Does the name Danny Meyer sound familiar? If not his name, then perhaps some of his beloved restaurants: Union Square Café (now 29 years old), Shake Shack, Gramercy Tavern, Maialino, Blue Smoke, and more. Spending a meal at any of them are Experiences with a capital-E, thanks to his team’s dedication to serving up crazy-good service and food.
A couple weeks ago, we welcomed Danny and a few folks from of his Union Square Hospitality Group for pulled pork sliders, macaroni and cheese, and other princely treats from Blue Smoke. Despite the decadent spread, nobody snoozed while the restaurateur talked about his career path, the secret to good customer service, and French fries.
Here are six things you didn’t know about Mr. Meyer:
1. He almost became a lawyer
“It was literally the eve of my LSATs. My uncle was looking at me: ‘What’s eating you? Do you have any idea how long you’re going to be dead? A hell of a lot longer than you’re going to be alive. Why would you do anything you don’t have passion for?’”
2. He started without a plan.
“I knew nothing. Opening Union Square Café was one big mosquito bite: all you hear is ‘Don’t scratch it,’ but you don’t have a choice. I was going to open it to give myself relief. I was also deathly afraid of opening a second restaurant because of bankruptcy, but my favorite chef at the time, Tom Colicchio, had a restaurant that had gone out of business, and his favorite was Union Square Café. He came to me and said, ‘I want my next restaurant to be with you.’ These were all complete accidents; it was opportunity knocking and it felt like the right time.”
3. He thinks IQ is less important than EQ (or rather, HQ).
“Your Hospitality Quotient is a wiring, just like IQ. IQ measures your ability to learn stuff, and HQ is similar: it’s not something you can change a lot. Hospitality Quotients describe the way it makes you feel good to do thoughtful things for other people. It’s hard to measure. I can feel it about a zip code away because I’ve been doing it so long. When was the last time you went to a dentist with high HQ? You might get better but they don’t make you feel better.
4. He still tries to impress his mother.
“My mom hates everything I cook.”
5. He treats his staff good, like a restaurateur should.
“Our big a ha! moment came right after opening Gramercy Tavern twenty years ago. That whole year I’d been told that the customer is always right, and I don’t think that’s wrong; I just think it’s in the wrong order. You cannot beat your staff into taking great care of your guests. If you want to have remarkable customer experiences, you never put your customer first. If you want to make the most money, you would never put your investor first.”
6. He cares deeply about French fries.
“You cannot have a company [Shake Shack] where you care deeply about sourcing your products and then give people frozen French fries with chemicals on them. I love crinkle fries—they’re really effective in catching cheese sauce. But now we’re bringing in fresh potatoes, hand-cutting them (which takes up about three times the space), frying them twice to get the right consistency, and training people. It’s a lot harder than saying, ‘Take scissors, open bag, pour in fryer.’ One of them tastes like a potato, one of them tastes like something else. Crinkle fries require less storage, a lot less labor, and they taste consistent, but potatoes and salt is a much better way to go.”
Photo of Danny Meyer by Ellen Silverman