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Grilled in a Minute: Danny Meyer, Part I

Julie Mautner - December 5th, 2013

With a knack for capturing the zeitgeist, Danny Meyer spins sparks of inspiration into well-oiled workhorses, ably churning press as well as profits, garnering troves of insatiable diners, and keeping some of the brightest stars of the stove shining—all with a seemingly infinite expiration date. Is he the juggler or the king?

Read the interview with Meyer in Grilled in a Minute: Danny Meyer, Part II.

Danny Meyer is the CEO and founder of Union Square Hospitality Group, the multifaceted, highly regarded New York–based company known for consistent culinary excellence and warm hospitality.

USHG currently operates Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, Blue Smoke, Jazz Standard, Shake Shack, Maialino, and North End Grill; The Modern, Cafe 2, and Terrace 5 (at the Museum of Modern Art); Untitled (at the Whitney Museum of American Art); a catering division called Union Square Events; and a “learning business” called Hospitality Quotient.

Along with his restaurants and chefs, Meyer’s USHG has earned an unprecedented 25 James Beard Awards, along with a multitude of other top industry accolades and honors.

Born in 1958 and raised in St. Louis, Meyer grew up in a family that loved cooking and entertaining. Thanks to his father's travel business, he spent much of his childhood eating in near and far-off places, which instilled in him a deep appreciation food and wine. During college, he worked for his father as a tour guide in Rome. He later returned to Rome to study international politics but says he spent at least as much time at Italian trattoria tables as he did in class.

After graduating from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, with a degree in political science, Meyer landed in Chicago and took a job as Cook County field director for John Anderson’s 1980 independent presidential campaign. But having been seriously bitten by the food bug, he moved to New York City in 1984 to take a job as an assistant manager at Pesca, an Italian seafood restaurant. He later returned to Europe to study cooking, getting stages in both Italy and France.

In 1985, at age 27, Meyer opened his first restaurant, Union Square Cafe, which went on to claim Zagat’s Most Popular Restaurant in New York City title an unprecedented nine times. The casual fine dining restaurant is credited with sparking a dramatic resurgence of New York City’s Union Square neighborhood, and it remains one of the city’s most popular spots.

Next came Gramercy Tavern in 1994, which twice earned three stars from the New York Times and was voted Zagat’s Most Popular Restaurant in NYC six times in the last nine years. The restaurant’s original chef/partner, Tom Colicchio, left in 2006 to open his own restaurant, Craft, but Gramercy Tavern continued to win accolades, including The James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Restaurant Award in 2008, and in 2012, its chef, Michael Anthony, received the award for “Best Chef: NYC.”

In late 1998, Meyer opened two restaurants in the same NYC building: Eleven Madison Park and Tabla. This same year, he officially formed USHG. Later came Blue Smoke and Jazz Standard, offering real pit barbecue and live jazz in Manhattan’s Midtown South neighborhood and Battery Park City.

In 2004, USHG launched Shake Shack, a food kiosk in Madison Square Park, serving Chicago-style hot dogs, burgers, frozen custard, and more. A second location opened on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in October 2008, marking the first time that USHG expanded an existing concept. Since then, 10 more Shake Shacks have opened, including one in London’s Covent Garden, which debuted this summer. More domestic and international outposts are planned.

Maialino, a Roman-style trattoria in the Gramercy Park Hotel, came along in 2009.

On a larger scale, in 2004, USHG was selected by the Museum of Modern Art to create and operate foodservice concepts in its newly renovated and expanded buildings. Facilities include a fine dining restaurant called The Modern, two cafes, catering, and staff foodservice. The Modern is in Zagat’s Top 20 Most Popular NYC Restaurant list and has three stars from the New York Times.

The following year, USHG launched a fine dining full-service catering and sports and entertainment business called Union Square Events (formerly Hudson Yards). Venues and clients currently include the Mets’ stadium Citi Field, the Washington Nationals ballpark, and the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.

USHG also founded and organizes the annual Big Apple Barbecue Block Party, a charitable fund-raiser that takes over Madison Square Park each June. It attracts roughly 145,000 attendees and features visiting pitmasters from around the United States.

In 2010, USHG launched Hospitality Quotient, designed to help individuals and companies better understand and apply “the power of hospitality,” through interactive classes and training programs.

Meyer’s next opening will be a new concept at the King & Grove Hotel (NYC), opening in late spring 2014.

An active leader in the anti-hunger movement, Meyer has long served on the boards of Share Our Strength and City Harvest. Equally active in civic affairs, he’s been co-chair of the Union Square Partnership and on the executive committees of both NYC & Co and the Madison Square Park Conservancy.

He’s also a highly in-demand public speaker, educator, and presenter, for a wide range of prestigious events and organizations.

In 1994, Meyer co-authored The Union Square Cafe Cookbook with the restaurant’s chef/partner Michael Romano. The book earned the IACP Julia Child Award for the best new cookbook by a first-time author, and was followed up with Second Helpings from Union Square Cafe. He also wrote the best-selling Setting the Table, which examines the power of hospitality in restaurants, business, and life. In 2009, Meyer’s restaurants released a cocktail cookbook, Mix Shake Stir, and in 2013, the book Family Table, a compilation of family-meal recipes from USHG restaurants, written by Michael Romano and Karen Stabiner. Gramercy Tavern just released its first cookbook, written by chef Michael Anthony and Dorothy Kalins.

Meyer lives in New York City with his wife, Audrey. The couple have four children: Hallie, Charles, Gretchen, and Peyton.