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Grilled in a Minute: Danny Meyer, Part II

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 Meyer's bio in Grilled in a Minute: Danny Meyer, Part I.

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.

Danny, yours is truly an unparalleled industry success story, and you seem to be universally liked as well as admired. You must be exceedingly proud. So…what’s it like to be you?
I’m beyond grateful to have found my calling in the restaurant and hospitality business, especially when I came perilously close to going into law! I’ve always followed my passion and my instincts—the most important of which is to surround myself with colleagues from whom I can learn, and with whom I can have lots of fun. I have no perspective on what it’s like to be me since I’ve never been anyone else. But no complaints.

Certainly, amongst all the business victories and successes, there were failures and disappointments. Tell us about one.
Of course it was disappointing that we couldn’t sustain Tabla—our Indian restaurant—beyond 12 years. I was always told that to be considered a classic restaurant, you had to outlive the term of your first lease. I learned that there can be victory in defeat though. You can distinguish yourself as much in the way you close a restaurant as you can in how you open it. We closed Tabla well, with dignity and uplifting outcomes for all our stakeholders. [Tabla and its chef, Floyd Cardoz, earned three stars from the New York Times but after 12 years, USHG closed the restaurant in late 2010. Today, Cardoz is executive chef/partner at USHG’s North End Grill, which opened in 2012.]

USHG has a reputation in the industry as being a great place to work. Why is that? What sort of benefits do your employees receive?
I think USHG is a great place to work, and part of the reason is that we are introspective enough to constantly ask ourselves (as well as our employees), “How can we improve and become an even better place to work?” The single best thing we do is to hire fantastic people with whom others on our team love to work. And we try to give great people lots of opportunities to grow, to be autonomous—while holding them accountable—and rewarding them for outstanding performance. We’ve always provided health care for our employees…and always looked for ways to provide teaching and learning opportunities.

This summer, you opened Shake Shack in London. Why did you choose that particular city?
For the past 10 to 15 years, my colleagues and I have become huge fans of London, its restaurants, and the restaurant community. I had the privilege of helping to launch Open Table there, and then participated in the British publication of Setting the Table. Through those experiences, I spent lots of time in London, got to know all kinds of restaurant colleagues, and found that I was increasingly inspired by the food scene there. So when the opportunity presented itself to open Shake Shack in Covent Garden, it was an easy yes. The place is doing remarkably well and we’re learning a lot. Our goal—whenever we open Shake Shack in a new city—is to get it working well enough that it will one day make sense to open another two or three of them. That provides an opportunity to promote people on our team…and that dynamic equals excellence.

Back in New York City, how is providing foodservice in museums (MoMA, The Whitney) different from catering to traditional customers? Was there a big learning curve?
We’re a guest in someone else's home, and our foodservice must be completely harmonious with the culture and philosophy of the museum. We’ve had a great time trying to break the old mold of museum dining as a necessary amenity and to convert it into destination-worthy dining. And that goes for our cafes within the museum, not just the fine dining restaurant The Modern. We’ve also had a wonderful experience working with The Whitney. In each case, the learning curve is that these are institutions with many constituents (art professionals, executive staff, trustees, members…all in addition to our own staff and guests). Balancing the needs of so many constituents and still having something to say with a sharp point of view is challenging, but crucial.

What’s one thing in your business or daily life you absolutely could not do or live without?
Exercise. It clears my head, helps me to stay in balance, and permits me to consume prodigious amounts of food without getting out of shape!

What’s the best thing about your job?
The amazing people I’ve met along the way: staff members, guests, community leaders, suppliers, investors. I learn so much from so many people, and it keeps me yearning, dreaming, thinking, and loving what I do.

And what’s the worst thing about your job, the aspect you like least?
I just wish there were more hours in the day. I never look at my clock wondering when it’s going to be over. I always look at my watch wondering how I’m going to get it all done. I take on a lot of commitments because I love to get the most out of every day. I want to make myself accessible to more people than I possibly have time for. I don’t ever like the feeling I may have let someone down…and I know that sometimes I do.

What was the best day of your career so far?
There have been many! But it’s hard to top the day Julia Child came over to our apartment to interview me and to film our home kitchen for Good Morning America, and then to walk with her to Union Square Cafe, where we lunched together over braised short ribs and two bottles of Beaujolais!

And the worst day of your career so far?
September 11, 2001. Nothing will ever be worse.

How has the restaurant business changed since you launched Union Square Cafe in 1985?
Restaurants are better than ever, more people dine out than ever, and restaurants and chefs are more in the public eye than ever. Social media has made everyone a walking reporter, photographer, and critic. That’s good news for good restaurants…and good news for the fun of dining out.

What have you learned along the way to make everything easier for you?
Letting great people do great things without standing in their way. My job is to insist upon excellence and hospitality, and then to let them get on with their job. I guess that’s also known as delegation, with a dose of “servant leadership.”

What’s the worst thing that ever happened in one of your restaurants?
Probably the night a 30-foot track light swung down from the ceiling at Union Square Cafe like a guillotine, putting a four-inch gash in the wall…just two inches from a guest's face. That was just a couple of weeks after we opened. Those two inches could have ended the guest's life and my career before it began. 

Last great meal in a restaurant not your own?
My recent 25th wedding anniversary lunch with Audrey at Corte Sconta in Venice, where we first dined when we began dating in 1984. The seafood was as good as ever—but even more important—the exquisite art of the restaurateur, Rita, was in full display. We felt that magical confluence of going out and coming home.

Biggest professional mistake you ever made?
It’s one I’ve made over and over and over again…and I’ve repeated it because I’m not positive it’s a mistake. I tend to have a very long fuse with underperforming colleagues, giving them more chances to succeed, more patiently than many other people would. It’s often a mistake to hang in so long with someone who just can’t—or won’t—cut it, but on those rare occasions where someone does turn the corner, it’s all worth it.

What do you wish you had learned earlier in your career?
That it’s far more important for people to feel heard than to be agreed with.

Best advice for a young person who might like a career like yours?
Do it! Absolutely do it! But first, make sure to check these three boxes, honestly: a) you love how good it feels to make other people feel good; b) you love food and wine and love sharing your enthusiasm with others; c) you are persistent, competitive, and are stuffed with stamina!

For many years, your crusade has been to improve service standards. Do you feel you have been successful and made an impact? My message has been to distinguish between performance (how good the product is and how well it is served) and hospitality (how good the recipient of the product feels). It’s always hard to know what kind of an impact one has on anyone else, but I do believe our industry is more hospitable than ever…regardless of how that came about. My book, Setting the Table, has reached over 40 printings in the United States alone (and is published in five other countries), and we’ve launched a learning company, Hospitality Quotient, which teaches companies (over and beyond restaurants) the power of hospitality and how to add that tool to their kit.

What haven’t you accomplished yet, personally or professionally, that you would still love to?
I want to write another book someday. I think I’m living it now.

If not this, then what? What would you have pursued, career wise, had it not been the restaurant biz?
Well, I almost did pursue a career in journalism or law. My interest was never law, per se, but rather as a means to a career in politics. I’m grateful that never happened, and even more grateful that being a restaurateur has provided more than ample opportunity to remain involved in issues that matter to me, most notably hunger relief and urban development.

So, you’ve had countless successful restaurants, a long happy marriage with four wonderful kids, and done a huge amount of good. You’ve beaten all the odds. Any tips or advice?
Remember that the equation for balance is not about work versus home; you will always lose that one. Rather, it’s about staying in balance in terms of how you care for your body, your mind, your heart, and your spirit. Those needs can and must be met both at home and at work.