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The Secret to Danny Meyer's Exceptionally Good Taste

The star restaurateur is always expanding

A lot on his plate: Danny Meyer at Gramercy Tavern. Photos: Melanie Dunea/CPI

Danny Meyer, trim as a track star and turned out in a dark gray suit despite the summer swelter, steps just outside Union Square Cafe, his landmark New York City restaurant that, even in its 27th year, is typically booked. A young couple with English accents, apparently tourists, studies the menu, encased in glass. It’s clear they are aware of the spot’s legendary status, and equally clear they don’t have a reservation. Just as the one of them begins to express doubt about securing a table, Meyer glides over.

“I can help with that,” he says, smiling and offering his hand. “My name is Danny.”

Chances are the couple has no idea they are talking to that Danny, the guy who owns the place, the guy who, in fact, owns some of the best, most enduring restaurants in New York. Meyer makes good on his word and finds them a table, makes sure they are taken care of. In the process, he also undoubtedly adds two more to the legions of foodies, critics and everyday customers who wonder: How does he do it?

Even in the white-tablecloth Valhalla that is New York, Meyer’s empire stands alone. In the Zagat guide, Union Square Cafe reigned as the city’s top-ranked restaurant for seven years. Eleven Madison Park, the hushed, art deco spot Meyer recently sold to executive chef Daniel Humm, notched four stars from The New York Times. Meanwhile, North End Grill, Meyer’s latest, “is all about the classics,” enthuses The New Yorker, “executed with flair.” (Meyer has shuttered only one restaurant. The 400-seat Indian eatery Tabla closed in 2010, a victim of the recession.)

Despite the string of accolades, Meyer, born and bred in St. Louis, is no food snob. His Union Square Hospitality Group also includes barbecue joint Blue Smoke, live-music destination Jazz Standard and the beloved burger outpost Shake Shack, which has become the growth vehicle in Meyer’s stable with more than 20 locations up and down the East Coast and even as far as Doha, Qatar. Meyer also operates the restaurants in the Museum of Modern Art and cold-press juice bars in Equinox health clubs. He’s opened a catering and events division, a management-consulting business, and often finds himself addressing the leaders of Fortune 500 corporations—suits who aren’t so much interested in his refined taste in food as in his theory about why food isn’t the primary reason people dine out.

Yes, you read that right.

“Danny Meyer understands that, while food trends are important and the culinary revolution is real, ultimately the key to success is his ability to deliver on hospitality,” says menu trends analyst and restaurant consultant Nancy Kruse.

Indeed, Meyer believes that restaurateurs have erred in confusing hospitality with service. “Service is the technical delivery of a product,” Meyer wrote in his best-selling book Setting the Table. “Hospitality is how the delivery of that product makes its recipient feel.” It’s the reason a four-star restaurant that’s stuffy can easily go down the tubes while a two-star place that treats you like family might keep its doors open for decades. It’s a means of instilling a culture of ownership in a business plagued by high turnover. And it’s also the philosophy with which Meyer has not only built some of the most popular eateries in New York, but is well on his way to becoming a brand in his own right.

On a recent afternoon, Adweek sat down with Meyer at Table 1 in Union Square Cafe to talk about his company, his career, and how he’s managed to prosper in the world’s most unforgiving industry.

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