Serving Up Enlightened Hospitality in NYC 1985

Renowned New York restaurateur Danny Meyer talks challenges of the industry, trends he foresees regarding the use of fresh produce, and what keeps him motivated.

by Ellen Uribe

Imbued with grace and the articulate oratory skills of Barack Obama, Danny Meyer has been generating buzz and admiration since opening the doors of his flagship restaurant Union Square Cafe in 1985 at the age of 27.

Though he’s firmly entrenched in New York City, Meyer’s roots were planted in the Midwest — Saint Louis to be precise. His mixture of characteristics from America’s heartland — genuine ‘niceness,’ muscular work ethic, enthusiasm and a down-to-earth approachable nature coupled with the sophistication, business savvy and worldliness of the Big Apple have catapulted Meyer to an esteemed and highly successful position in the restaurant industry.

From an early age, Meyer enjoyed food and travel, which ultimately led him to study cooking abroad in Italy and France after graduating from Trinity College in Hartford, CT with a major in political science. Once back in the United States, Meyer realized the hospitality industry was his true calling. 

Now, close to 40 years after Meyer opened his first restaurant he sits atop a company — Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG) — that includes many of New York’s finest restaurants, including Gramercy Tavern, Blue Smoke, Tacocina, The Modern, Ci Siamo, Manhatta, Daily Provisions and Porchlight. Union Square Events, USHG’s catering division, operates several concessions at major sports facilities including Citi Field, Saratoga Race Track and Nationals Park.

Meyer holds firm to the belief that his first obligation in every restaurant is taking good care of the staff, and in turn his employees will do the same with guests. Advocating what he refers to as “enlightened hospitality” —  which he defines as “when you think that the person on the other side of a transaction is on your side” — Meyer is one of the most honored restaurateurs in American history.

To date, USHG has won 28 Beard Foundation Awards and its restaurants routinely appear among the Most Popular in NYC according to the Zagat guide, including Union Square Cafe, which held the No. 1 spot nine times. Additionally, Meyer has been honored with the International Foodservice Manufacturers Association’s (IFMA) highest honor — The Gold Plate; Eleven Madison Park held three Michelin Stars; The Modern earned its second Michelin Star in 2015; Gramercy Tavern holds one Michelin Star and GreenRiver was awarded one Michelin Star in 2016. 

Aside from his restaurants, Meyer has also authored four books including The New York Times bestseller Setting the Table, which examines the power of hospitality in restaurants, business and life. He also puts a high priority on giving back to the industry, and to that end has served on the boards of Share Our Strength and City Harvest, two organizations that help feed those in need. In addition, he has served as co-chair of the Union Square Partnership and as an executive member for NYC & Co and the Madison Square Park Conservancy.

Married since 1988, Meyer and his wife, Audrey, are the parents of four children — one of which has already followed him into the restaurant industry.

In our exchange, Meyer reflects on his leadership philosophy, what he’s learned after almost four decades in the restaurant industry, his investment strategies, innovation tips on serving fruits and vegetables and why he loves what he does for a living.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

You founded Union Square Cafe in 1985, what do you know now that you didn’t know then?

I know that I love this industry, and there is absolutely nothing else I could have done with my life that I would’ve preferred. I knew right away that it was an enormous undertaking, and every day since I have been reminded of that — sometimes very abruptly. With each passing year despite having gained a lot more experience in the restaurant business, it has become more challenging. At the same time, as life becomes more challenging, making people feel better is even more valuable — not as a luxury but as a human good. The more complicated life gets — the more valuable the output that we do for people becomes.

With so many honors and awards for your restaurants and for you personally, what stands out?

The International Foodservice Manufacturers (IFMA) award in 2000. That was a big deal. At the time, I had only been in the business for 15 years and it was a really, really big deal. And then later on when I was selected as the first-ever recipient of the James Beard Outstanding Restaurateur in 2005. Those two awards were big milestones that I was very honored to receive.

What are the biggest challenges of being a restaurateur in New York City? 

I think wherever you do business it is the toughest place to be. There are times I think it would have been tougher in other places. If you do it long enough you get to know the guests, the farmers, the neighborhoods, the suppliers and boy oh boy do you ever get to know yourself better. 

A great quote that is very helpful to me is from Viktor E. Frankl’s (legendary Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor) Man’s Search For Meaning…….‘When we are no longer able to change a situation — we are challenged to change ourselves.’ 

Another of my favorite quotes that has stood the test of time for me is by Maya Angelou: ‘People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’ I use this quote to guide my personal and professional life. So, for me I always remember — They will forget what we gave them to eat or poured in their glass, but they will never forget how we made them feel.

How have American’s tastes in vegetables evolved? 

I think we eat more vegetables that have become more delicious because of how they are prepared. Brussels sprouts are a great example. When I was growing up, they smelled like a baby had an accident. Look at what’s happening today with cauliflower, kale, broccoli rabe, broccoli, cabbage — almost any of the cruciferous vegetables — you see them everywhere. Carrots and beets are other examples of vegetables that you see all the time in restaurants. Americans have gone away from al dente. They have learned how great vegetables taste with the right amount of salt and olive oil.

If you hadn’t become a restaurateur, what might you be doing now?

Nothing. I love to write, but I can write while being a restaurateur. I have written one business book — Setting the Table — and now I am eager to write another. I think having fun keeps you younger. When I am working we are solving problems all day, but we are having fun. I have a saying about our business — I am so optimistic that I see the wine glass as half full before I have even pulled the cork.

You advocate what you refer to as ‘enlightened hospitality,’ have you seen service improved in the restaurant industry writ large?

Yes, but there was a major dip when we lost a huge number of our workers who left the industry. I think the pandemic, which followed the Me Too movement and encompassed the aftermath of George Floyd made a lot of people look in the mirror and they left restaurants. Chefs and restaurateurs had a comeuppance, but by and large I think it is a much better industry now. Since the pandemic, I think guests are having a much more satisfactory experience in restaurants. 

Can you share some examples of how you’ve innovated with fruits and vegetables in your menu offerings?

I think starting with my first restaurant — Union Square Cafe, then Gramercy Tavern and every one thereafter we have used the Union Square Greenmarket. We have let the Greenmarket decide what vegetables to use. At Gramercy Tavern we started a vegetable tasting menu in 2006. If there was any protein it was playing a supporting role. Even at Union Square Cafe starting in 1992, we put out a menu called: Earth and Turf, which reversed the ratio of vegetables to protein. The goal was to feature vegetables at about 80% of the plate

How do you foster relationships with your produce suppliers, and what do you look for in a supplier?

Our chefs and the sous chefs have built some great relationships with our supply chain. It’s similar to all the relationships we make. Over time, they become very good at listening to our needs. We are not there to throw our weight around, and it’s not about buying the cheapest but rather asking ourselves, ‘What is our guest going to say?’ If our guests are happy, that is better than half a point on our food costs.

What trends do you foresee in the restaurant industry regarding the use or procurement of fruits and vegetables in the coming years?

I think it’s always interesting to see how things evolve. Look at the many ways to use Brussels sprouts, and kale salad was something no one knew about. Personally, I would love to see more with eggplant. If I were making eggplant Parmesan I would do it in season. It’s most often an entrée, but I have been known to have it with a steak. We just love anything when it’s in season. I remember when serving raspberries or asparagus in January was considered a luxury. Now, I don’t think so. 

I like when vegetables have a fleeting season such as asparagus in April, May and June and tomatoes in July, August and September and sweet peas in June and July. We like serving vegetables at their peak, especially vegetables that have a season. If the old luxury used to be that you could get vegetables from anywhere out of season — I think the new luxury is eating vegetables locally grown that are in season. I think people love vegetables that are fresher and were grown closer to home.

What other business executives do you admire?

Ric Elias, who is the chief executive officer and founder of Red Ventures, based outside of Charlotte, NC. Red Ventures is a group of internet businesses — such as Lonely Planet, CNET, ZDNet, The Points Guy, Healthline and Bankrate. The culture he leads is absolutely extraordinary. He was on the plane that Sully took down and landed on the Hudson River and he applies that experience to the way he leads. I met him at the intermission of Hamilton in Puerto Rico when we standing. He introduced himself. He subsequently invested some money in my company. He took the Giving Pledge, which was founded by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett and means he will give away half of his estate. We’ve become good friends, and I have a huge admiration for him. 

What is the best-selling vegetable across your restaurants besides potatoes?

I am going to say five to ten years ago we started to sell a lot of Brussels sprouts. I think the chefs had a lot to do with that. There are any number of recipes, but I like them fried and then marinated — sometimes people add honey or vinegar. I have also seen them shredded with apples as part of a salad or roasted with Pecorino cheese. For me, I pretty much roast them into hashed Brussels sprouts. I use thin sliced Brussels sprouts and saute them over high heat, with white wine, salt, pepper and poppy seeds.

What is the single biggest challenge the restaurant industry will face in the next ten years?

Finding great talent. We continually operate our business so that it provides a good lifestyle choice for our employees. It has gotten better recently.  We often talk about how inflation has hit other people — in our business it has caused restaurants to raise their prices — so that part has gotten better. It has allowed us to increase the wages.

Tipping is now ubiquitous across QSR establishments such as Dunkin Donuts, etc.,  — even for a mere cup of coffee. Do you think the public is being asked to subsidize salaries as some consumers are complaining?

I think the consumers don’t want to really know how much it costs to pay people. Tipping is a long-accepted way of subsidizing what it costs for salaries. That’s truly the only option, but the guests still have a choice.

What keeps you motivated?

I love coming to work each day and asking if we are capable of extending enlightened hospitality to more people. I think scaling hospitality is hard because getting people to pull in the same direction is a wonderful thing, but it’s very difficult. When it does come together, however, it’s fantastic — it’s about being persistent. I think paying attention to employees, suppliers, customers and to your community is extremely important. There still isn’t a night that goes by where I don’t check every reservation report from every restaurant or a morning that I don’t read the overnight reports from each and every restaurant.

You’ve been known to invest in start-up restaurant concepts, what do you look for, and how do you decide which ones are a good bet?

At Enlightened Hospitality Investments, we look for ideas we wish we’d thought up ourselves, led by leaders we’d have been proud to hire, leading uplifting workplace cultures that drive profitable business.

Can you talk about some of those investments and how they have been doing?

Our very first investment was Joe Coffee, a brand that 100% fit our criteria. The workplace culture is outstanding and the company is doing quite well. We’ve also invested in some tech businesses like Resy, Bento Box, Triple Seat, 7 Shifts, Precitaste, Converse Now and Seven Rooms — each of which helps businesses to advance their hospitality and efficiency. 

How do your restaurants use technology, and how do you keep apprised of the latest and greatest tech trends?

We are committed to using tech to advance touch, and thanks to our amazing Chief Technology Officer, Kelly MacPherson, we often get an early look at innovative new technology solutions — some of which we’ve invested in.

What characteristics make a great restaurant executive? 

Humility, courage, exceptional listening skills, gratitude, servant leadership and a true focus on people and details. 

There has been talk over the years that you might enter the political arena. Did you ever give any serious thought to this notion?

I was a political science major, did volunteer work on several campaigns (and even worked professionally for John Anderson’s independent candidacy for President in 1980) and was always interested in public affairs. That said, the idea of raising money to run my own campaign to become a public official never appealed to me. One day I’d like to serve our country as an ambassador.