A Conversation With Danny Meyer, President of the Union Square Hospitality Group, an organization that includes some of New York City’s most highly rated restaurants including the Union Square CafÃ© and Gramercy Tavern. Meyer shares the secret to business and gastronomic success at this week’s Friday’s at Five at the Bridgehampton Community House and on August 22 at the Ross School’s “Cuisine & Wine,” where chefs from USHG will treat guests to a marathon four-hour culinary event.
Twenty-seven is quite young to open your first restaurant, let alone the Union Square CafÃ©. Where was your love of cuisine and the food business born?
I think it was born from my childhood growing up in St. Louis where we, because of my dad’s travel business, had the sons and daughters of French inn keepers in our home and there was always interesting food and always a bottle of wine on the table. Also, I think it was born because of my dad’s work primarily with European countries. We had the privilege to travel at a young age and I just connected to food. And this is way before the era of the celebrity chef. It was truly experiential.
What was your concept for the Union Square CafÃ© that set it apart from the thousands of restaurants in Manhattan?
The concept was no concept. When I heard the word concept early on I shuddered. I was really trying to create a place that was my favorite restaurant based on all the things I love about restaurants and all the things I hate about restaurants. I wanted a place you could feel comfortable on any occasion, whether you were dining alone, with friends, having a non-eventual lunch or anniversary dinner.
It was a huge bulls eye in 1985 because New York in those days tended to present you with special occasion dining and chain restaurants. There were not many options where you could eat a good meal with good service and a fair wine list in a casual setting. Things have changed and now, of course, our challenge is to try and lead the pack.
Your book “Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business” outlines your recipe for success and has been lauded by readers as applying to all industries. Why share your secret to success?
The reason I am in Phoenix right now is I was speaking to the senior management of Brooks Brothers. I have spoken to Campbell’s [Soup], British Airways, so you’re right, it’s not just about the restaurant industry. In the same way I would hear that question when Michael Romano and I wrote the Union Square cookbooks. When you love what you do you take a huge amount of pleasure in sharing it. In the same way we were not concerned that sharing recipes would not put us out of business, I felt the same way about “Setting the Table.” It has been incredibly gratifying that our story has apparently had transferable benefits for all kinds of other organizations and it certainly hasn’t put us out of business.
Can you explain the term “enlightened hospitality” – your formula for success in a highly competitive, Manhattan restaurant industry?
It’s the name that we gave to the virtuous cycle for how we prioritize our chief stakeholders in order to hopefully achieve a gratifying level of customer satisfaction and profitability. Ironically, the way to achieve that satisfaction, is to put our customers second and our staff first. And for profitability, our shareholders are fifth behind the communities we do business in, our investors, our staff members and our guests. It’s a cycle, not a linear list. In a vicious cycle, one thing leads to something worse. A virtuous cycle leads to something better. “Enlightened hospitality” is the name for what we were doing. “Setting the Table” is my own self-expression of what we had been doing that worked so effectively. It’s a little odd that in a city with a huge restaurant mortality rate, somehow five of the top ten are ours and the top two have been ours flipping places – Union Square CafÃ© and Gramercy Tavern.Â
How did the Union Square CafÃ© evolve into the organization the Union Square Hospitality Group – boasting a number of award wining and highly rated Manhattan restaurants?
It expanded, at first, very, very slowly. There was almost a decade between when we opened the Union Square CafÃ© and Gramercy Tavern and then there has been something new every two or three years since. It has always been a function of mining the depths of my own passions for things we love and trying to rearticulate it in a new way whether its barbeque, jazz, Indian cuisine …Â we’re also opening up at the Met’s new Citi Field. We have a huge passion for sports and baseball. Each time, what we are stating is we are in the business of food, but we are also in the business of life and if we try to find those things that we get excited about.
You are also a philanthropist, serving on the boards of Share Our Strength and City Harvest. Does good business and philanthropy go hand in hand?
I think so. I think that good business always comes in some combination of the head and heart and the same is true in philanthropy … The more you can inject heart into a business the better it is for the staff, your customers and the business.Â Â
On August 22 your company will host a night of cuisine and wine at the Ross School featuring a bevy of chefs from a number of your restaurants. What will the evening entail?
Well, hopefully it will be the premiere culinary event the South Fork has ever tasted. It’s really a galaxy of star chefs. We are throwing everything we got at it. There is something like 18 New York Times stars, 19 James Beard awards that will be there.
It’s a great school. A number of our regular guests at our restaurants have kids who have gone there and who are young alumni themselves. It was a cause we felt comfortable aligning ourselves with. If nothing else it will show an array of culinary talent that goes with our restaurants. We have achieved a level of fame for our hospitality and sometimes people forget the number of star chefs we have.
You will also be on hand on the East End for a book reading at the Hampton Library’s Fridays at Five series on August 8. Have you spent much time in the Hamptons?
My family is out there right now. I have never owned a home, but we have rented over the course of 14 different summers, always in Amagansett primarily because we have had family in homes there. It has been a wonderful and beautiful way for cousins to get to know each other. It’s relaxing – for those who don’t have to commute from New York.
What are some of your favorite places to eat while you are on the East End?
Definitely the backyard barbeque, but in the way of restaurants I have been a huge, long-time fan of Nick & Toni’s. I like their Mexican place La Fondita. I have had a lot of wonderful evenings at Dave’s [Grill] in Montauk, Turtle Crossing. We used to take the kids to Snowflake and we used to go to 95 School Street in Bridgehampton, but that’s not there anymore. We did have a really good meal at 1770 [House in East Hampton] at the beginning of the summer.
Top five favorite foods?
Sausage and mushroom pizza, grilled steak, barbeque ribs, pasta, corn on the cob … and red wine.Â
The Friends of the Hampton Library will host Danny Meyer at Fridays at Five on Friday, August 8.Â Meyer will be speaking at the Bridgehampton Community House.Â The doors open at 4:30 p.m.Â There will be a question and answer session following discussion and a book signing.Â Cocktails and hors d’oeuvres will be served.Â Tickets are $15 a piece or a season pack of 5 for $60.Â All monies raised benefit the Hampton Library. For more information call 537-0015.Â On August 22 Danny Meyer will host “Cuisine & Wine @ ROSS,” at 6 p.m., featuring chefs Michael Romano & Carmen Quagliata of Union Square Cafe, Michael Anthony of Gramercy Tavern, Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park, Gabriel Kreuther of The Modern and Robb Garceau of Hudson Yards and more. The event will benefit the lower school’s nutritional program. Tickets cost $1000. For tickets call 888-877-8499.