NAFEM 2013: The passion of Danny Meyer

One of the highlights from 2013’s NAFEM Show was a keynote address from Danny Meyer, the much-admired CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group. Michael Jones was there to hear him discuss his unique take on the concept of good hospitality

“Have passion in what you do”. That’s a mantra that continues to guide Danny Meyer in his life and work. His ebullient and engaging speech at NAFEM 13 in Orlando, Florida showed that the passion he has for combining great food with a great attitude towards customers is undimmed.

Meyer’s first restaurant was New York’s Union Square Café, which opened in 1985 to rave reviews. Blending food of Italian and American influences, the restaurant famously earned a three star review from The New York Times at a time when “non-fancy” restaurants were never considered to be of that calibre. For a restaurant serving BLTs – albeit with hand-cut, carefully-sourced bacon and homemade mayonnaise – and offering customers the option of eating food served at bar counters by “waiting staff not dressed in tuxedos”, this was considered unprecedented. Union Square Café went on to win multiple awards and honours, including the ranking of Favorite New York Restaurant in the Zagat Survey in 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, and 2008.

Meyer has since gone on to launch Blue Smoke, Gramercy Tavern, Jazz Standard, The Modern, The Museum of Modern Art’s Café 2 and Terrace 5, Maialino, Untitled at the Whitney Musuem of American Art and North End Grill. Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG)’s casual Shake Shack in Madison Square Park proved a runaway success and has been expanded to further outlets in NYC as well as to Miami Beach, Washington DC, Philadelphia and the Middle East. Meyer also recently announced new Shake Shacks in Boston, London and Turkey.

But things haven’t always gone so smoothly for Meyer. Told by his parents that a career in hospitality was for “other people” and “it’s not why you got a good education”, Meyer was steered towards law school. After some soul-searching he rejected his parent’s wishes and quit his law course, taking advice from an uncle which he later realised “changed the whole course” of his life. “Do the thing that you’ve not stopped talking about your whole life – go start a restaurant” his uncle told him.

Feeling liberated, Meyer took a class at the New York Restaurant School, spent his time learning hard and “worrying a great deal” about subjects like “food cost percentages and inventory”. His first job interview involved a restaurant owner sizing him up briefly and saying simply, “you’ll do”. He was hired as assistant lunch manager, being first into the restaurant in the morning, making sure that the rest of the serving staff were coming in on time, speaking to the chefs, agreeing the specials, taking reservations and editing the food and wine menus.

Meyer then took a passage of culinary rites; travelling to Bordeaux, Rome and Milan to learn to cook. He described this experience as being “one long goose chase”, based around the concept of asking local chefs and restaurateurs “Where is your favourite place to eat?” Going from town to town, trying dishes that “would blow my mind”, Meyer said the experience was hugely formative in his career. He came back to New York with a notebook full of ideas and with the sole intention of creating a restaurant that he would regard as his favourite place to eat. Europe also proved fruitful in other ways, Meyer met his wife while there.

Looking back at that pivotal time in his life when he opened Union Square Café, Meyer describes a culture when people “didn’t go to restaurants as part of day-to-day life”. Now, said Meyer, “it’s a well-respected entrepreneurial choice”. He is very proud to work in the hospitality profession and described it as “an incredibly valid thing to be doing with your life”.

Meyer takes his own responsibility to the cause of good hospitality very seriously. When he first opened Union Square Café he and his serving team began keeping file cards on where customers liked to sit in the restaurant, when their birthdays were and their favourite orders. For Meyer this is about creating the “serendipity of good things happening to people while they dine in our restaurant”.
He saw the first 10 years of the restaurant’s life as being a crucial opportunity to learn the business. He admits mistakes were made along the way – but they were learnt from. “I have no idea how we stayed in business,” he said. “On day one we had waiting staff opening champagne bottles with corkscrews. I had no idea what cashflow was and we had a bookkeeper who couldn’t balance his own cheque book!” says Meyer. “We had lots of down days but nobody had to teach me to treat people well – I was always intuitive about it.”

Meyer is convinced that food and service alone really only account for 49% of what makes a great dining experience, feeling that the remaining 51% is down to hospitality. Service and hospitality are, to Meyer, two very different things and the most “misused words in the business” he said. “Great food or great service alone won’t bring someone back to your restaurant. Hospitality has nothing to do with the technical delivery of a product; it’s to do with a human touch – acts of thoughtfulness. Service is ‘stuff we do’ – hospitality is everything else. Great hospitality can overcome human error and turn mistakes to your advantage.”

Restaurant service is, said Meyer, “a monologue”. If done right it can be “turned into a manual” for running front of house foodservice in each venue. Hospitality, however, “is a dialogue” where “the desired outcome is that the person on the receiving end feels like you are on their side” and getting it right is everything.

Restaurants that display a high hospitality quotient (HQ) are, said Meyer, the ones that will really succeed. “Precision in service is what gives you a starting line. If you don’t get right then you’re dead in the water and people won’t come back, but hospitality is what wins the day. People will judge a price or the layout of a place but at the end of the day it’s about ‘how did it make you feel?’ The hospitality industry is the second biggest employer in the US after the government” said Meyer. “So we have a big responsibility.”


Michael Jones

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