A Look at Danny Meyer, the Restaurateur Behind Union Square Cafe, Shake Shack and the Gramercy Tavern | Adweek
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The Secret to Danny Meyer's Exceptionally Good Taste

The star restaurateur is always expanding

SERVICE VS. HOSPITALITY

Most diners would call what you’re talking about service, but you maintain that there’s a key difference between service and hospitality.
Well, a restaurant needs both. But service only describes that degree to which you did what you do well. It has nothing to do with how you make the recipient of that performance feel. Hospitality describes the degree to which the person on the receiving end of your service feels like you’re on their side. You could eat at one of our restaurants and we might get everything right, but you still haven’t told me if you feel good. Service is technical, hospitality is emotional, and they are as different as night and day.

Union Square Hospitality seems to have done very little in the way of advertising, but your restaurants still book up. Does word-of-mouth marketing really work that well?
I think our industry is a little bit funny when it comes to advertising. Rightly or wrongly, there’s a sense that restaurants that advertise must be in trouble. You don’t find that with major national brands of everything else. You know, ads are fine for movies, retail, supermarkets, wine stores, luxury items. But restaurants, for some reason, are deemed to be waving a white flag when they advertise.

One of your newer ventures is Union Square Events, which, given your scale, can cater some pretty massive gatherings.
Union Square Events just catered the Robin Hood Foundation benefit, the biggest party we’ve ever done. We served 4,200 people in the Javits Center, and it was good.

Obviously, catering is a growth opportunity in a revenue sense. But do you also see it as a way of marketing, making certain demographics aware of your other properties and hoping they might try one of them?
Absolutely. Right after Blue Smoke opened, we created the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party as a way to educate New Yorkers about barbecue. People here didn’t know what to do if you put a rib in front of them. They didn’t know if they were supposed to use a steak knife or their fingers. It began as a one-block party with three pit masters from around the country. It’s now an annual event with 140,000 attendees over two days ... [with] 17 pit masters.

In your book, you wrote that, especially in the early days, you were haunted by your father expanding his business too quickly, taking on more than he could handle. Given the size your company’s grown to, do you ever get scared that that’s what you yourself are doing?
I don’t get scared. I’m so aware of what he did and how it impacted me. I’ve also come to peace with the notion that expansion was not his problem—it was expansion without surrounding himself with a team of leaders who could complement his skills and compensate for his weaknesses. And so, I’m not scared, but I remain incredibly thoughtful about our growth.

PUBLIC SPEAKING

These days, you find yourself doing a fair amount of public speaking. Fortune 500 companies want to talk to you, even though they’re not in the restaurant business.
Most of the people who have hired me as a keynote speaker have not been restaurant companies. I’ve had hedge funds, lots of retailers, airlines. I’m going to talk to a cable company soon. Those are not what you’d call hospitality companies.

What do they want to learn from you?
That’s a great question, and I can answer it because I was just thinking about this yesterday. Almost every single thing I talk about is this bizarre fascination I have with hospitality. I want to give other people what I love getting myself. It’s like a hug. If I give you a hug, 50 percent of the reason is because I need one myself. Hospitality is essentially a selfish act.

Is that what you spend time telling [those you speak to] that the tenets of hospitality translate to whatever it is that they do?
Exactly. This gets back to one of your earlier questions. Hospitality does not exist solely for businesses that classically fall under the auspices of hospitality.

What do they ask you specifically, these titans of other industries?
If there are 10 questions, two of them are always the same. The first is: “What’s your secret for hiring people? Because every time I go to one of your restaurants, your people just seem to be cut from a different cloth.” Or they want to know my secret for training. But the only thing I train is how to hire the right emotional skills. The second question is: “Aren’t you afraid that when you grow, you’re going to lose your culture? Or: “How do you keep your culture? How do you sustain or maintain your culture with all this growth?”

Well, it is a big problem, isn’t it? I mean, celebrity chefs face that all the time. They get famous for what they do in the kitchen, but the more famous they get, the less time they can spend in the kitchen.
Right, and that’s got to be a very tough thing for them.

Is it tough for you?
My answer for years and years and years was: “I don’t know.” It’s a million-dollar question: How can we sustain this culture while we grow? And I found myself for three years scratching my head, until finally this past year, I said maybe the question is being framed in the wrong way. I don’t believe in sustaining anything. If you’re in sustain mode, you’re probably going backwards. What if the question were: How can you use growth to advance your culture, as opposed to being afraid that growth will prevent you from sustaining it? So what we’re focused on right now is using growth as a way to feed our culture, and I find that fascinating.

In a city like this one, where there’s a perennial preoccupation with the latest trend in everything …
The city’s first name is “New” …

Your first two restaurants—Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern—are now 27 and 19 years old, respectively. How can you account for why they continue to remain so popular?
Well, there does come a point when you’re so old you become new again.

Sure, but I don’t believe your success is that inadvertent.
People are so besieged with new information today that there is some comfort in at least having one or two anchors that are like a home base. Every now and then, you just want to go to what you know, what you can trust, what you can rely upon.

When people would ask [legendary chef and food writer] James Beard what his favorite restaurant was, he grew tired of naming names and finally said, “My favorite restaurant and your favorite restaurant should be the one that loves us the most.” And that’s the goal of all our places, to become that restaurant that remains on your shortlist of the places that you feel love you the most. That’s our role. 

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