Back in September, New York restaurateur Danny Meyer was begging governor Andrew Cuomo to permit 25 percent occupancy across New York City's restaurants. The CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG), which includes Best of Award of Excellence winners Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern, and Grand Award winner The Modern, had already laid off 90 percent of his labor force and faced more shutdowns due to winter spikes of COVID-19 cases. But as vaccinations rise and cases drop, the hospitality veteran is optimistic about the future of dining in New York. In the latest episode of Straight Talk with Wine Spectator, Meyer spoke with news editor Mitch Frank about jumpstarting a devastated industry, promoting diversity in his restaurants and a new project in New York's latest development, Manhattan West.
Although New York has approved 100 percent indoor capacity, Meyer puts an asterisk on that number. Restaurants are still required to place tables six feet apart, and in a city like New York, space is scarce. But Meyer says it is great progress following a very dark year for the industry.
"I can't say enough gratitude for the power of the vaccine and the creators of the vaccine to have jumpstarted the economy again," Meyer said. "We're about halfway there in opening our restaurants."
With eager diners itching to eat at their favorite spots, Meyer asks for patience. In the past year, many talented restaurant workers left the city and took jobs in other industries. While USHG managed to retain most of its chefs and general managers, guests will find that their favorite table, server or dish may not be there. Meyer adds that while most jobs were able to adapt to working remotely, restaurant workers had no choice but to pause.
"You can't Zoom in to do the dishes," Meyer said. "It's going to work itself out, but right now we are shorthanded. It'll be a while until your favorite restaurant feels like your favorite restaurant."
So how does Meyer plan to bring workers back? The answer is being patient. Meyer's hospitality group stayed in contact with current and former employees, and raised $2 million to support struggling workers. "People didn't forget that," Meyer said. He also says now is the best time to join the restaurant industry since people can practically get "almost any job you want."
The pandemic was a big learning experience for the industry, and Meyer realized his team had to address an issue that persisted long before COVID-19: Lack of inclusion.
"Before COVID and George Floyd's murder, we had reckoned that our company was not diverse enough," Meyer admits. "Belonging is the most important thing and it's all well and good to be more diverse, but if you don't beef up a sense of belonging, that's akin to inviting someone who's diverse to a party and ignoring them while the party is going on."
Meyer had set 2025 goals to make his restaurants look like the communities they did business in, and increase employee morale in the dining room. But as Meyer's restaurants come back to life, he won't have to wait until 2025 since they will be rebuilding with this intentionality. "We intend to actually get this work done by the end of this year," Meyer says.
Meyer also unveiled his plan to open a new restaurant called "Ci Siamo" in New York's Manhattan West development. The Italian restaurant, whose name translates to, "We're finally here," has been in the works for three years. Chef Hillary Sterling will head the dining program.
Watch the full episode with Meyer on Wine Spectator's IGTV channel, and tune in to catch Straight Talk with Wine Spectator every week. On June 16, senior editor MaryAnn Worobiec will chat with Paso Robles winemaker Jordan Fiorentini. And on June 23, news editor Mitch Frank will talk to Harmon Skurnik of Skurnik Wines.