Danny Meyer

May 01, 2012 01:14PM

Danny Meyer is the founder and CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group, which operates the New York City restaurants Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, Blue Smoke, Maialino and North End Grill, as well as the Whitney Museum eatery Untitled and the three restaurants in the Museum of Modern Art. The company also runs 14 outposts of the burger joint Shake Shack in Manhattan, Florida, Washington, D.C., Dubai and Kuwait City, with six more slated to open this year. Meyer also heads Union Square Events catering and Hospitality Quotient consulting. He has co-authored three books, including his business tome, “Setting the Table.”

What’s your full name?
Daniel Harris Meyer.

What’s your date of birth?
March 14, 1958.

Where’d you grow up?
St. Louis, Missouri. I’m still a Cardinals fan.

Where do you live now?
I live in [a co-op] in the neighborhood where most of our restaurants are, so in Flatiron-Gramercy, in the 20s.

Why so close to your restaurants?
To stay as close to our staff members, our guests and our community as possible.

How’d you get into the restaurant business?
I wanted to be in New York. The first job I got was as a salesman selling electronic tags to stop shoplifters. I worked out of my apartment. My uncle reminded me that all he had ever heard me talk about was food and restaurants, [so] I started taking a restaurant management class.

How did you and your wife meet?
We met in 1984 at my first restaurant job at a [now-defunct] restaurant called Pesca on 22nd Street. I was the assistant lunch manager and Audrey was an actress waiting on tables.

Describe your home kitchen.
It’s the heart and soul of our apartment. It’s where we spend 80 percent of our time. It’s designed for cooking, sprawling, congregating, listening to music.

Who does most of the cooking in your home?
During the weekdays, Audrey and our [four] kids. During the weekends, our kids and me. They are 12 through 18. Our oldest daughter just won the Iron Chef competition at Yale University as a freshman.

I hear you worked as a tour guide in Rome for a summer when you were a student at Trinity College.
My dad’s company sold group tours in about eight European cities. [When] my sister, my brother and I each turned 20, we got to work as a tour guide in a country that my dad did business in. I picked Italy.

Do you speak fluent Italian now?
I do. And that [eventually] led to a restaurant, Maialino, which is really an homage to Rome. Because I was working for my dad’s company during that summer, I was called Meyerino — which means “little Meyer.” I consistently took my tours to a local trattoria. All I ever ate there was the roast suckling pig, so my name changed to Maialino. It means “little pig.” So they were calling me Little Pig all summer.

Being a successful restaurateur is partly about real estate, of course. How do you pick your locations?
We don’t ever open a restaurant unless a number of us fall in love with a location.

Does your company own any of the buildings where your restaurants are situated?
We own the space that is Gramercy Tavern.

Is that the only one?
Sadly. I’m sometimes frustrated we haven’t shared in the real estate boom that some of our restaurants have helped make happen.

What are your favorite dishes at your restaurants?
The pimento cheeseburger at Untitled is the stuff of dreams. The bacon and maple croissant at North End Grill — if that were the last thing I ate before dying, I’d be pretty happy. And Nancy Olsen’s chocolate bread pudding at Gramercy Tavern.

If you had to eat at Burger King, McDonald’s or Wendy’s, which would you choose?
I wouldn’t. I would just wait until the next meal. If someone said, “You’ve got to eat your next two meals at American fast-food restaurants,” I would do one meal at Chipotle and one meal at Popeyes fried chicken.

When you opened the original Shake Shack in Madison Square Park (which pays rent to the city and the park), did you ever think it would become so popular?
I had been one of the co-founders of the Madison Square Park Conservancy. We never saw it as being anything other than an amenity for this park, to raise money and to increase the population of park users. It did both of those things, and then some. We actually opened our second Shake Shack in hopes that it would help reduce the line a little bit; if anything, each time we’ve opened another Shake Shack it’s only increased the length of the line.

What has been your greatest setback?
Probably the biggest setback was closing [Tabla, in 2010]. Because, somehow, I had this sense that everything was forever.

Why’d you close it?
After 12 years, the restaurant was not able to fill its 283 seats on a consistent basis every lunch and every dinner. It was our biggest restaurant in terms of seats, in terms of overhead. … It was also our most narrowly focused concept. It was Indian cuisine. Keeping Tabla as busy as we did for 12 years was actually a great accomplishment.

At the beginning of the year, Related purchased a portion of Union Square Events, the catering division of your company, to partner on future ventures. Why did you do that deal?
Related won the opportunity to develop the Hudson Yards. Union Square Events is overlooking the Hudson Yards, at 640 West 28th Street. We’ve always had an interest in that area. … And what we’ve found to be somewhat taxing, for a company whose specialty is food service and hospitality, is the amount of time we were spending just trying to source locations for clients’ events.

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