10 Questions For Restaurateur Danny Meyer
Photo: Melissa Hom
By Joseph Montebello
RI-region readers will be pleased to know that they can call Danny Meyer, the consummate restaurateur, one of their own. For over 30 years he has operated some of the most successful restaurants in Manhattan, including Union Square Café, which he opened in 1985; Gramercy Tavern, Blue Smoke, The Modern and the cafés at MOMA; Jazz Standard, and Maialino. There are all (or have been) successful — a testament to his expertise and his ability to find the right space, the right food, and the right staff. In addition to fine dining, Danny also started the super successful Shake Shack franchise. We met up Danny, who has a home in Washington, Conn., and discussed what makes it all work for him.
1. What path were you on before you got into the food business?
I went to Trinity College and majored in Political Science. I always loved the news and current events, and volunteered on several political campaigns as early as the age of ten. I worked in a professional capacity as a Cook County field coordinator for John Anderson’s 1980 presidential campaign. I became increasingly interested in public policy. Because I didn’t have any imagination I decided the only thing I could do is go and get a law degree, which happily I did not do.
2. What prompted the interest in food?
My dad taught me about gastronomy and my mother about hospitality. My passion for both things began at local restaurants in St. Louis. Because of my dad’s travel business I got to spend time in Rome, which only added to my burgeoning love of food. When I was working as a tour guide and when I went to school in Rome studying international politics, I found that those two activities always played second fiddle to going out to restaurants. It didn’t dawn on me then that I would have a career in creating culinary pleasures for other people.
3. You opened Union Square Café in 1985 on East 16th Street, which was not a great area at the time. Why there?
The mother of a college friend who was in the real estate business advised me to focus on the area around Union Square. Many companies, especially publishers, were moving there and they entertain a lot. The greenmarket was there, and most importantly, the rents were low.
4. How many restaurants does the Union Square Hospitality Group run now?
What is a restaurant and what’s not? We have five different places to eat at CitiFields alone. We serve food at the Delacorte in Central Park. In terms, of full service, fine dining restaurants, I think it’s fair to say there are ten full service restaurants in New York.
5. In your book Setting the Table, you write that service and hospitality are essential for a successful restaurant. Do you feel that they can overcome mediocre food?
Absolutely. If the food is mediocre I won’t go back a third time. If hospitality and service are mediocre I won’t go back a second time.
6. What’s changed in the food industry since you started out?
I’ll start by saying what hasn’t changed: human beings like to be with other human beings and don’t always like to shop and cook and do the dishes. Restaurants continue to be places where people can come together across the table. What has changed is the myriad ways you can eat food. Punch in your smartphone and have something delivered wherever you are. People’s interest in food has only grown and technology has added new ways to provide it.
7. What advice would you give someone wanting to enter the food or hospitality industry?
Ask yourself these three questions: Am I obsessed with food and drink? Do I get a huge psychic payoff for sharing my passion with other people? Do I have an amazing work ethic and stamina? If the answers are affirmative, then you need to do it.
8. Who inspires you and what keeps you going?
My colleagues and our guests. They inspire me to keep reaching further and higher.
9. How much time do you get to spend in Litchfield County, and when you are here, what do you like to do?
We don’t get here nearly enough. Out of 52 weekends, we get in 10 to 12. But when we’re here, we cook a lot, especially outside in the summer. We have a wonderful vegetable garden and we run every day we are here. We hike at Steep Rock and the Appalachian Trail. I love to take in that gorgeous nature.
10. Do you have any thoughts about the restaurant scene in Litchfield County?
I’m very happy about Joel Viehland’s new restaurants and that a new restaurant is opening in his former place, Community Table.