Q&A: Danny Meyer to Shake Up Manhattanville

Danny Meyer had been working in the restaurant industry for only 11 months when he decided to open Manhattan’s Union Square Café in 1985. Now, Meyer runs the Union Square Hospitality Group, a diverse collection of restaurants that have garnered an unprecedented 23 James Beard Awards. Oh, and he’s the founder of Shake Shack, which opened its 100th location this year. “I just love food and wine,” says Meyer. “I love learning about people based on what they eat, and I love sharing that with other people.” On November 29, he’ll also share insights from his 31 years in the restaurant industry as part of Manhattanville College’s Castle Conversations series. We sat down with Meyer recently, after experiencing his brand-new Shake Shack outlet in Yonkers, to get some insights of our own about this uniquely dynamic and innovative restaurateur.

 

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Did you expect this level of success?

No. I never expected there would be a second restaurant, much less a collection of different kinds of restaurants. I think that a lot of that has to do with the fact that we don’t buy into our own success. Success is if somebody leaves the restaurant a little happier than when they came.

 

In your opinion, what differentiates a good dining experience from a great one?

Our recipe only has two ingredients: excellence and hospitality. Over and beyond how good did the food taste and how promptly did we serve it, [it’s] how did we make you feel while you were eating it? I don’t believe you can have an excellent and uplifting experience if you don’t have both of those elements in place. We’ve all gone to restaurants where the food was technically perfect, yet something was missing. And that something was the spirit of hospitality.

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Photo by Maura Mcevoy

Photo by LZ Clayman 

 

How do you convey a sense of hospitality at a burger joint like Shake Shack?

It’s the exact same philosophy, whether we’re serving black truffles or burgers. The service is going to be different at every single restaurant, whether it’s The Modern, which has beautiful decanting of wine and food presentations, or Shake Shack, where you go up to the window and pay a cashier. The service is different everywhere, but how we do it is the same. We call that enlightened hospitality, which is the belief that the best way to have happy customers is to put them second to your staff. The best way to have happy investors is to put them fifth to your staff, your customers, your community, and your suppliers.

 

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Are there current trends that make you cringe?

When restaurants put their egos before their sense of welcome. When restaurants say “That’s not how we do it” or “That’s not how the chef cooks it,” they feel more like a gatekeeper than an agent. I don’t understand that.

 

Are there restaurants in Westchester where you’ve had a great experience?

Blue Hill at Stone Barns is as good as any restaurant in the entire country as far as I’m concerned. Many years ago, I had a fantastic wine experience at Crabtree’s Kittle House in Chappaqua. But, I’m also incredibly happy stopping into Stew Leonard’s or at Frank Pepe in Yonkers. Give me a Frank Pepe sausage-and-mushroom pizza, and I’ll be smiling for a few days afterward.

 

You’ve eliminated tipping from some of your restaurants. Why do you feel that is so important?

It has created an economic and emotional divide between the kitchen, without whom you would not enjoy your meal, and tipped workers, who, over the past 30 years, have seen their hourly pay go up by 350 percent in fine-dining restaurants. In that same period, kitchen workers have seen their pay go up by 35 percent. I don’t want to be part of an industry that relies upon the excellence of people for whom we are unable to provide a good livelihood. 

 

PHOTO BY MAURA MCEVOY

 

Do you expect that, eventually, most restaurants in the US will eliminate tipping?

The real answer is that I don’t know. I know that this is very, very challenging to do the right way, because when you make it work for your staff and your guests, it’s challenging for your investors. So, I understand why many restaurants are having a tough time doing this. It’s part of the reason we felt a responsibility to lead on this topic.

 

What should people expect from your appearance at Manhattanville?

Well, I am told that I’m going to be interviewed. If that’s the case, I will answer what I’m asked. I think we’re in such an exciting time in the world of restaurants and food. I think more people are interested in food and where the food comes from. We’ve gone through the last 20 years being interested in everything from farmers and ingredients to environmental sustainability and animal husbandry. I think people are finally focusing on people. How does it feel to work in a restaurant? I think if people knew how hard they worked, they’d be amazed.

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