The Secret to Danny Meyer's Exceptionally Good Taste

The star restaurateur is always expanding


Adweek: For the benefit of those who might not know the scope and influence of Union Square Hospitality, I’d like to start with a snapshot. Assuming my count is right, you’ve got 13 restaurant concepts, and these range from white-tablecloth dining to contract dining on down to Shake Shack, which is a burger chain. You have a catering and events arm, and a management-consulting division, too. I’ve seen your name on the cover of eight books to date, if we include the cookbooks. And counting up the awards and honors that you, your restaurants or your chefs have received, that number comes to 99.

Meyer: Boy, you have better statistics than I have.

When you first started out, did you envision your brand getting this big, this diversified?
I neither envisioned nor wanted any of the above.

Really? Why not wanted?
All I really wanted to do—and it’s great that we’re sitting right here where it all started …

Incidentally, is it true that the spot we’re sitting in right now used to be the rest room?
No, when we took over this space, the rest room was where Table 61 is, up on the balcony.

And that’s Union Square Cafe’s most popular table, isn’t it?
It’s where people like to get engaged. And it was a rest room.

I didn’t mean to interrupt you; you said it’s fitting that we’re sitting here …
It’s fitting because this was my one and only restaurant for the first 10 years of my career. And I had only one goal. That was to scratch this entrepreneurial itch and open a restaurant. It was an odd career choice because in my family, we had lots of businesspeople, maybe a distant cousin was a doctor, another a lawyer. But nobody was in restaurants. So it was a weird thing. I just had to find out: Did I like it or was I bad at it and now it’s time to just get on with life? But it was never, ever part of my thought process that there would be more than this place.

For a few reasons. In those days, to be taken seriously as what used to be called a fine-dining restaurant, you had one restaurant and, optimally, you lived upstairs from it. In fact, in those early days, the first three or four years Union Square Cafe was open, when I wanted a vacation we’d close the restaurant for those two weeks because the whole mentality was, if you wanted to be taken seriously, you never missed a service. You were always there.

That must have ruled out the notion of rapid expansion.
I equated expansion with bankruptcy. I was completely satisfied to go deep rather than wide—for 10 years. And in retrospect, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I got to know myself, I got to know this business, I got to know this restaurant, I got to know this neighborhood, and I got to know New York. It was also a period of time before the Internet where the runway for every idea was way, way longer than it is today.


You opened up Union Square Cafe in 1985. I moved to New York in 1986 and I remember Union Square back then: vacant lots and boarded-up buildings. It was a seedy neighborhood, scary at night. Worse, the fine-dining scene was 40 blocks north. But you leased this space anyway. What did you see that others didn’t?
Two things. I saw the Greenmarket, which back then was only two days a week, not the four days a week it is today. But when I was getting my cooking education in France and Italy, every morning started off with my going to the market. The Greenmarket was as close to that as anything I had seen, and it just made me feel right. So that was No. 1. No. 2, when I got this itch to go into the restaurant business, rather than going all the way in the water, I dipped my toe by taking a job at a seafood restaurant called Pesca that was six blocks north of here. And I’d already gotten a sense that this neighborhood was a completely different world than I’d ever known with my, you know …

You had a high-paid sales job.
Yeah, and I moved to the Upper East Side. I’d come down here occasionally to find a club, but I didn’t know anything about this neighborhood. But I really, really liked the kinds of businesses that had moved here to work—advertising companies, magazine companies, book publishers like crazy. Lots of architects and photographers taking advantage of these big lofts. I didn’t even know what a loft was.

So, despite the grit, you saw opportunity.
It was a very exciting time. And my dad, who was my coach, even though he sort of didn’t want me getting into this business, said, “You know, if you play your cards right, you could be the downtown version of the Four Seasons.”

It’s funny you mention the Four Seasons. That restaurant made such a big splash because of its seasonally changing menu. And the Greenmarket down here fits into that ethos, too, since you’re buying and serving only what’s fresh and available. I assume your competitors weren’t hitting the farmers’ market with you?
Restaurants were not using it.

These days, we take things like local sourcing and organic produce for granted. But you were doing it years before most everyone else.
It wasn’t a political statement. When I was in Italy and France, that’s just how you did it. It just felt right.

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