, Union Square Hospitality Group opened Blue Smoke and Jazz Standard, offering barbecue food and world-class live jazz. In the summer of 2004, it launched Shake Shack, a modern-day roadside burger stand, which expanded into numerous locations across the east coast of America and internationally.

Its first UK outpost opened in Covent Garden, London, in July 2013, with another in the pipeline. Meyer, his restaurants and chefs have earned an unprecedented 25 James Beard Awards, and his first business book, Setting the Table (HarperCollins, 2006), a New York Times bestseller, examines the power of hospitality in restaurants, business and life.

Xavier Rousset

Xavier Rousset became the youngest Master Sommelier in the world when he passed the exam aged 23. After working at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons as head sommelier, he met Icelandic chef Agnar Sverrisson and the duo went on to open Texture restaurant in 2007, in London's West End, which picked up a Michelin star in 2010.

They also opened wine workshop and kitchen concept 28°-50° in Fetter Lane in the City of London in 2010. Described as "a comfortable and relaxing place to enjoy good food and wine", the restaurant is named after the latitudes in which most wine regions are located.

A sister restaurant was launched in Marylebone in 2012, and Maddox Street opened in 2013.

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