Last October, Danny Meyer was on top of the world. The New York restaurateur was overseeing more than a dozen venues in the Big Apple, spanning in style from the hamburger stand Shake Shack to the classic Gramercy Tavern. But the jewel in his crown was slipping from his grasp.
Meyer had opened Eleven Madison Park in 1998, and guided it to the pinnacle of culinary success: three stars from the Michelin Guide, four stars from The New York Times and a Grand Award for its wine list from Wine Spectator. But the restaurant's chef, Daniel Humm, and its general manager, Will Guidara, wanted to run their own show. Backed by new investors, they were working on new projects. They left Meyer with an unpleasant choice—either sell Eleven Madison Park to them, or go on without the team that helped make it great.
Meyer weighed his options based on 27 years of experience in restaurants. Since opening Union Square Cafe in 1985, he has built his company, Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG), into a multifaceted culinary giant that operates five fine-dining venues, two Blue Smoke barbecue restaurants, three cafés in art museums, a jazz club, nine Shake Shacks, a catering company that runs concessions in three sports venues, and Hospitality Quotient, which gives seminars to corporate groups in USHG's philosophy of hospitality and teamwork.
The sale of Eleven Madison Park at what might be the peak of its popularity would allow Meyer to pay off the restaurant's investors and put the rest of the money into further expansion. It made sense in dollars and cents. And so he let it go. (Neither side would reveal for how much.)
"People asked, ‘How could you sell something when it had just realized its vision?'" Meyer says. "When you can sell it at its peak, when you can help two people fulfill their dreams—I would make the same decision again. That doesn't mean it was easy. These restaurants are like my kids. But this is also a business."
Why would a smart CEO worry about helping "two people fulfill their dreams"? When Meyer started in this business, he proved a natural at hospitality. But the world is filled with restaurateurs who are good at making their diners feel cared for. Meyer has successfully found a formula for reproducing that on a large scale. His core belief is that if you treat your staff well, they'll treat customers well. He hires warm, smart, ambitious people like himself—people who often want to own restaurants someday.
"Danny's management style is to let his teams run his restaurants," says Guidara. "He let us run [Eleven Madison Park] like we were owners long before we actually were."
While Meyer was selling Eleven Madison Park, he was also negotiating a much bigger deal. In January, USHG partnered with Related Companies, one of the country's biggest real estate developers. That deal will put Shake Shacks and other Meyer restaurants in malls and sports arenas around the country over the next five years.
Meyer had met Guidara shortly after he was hired as a manager 14 years ago. Until recently, Meyer sat down with every person USHG hired, making sure each had the emotional skills to put his vision of hospitality first. But with 2,500 employees and counting, that's no longer practical. Can a company that serves more than 21,000 people a day maintain the warm, personal touch? Or is this the end of the USHG that produced Eleven Madison Park, and the beginning of the company that expanded Shake Shack?
On a recent sunny morning, Meyer is sitting in his office at USHG headquarters, overlooking Manhattan's historic Union Square. He's been meeting with his six partners, planning the next reorganization of the company. "We go through this process once every two years. The partners hit the reset button on what we all do," Meyer says. "We ask, ‘Where is our business going and why?' The big question is always how to grow Union Square Hospitality while we still focus on how we make our customers feel. The highway is littered with companies that find that their cultures and growth don't go together."
Meyer, 54, is 6 feet tall, slim, with close-cropped, graying curly hair. When he smiles, he uses his whole face—his blue eyes sparkle and deep laugh lines form. After three decades away from his hometown of St. Louis, he still has a bit of folksy Midwestern charm about him.
On the couch near his desk sits a board game—Risk, "the game of strategic conquest." His approach has been more intuitive than calculated, however. He never went to business school and never wrote down a master plan. "Only recently have we started to project our goals for five years out," says Jeff Flug, a partner and the president of USHG.
There's no denying their method has worked, however. While USHG does not disclose financial data, industry sources estimate the company's 2011 revenues to be more than $120 million. Flug will say only that revenues have increased 70 percent since 2009.
Meyer was just 27 when he launched Union Square Cafe, the $740,000 startup money coming from his savings and from family members. It was in a then-run-down neighborhood, and Meyer was a novice, but he had a vision. He wanted the warmth of an Italian trattoria, the fresh ingredients of California cuisine and the refinement of French dining. At a time when upscale dining in New York meant classic French, Union Square Cafe offered pasta and New American cuisine. Meyer proved ahead of the curve. Within a few years, "international bistros" like Union Square Cafe would sprout all over the city. New Yorkers began to see fine dining as fun.
In 1992, Tom Colicchio called him. The young chef had known Meyer for years, and had built a reputation at Mondrian, which had recently closed. Was Meyer interested in opening a new place? After two years of planning, they found a space not far from Union Square in the historic but neglected Gramercy neighborhood and opened Gramercy Tavern. Meyer was now operating with a bigger budget—$3 million—a name chef and an ideal space.
But there were growing pains. He and Colicchio had good reputations, so expectations were high. The day the doors opened, New York magazine published a cover story on Gramercy Tavern with the headline, "The Next Great Restaurant?" Customers came to find out if that was true, and found a restaurant in its early awkward stage. "The New York Times gave us two stars," says Colicchio. "I thought we deserved one."
Meyer has always shown an ability to adapt. He replaced Gramercy Tavern's general manager, who Meyer felt was too focused on profits. And Meyer sat his staff down at both restaurants and issued new marching orders—the top priority had to be treating each other well. If they listened to one another's needs, listening to customers' needs would come naturally. Meyer calls this "enlightened hospitality," and while it may sound like goofy corporate-speak, most of his current and former employees swear by it.
"Everyone supports each other—the GM takes care of the managers, the managers take care of the staff, and therefore the staff has no worries except to take care of the guests," says Paul Grieco, who started as a waiter at Gramercy Tavern and rose to beverage director before leaving the company to become wine director at Hearth and Terroir. "Danny taught us all to think about the entirety of the hospitality experience."
"The difference between Union Square Hospitality and other restaurant groups is [USHG is] more guest-centric," says Drew Nieporent, whose Myriad Restaurant Associates operates top spots such as Nobu and Corton. "They run chef-driven restaurants, but they have incredible empathy with their guests."
Soon enough, Gramercy Tavern found its footing. Over the years, it has probably been Meyer's most consistently great restaurant. Success gave Meyer the confidence to grab new opportunities. He began exploring real estate farther north, around Madison Square Park. It took two years to find a space, however, and the one he found was challenging—the ground floor of the art deco New York Life building. It is on the National Register of Historic Places, so he was limited in what he could change. It was big, too big for one restaurant, so Meyer gambled and opened two simultaneously.
Meyer wanted to push the envelope by creating a high-end Indian restaurant. Thanks to a tip from a sous chef at Gramercy, he found the perfect chef for the assignment, Floyd Cardoz. Born in Mumbai, Cardoz had trained in classic French technique in Europe and was working in New York at Lespinasse. Tabla opened in late 1998 to strong reviews and was quickly a success.
On the other side of the building, Meyer opened Eleven Madison Park. Perhaps no restaurant better illustrates Meyer's patient approach. It took a decade for the restaurant to find the right formula. The original chef backed out of the project six weeks before it opened. Meyer and Kerry Heffernan, the second chef, envisioned a modern French brasserie, but diners looked around the soaring, elegant space and saw a restaurant for special occasions.
Meyer kept adjusting. In 2006, he replaced Heffernan with the Swiss-born Humm, who was working in San Francisco at the time. Humm brought a more sophisticated, experimental menu to the table. He also brought his sommelier, John Ragan, who began investing much of the restaurant's profits from wine sales into building a far more ambitious cellar. Meyer put Guidara in charge of the dining room, and Guidara responded by removing seats and elevating service to top-tier standards.
It wasn't cheap. Every time the three men came to Meyer with a new, expensive idea, he simply said, "Make your argument. Convince me." And they usually did. Dining critics responded with praise, and the restaurant joined the ranks of New York's elite.
Then Humm and Guidara came to Meyer with a new proposal. They had always dreamed of owning their own restaurant, and were starting to assemble backers for a new project. But they loved Eleven Madison Park and wanted to stay there. "We wanted Danny in our lives," says Humm. "We naively thought we could somehow work for ourselves and USHG."
Meyer had been down this road before. When Colicchio opened his own restaurant, Craft, in 2001, he and Meyer agreed to continue working together at Gramercy Tavern. But it didn't work. As Colicchio became more invested in Craft and expanded further, Gramercy Tavern stagnated. "I've always believed we need to have our chef in our restaurant," says Meyer. "The staff didn't know if Gramercy was a Union Square Hospitality restaurant or a Craft restaurant."
In 2006, Meyer offered to sell USHG's interest in Gramercy Tavern to Colicchio. The chef thought about it for a few days and then decided to pass, because he believed Meyer was better suited to restore it. "What made Gramercy Tavern so good was we had a great staff lineup," says Colicchio. "That's a Danny strength, putting together a team."
Meyer had no intention of reliving those days. Which left him with a hard choice—he could let Humm and Guidara leave, and himself recruit a new team at Eleven Madison Park, or he could sell. Meyer made the men the same offer he had made Colicchio, and they took it. "At the end, he took himself and us out of the equation," says Guidara. "He asked what was best for the employees and the guests."
Some members of the restaurant industry believe Humm and Guidara put Meyer in an unfair situation. But the three men insist that there is no bad blood. Meyer has been meeting with them regularly, continuing to offer advice as they start their company.
Meyer gave up three Michelin stars, but he kept his cash cow, the hamburger stand that got its start in Eleven Madison's kitchen.
In the late 19th century, Madison Square Park was the center of New York society. When Meyer opened two restaurants facing out on it, the park was a neglected dust bowl, and he made restoring it part of his agenda from day one, co-founding the Madison Square Park Conservancy. In 2001, when the Conservancy began summer art exhibits in the park, they asked Meyer to do a hot dog cart as part of the first exhibit. Meyer chose the team at Eleven Madison Park to run it. After three summers, they struck a deal with the Department of Parks and Recreation and the Conservancy to open a permanent kiosk, which they dubbed Shake Shack.
Shake Shack is the brand that has made Meyer known outside the Big Apple. Some observers have rolled their eyes at the idea of the guy behind Gramercy Tavern opening burger joints, while others have called it genius in tough economic times. In 2009, a large private equity fund invested in Shake Shack. It was the first time USHG partnered with a large investor, as opposed to friends and frequent customers, and it allowed the company to expand outside New York, opening Shake Shacks in Washington, D.C., Florida and Connecticut. There are nine standalone locations in the United States today, and USHG has plans to open six more this year. [See Burgers and Beyond.]
Over the years, as Meyer opened new restaurants, USHG's corporate structure evolved in an organic fashion, growing as needed. As he prepared to open Tabla and Eleven Madison Park, Meyer recruited Richard Coraine to be his director of operations and David Swinghamer to be CFO and head of business development. Coraine had been general manager at Postrio, one of Wolfgang Puck's restaurants. Swinghamer was working for Lettuce Entertain You, a restaurant group in Chicago.
The company's next evolution was far more ambitious. By 2001, Meyer had become a name in New York. Some of the city's most powerful people loved to eat at his restaurants, which led to high-profile opportunities. When the Museum of Modern Art closed to begin a three-year renovation that year, museum board members who were regular USHG diners urged Meyer to think about developing and operating restaurants in the new space. When USHG won the bidding process, Meyer and his team had to figure out how to simultaneously open a fine-dining restaurant, two museum cafés and a staff cafeteria. They also needed to start a catering company, now called Union Square Events, to handle museum soirées. "[The MoMA deal] opened a lot for us as a company," says Swinghamer. "It taught us how to handle large projects."
When they won the contract, Meyer, Swinghamer and Coraine were all working out of offices in Gramercy Tavern's basement. Meyer reluctantly agreed that USHG needed a corporate headquarters, and they leased the offices overlooking Union Square. Michael Romano, longtime chef at Union Square Cafe, became a partner in USHG and president of culinary operations. Paul Bolles-Beaven, who had started as a bartender at Union Square Cafe and was now general manager, also became a USHG partner and the first head of human resources. From 2003 on, what had been an informal collection of restaurants was now a real company.
In 2008, USHG signed a deal with the New York Mets to operate several concessions at the team's new stadium, Citi Field. In 2011, Meyer opened Untitled, a café on the lower level of the Whitney Museum of Art. USHG's newest venture, North End Grill, is part of a deal with Goldman Sachs. The investment bank is developing a luxury hotel in lower Manhattan near its headquarters, and Meyer opened not only the fine-dining restaurant but also a second Blue Smoke and a Shake Shack there.
In addition, there is new backing from Related Companies, a major real estate developer with $15 billion in assets, known for building the Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle and for its current development of the Hudson Yards on Manhattan's west side. In the January deal, Related bought a sizable minority share in Union Square Events, an agreement that will put Meyer's brands in front of a lot more people. "We like their business plans and we like their people," says Ken Himmel, president and CEO of Related Urban, the company's mixed-use division. "Danny adds a level of credibility to the Hudson Yards project, much like when we signed Thomas Keller to open [Per Se] at the Time Warner Center."
Related executives and USHG's partners are actively exploring putting Shake Shack, Blue Smoke and other USHG concessions in multiple sporting venues, art museums and retail/office buildings in major markets such as Miami, Chicago, San Francisco and Seattle. "Our goal is to grow Union Square Events into a business with over $100 million in revenues in three years," says Himmel.
Danny Meyer has always been ambitious. Entrepreneurship runs in his genes. Born and raised in St. Louis, in a family of German-Jewish descent, Meyer had several business role models to choose from. His paternal grandfather ran a chemical company. His mother's father, Irving Harris, co-founded the hair product company, Toni, which Gillette bought in 1948 for $20 million. Harris turned his fortune into a larger one through various investments, and focused much of his later life on philanthropic causes.
Meyer's father, however, was cut from different cloth. Morton Meyer was a born gambler who lived to take chances in business. He had fallen in love with French food and culture while stationed in France as an Army counterintelligence officer during the early 1950s, and he indulged those passions by founding a travel agency. He enjoyed some success and opened offices in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and across Europe. But he expanded too rapidly. In the late '60s, the company went bankrupt.
Meyer remembers the failure as a devastating event for his family, and the beginning of a long slide toward divorce for his parents. He still blames his father for the pain it inflicted. Morton spent the rest of his career launching risky travel ventures, repeatedly overextending himself. When he died of lung cancer in 1990, he was bankrupt again. "He was my hero, and he failed," Meyer says. But he also credits his father for his passions in life—baseball, music, food and wine. "Nothing makes me happier than to be with someone over a table filled with good food and good wine, and I got that from my dad."
When the younger Meyer was studying at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., he spent a summer in Rome, working as a tour guide for one of his dad's companies. Entertaining jet-lagged American tourists for weeklong trips through Italy taught him the basics of hospitality—he learned to identify the grumpiest person in the group and win him or her over.
But when he graduated, Meyer didn't consider hospitality as a career; in 1980 nice Jewish boys from successful families didn't use their college degrees to work in restaurants. After trying politics and then sales, he felt it was time to grow up and go to law school. But on the night before the LSAT, he complained to an uncle that he didn't want to be a lawyer. His uncle replied, "You've been talking about food and restaurants your whole life; why don't you do that?"
With little to no experience, Meyer embarked on a crash course, taking a job as daytime assistant manager at Pesca, an Italian seafood restaurant in Manhattan, for eight months and then working for three months as a stagiaire in kitchens in Rome and Bordeaux. When he returned to New York, he found space for his new venture in the former location of a vegetarian café, half a block from Union Square. The neighborhood had a seedy feeling in those days. But Meyer believed it had potential, especially because of the small farmers market that operated in the square a few days a week.
He found his building crew by poking his head into construction sites. He hired a fish line-cook to be his executive chef. One night Meyer volunteered to work a kitchen shift at the Quilted Giraffe, one of the city's best restaurants. Tom Colicchio, a sous chef there at the time, remembers hearing that some guy from St. Louis planning to open a restaurant was coming to help out. "Danny looked 12," he says. "I thought, ‘This guy's going to open a restaurant in New York? He's going to get killed.' "
On Oct. 20, 1985, Union Square Cafe held its opening night party. Meyer says he cried, both from joy and sadness. His father did not come, due to a business trip. "It was only the most important night of my life," says Meyer.
After the emotional rush of that night, Meyer quickly learned how in-over-his-head he was. Items had to be cut from the menu because the cooks could only handle so much. One night Meyer punched a belligerent customer who wouldn't stop screaming about how long he had waited for his food. Another night, a light fixture fell from the ceiling, narrowly missing a guest.
When Meyer heard a rumor that The New York Times was sending a critic soon, he developed Bell's palsy—the left side of his face was paralyzed for six weeks. After the Times gave him two stars, the feeling returned to his face, and he found his stride. In 1987, he hired Michael Romano, a young talent whom he had met at Pesca, to elevate the cuisine. And where initially Meyer had taken care of everything his staff dropped the ball on, he eventually learned to teach them how to do things properly themselves. He began to verbalize his vision of hospitality—that everything a staff member did, whether cook, waiter or porter, had to center on how it made a customer feel.
USHG lived a blessed life before the recession hit in 2008. Meyer admits he was unprepared for how bad it might be. "I was not extremely concerned," he says. "In retrospect, I should have been. It was a real shock. Tabla never got off its knees."
Tabla, the cutting-edge Indian restaurant located next door to Eleven Madison Park, had been a success when it opened in 1998. But business had slowed some over the years as the novelty wore off. The recession put Tabla in the red. Adding to the stress, Union Square Events, founded to serve MoMA, had never gotten much business from the museum and was underutilized. It had a heavy debt, and the recession meant that banks were tighter with credit. By losing money, Tabla was further decreasing the company's credibility with lenders.
Meyer had bragged for some time about how he had never closed a restaurant. "I thought that we could just keep adjusting until we found the right formula," he says. But in late 2010, Tabla's doors had to close. Meyer walked from his office to Madison Square to tell the staff in person. When he walked in, the first person Meyer saw was a porter who had been there for all 12 years. After saying hello, Meyer hurried upstairs to the manager's office and sobbed.
"That was the hardest day of my life," says Cardoz, who nonetheless signed on to be executive chef at another restaurant for Meyer, North End Grill. "It was also so rewarding. With Danny, I watched excellence in action. I learned how to teach excellence."
While Meyer closed Tabla and sold Eleven Madison Park, he kept an important asset—Eleven Madison Park's wine director. John Ragan is now corporate wine director for USHG, a position created at his suggestion. It's surprising that the job had never existed, considering how big a role wine has played in the company from the start. Meyer regularly says wine is a condiment, a seasoning that food is incomplete without. He rarely makes it the star, but it plays an essential supporting role.
Unlike most Midwestern kids in the 1960s, Meyer grew up with wine at the dinner table. His parents had fallen in love with wine during Morton's Army years in France. In addition to having wine at home, the family spent their vacations in the French countryside. Meyer learned more about wine while working in kitchens in Rome and Bordeaux, visiting producers on his days off.
Meyer has classic tastes. While he enjoys many regions, France and Italy, particularly Barolo and Barbaresco, are closest to his heart. And he's passing this love on to his children. On a trip to Italy a few years ago, he brought them along to meet one of his favorite producers, Giuseppe Quintarelli. He keeps a photo of Quintarelli, who died in January, on a shelf in his office.
Wine was always going to be a key part of Union Square Cafe. Meyer knew that if he offered good wine at great prices, smart customers would come back. And when things went wrong, he deployed it as a secret weapon. "In the early years, I used wine as a crutch for our shortcomings," he says. When his staff missed a beat, a complimentary glass of dessert wine could do wonders.
He had a powerful ally helping him build his program, too. Early on, he befriended importer Robert Chadderdon, which was akin to befriending J.D. Salinger. Chadderdon has long been a top source for some of France and Italy's best wines, but has a reputation for being reclusive and difficult to work with. Meyer formed a bond with Chadderdon, who supplied him with wines, offered him advice and introduced him to top producers. To this day, many of Meyer's restaurants have sizable allocations of Chadderdon wines. In 2008, Meyer even explored buying Chadderdon's import business, but after some research decided it was not a line of work USHG wanted to enter.
The same day Meyer met with his partners on reorganization, Ragan was meeting with most of USHG's wine directors. Like the company's chefs, the wine directors run their own fiefs—this is not a Las Vegas resort where restaurants draw largely from the same cellar, Ragan insists. USHG wine directors build and supply their own programs and educate their staff members. Ragan's job is much like Romano's for the chefs—be a mentor, offer advice and help, and encourage the team to ask one another for assistance. Ragan is also organizing a wine school, which would extend an internal training program into classes for paying customers.
Meyer believes that "every restaurant has its own terroir"; thus, the director needs to design the particular list of wines and other alcoholic beverages. The goal is to make each list as distinct as each menu. He also wants guests to feel that they're getting something special at his restaurants, whether it's wine, beer, cocktails or even coffee. (Each restaurant picks its own coffee supplier, and his Untitled café at the Whitney offers coffee-tasting classes.)
The lists range from the 12 wine selections available at each Shake Shack, including a few selections produced expressly for the company, to the medium-sized list of wines and extensive selection of beers and whiskeys at Blue Smoke, to Maialino's 250 wines from every corner of Italy, to the extensive list at The Modern at MOMA. (The Modern and Gramercy Tavern each hold a Best of Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator.)
USHG serves about 1,000 bottles of wine each day, according to Ragan. "Our restaurant wine lists have to add to the customer's experience, whether it's a glass of Frog's Leap at Shake Shack in Madison Square Park or a bottle of Quintarelli Alzero at Union Square Cafe."
Eleven Madison Park had 3,300 selections on its list when it earned a Grand Award in 2011, and while Meyer is deeply proud of the accomplishment, he says he has no current plans to repeat the feat. "John had the Grand Award in mind," he says. "At the end of the day, I don't think thousands and thousands of selections are necessary. I believe it's often harder for a wine director to put together a smart list of 200 wines."
That said, Meyer won't rule out another wine director convincing him otherwise. And Ragan adds, "If a team at a restaurant decides that a Grand Award-worthy list will enhance the experience of their customers, I would throw all my efforts behind it."
The closest to the prize would be The Modern, where more than 1,250 selections include an impressive array of French wines, picked to match chef Gabriel Kreuther's Alsace-inspired cuisine. Wine director Ehren Ashkenazi and Ragan have been working to refine the list and elevate Kreuther's cuisine even further.
"The goal of The Modern is to have a great wine program from stem to stern, by which I mean from the cheapest glass at the bar to the most expensive bottle on the list," says Ragan. "Ehren is focused on deepening Alsace, Champagne and Burgundy, but he also want to diversify with more from the Loire and lesser-known French regions."
Meyer is far more likely to offer a wine director feedback on wine pricing than on wine selection. He'd rather take a smaller markup than risk turning off a wine lover who might not return. When Liz Nicholson, the wine director at Maialino, Meyer's Italian trattoria, put together a flight of Nebbiolos by the glass, she filled it with Barolos, which are a Meyer favorite. But, he told her, "Don't make guests pay to play." Nicholson took lower margins on the Barolos and added some value-priced Nebbiolos from less prestigious regions.
After an afternoon stuck in the office, Meyer eagerly heads downtown in a cab to his newest venture. It's a cold January night in lower Manhattan, and North End Grill has just opened for its second night of dinner service.
The bar is rapidly filling up with Financial District workers who have fled the biting wind outside and are gratefully soaking up the warmth emanating from Cardoz's open kitchen. Meyer stands in a corner, arms crossed, surveying the room.
"I'm taking in the smells," he says. "It's a grill—can you smell the wood? I'm listening. Can people hear their conversations and the music? And I'm watching the staff. Are they having fun with each other, helping each other out? If they're having fun, the customers will have fun."
Satisfied that all is well, Meyer departs and hops into another cab. Unless he's opening a new restaurant, he only rarely works during dinner service, preferring to head home to his wife and kids. His wife, Audrey, is an actress and Meyer's favorite sounding board. They have four children, ranging from 12 to 18 years old.
If he does go to dinner, Meyer will usually visit the restaurant that's closest to home and closest to his heart. He lives in Gramercy Park, and across the square, on the ground floor of the Gramercy Park Hotel, is Maialino. When Meyer was a tour guide in Rome, his supervisor dubbed him "Meyerlino," or little Meyer. But that quickly evolved into maialino, or suckling pig, after Meyer's favorite food. The restaurant is Meyer's vision of a Roman trattoria, with plenty of homey touches. Tonight it's packed, and Meyer stops to chat multiple times before reaching his table. Barbara Walters is seated nearby and Owen Wilson is at the table beyond hers.
Fresh salumi, fried artichokes, cacio e pepe, suckling pig—these are the foods Meyer fell in love with as a young man, and as he sits, eats and drinks a glass of Quintarelli Valpolicella 1989, he looks tired but very happy. Building a new fine dining restaurant is exhausting, so why did Meyer open North End Grill? With Shake Shack and Union Square Events expanding, USHG doesn't necessarily need to extend into additional fine dining, where the startup costs are higher and the margins far slimmer.
"Fine dining defines our culture," he replies. Meyer can't meet every new hire anymore, but he knows that if a new Shake Shack cashier reports to a manager who started out at Gramercy Tavern, they will learn enlightened hospitality. "If you took away the fine dining, I don't think Shake Shack would be as good as it is," he says. For now, Shake Shack provides about a third of USHG's revenues; fine dining provides just over half.
Meyer also believes that one of the main reasons to keep expanding his company is to provide his staff with new opportunities. You can't retain top people if you don't offer them fresh challenges. Today's assistant manager needs to know that they can be tomorrow's general manager at a new USHG venture. Or that they could start their own restaurant company someday.
Meyer realizes something. Today would have been his father's birthday. Though the scars remain, Meyer, through his balancing act of hospitality and business, has succeeded where his father could not. "I'm lucky that I can do what I'm good at," he says. "My job keeps changing, but that's good. I don't see an end in sight, because I have more ideas than ever."