DANNY MEYER IS NEW YORK'S RESTAURATEUR EXTRAORDINAIRE AND THE US BUSINESS COMMUNITY IS CLAMOURING FOR HIS WORDS OF WISDOM. STILL HE FOUND TIME FOR RESTAURANT'S UNIQUE BRAND OF HOSPITALITY
Five minutes into my first meeting with Danny Meyer I decide that he's a very nice man. Either that or he's playing me. Not normally prone to even mild sycophancy, I come to this conclusion because when I sit down to interview him at his hotel over a breakfast of Eggs Benedict and it transpires my tape recorder has given up the ghost – in a way that cannot be revived by a fresh set of batteries – he goes out of his way to make me feel like I'm not wasting his time, which, technically speaking, I am. But to his credit the President and CEO of the Union Square Hospitality Group puts me at ease with his cleancut American charm. He's what might be best described as hospitable.
Appropriately, we're meeting to discuss his new book Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business, in which Meyer – ‘America's Most Innovative Restaurateur' according to the dust jacket – illustrates what he describes as ‘enlightened hospitality' through the lessons he's learnt as a restaurateur, from the opening of the Union Square Café in 1985 onwards.
Published Stateside by Harper Collins, the book made it onto the New York Times Bestseller list: part restaurateur's memoir, part self-help book aimed at corporate America, it's published in the UK at the end of this month.
When, many weeks later, I call Meyer to discuss the book again, this time with the benefit of a working tape recorder, he is on holiday in Mexico and it's 8.30am his time, which, he explains, is not a problem as he's been woken up every morning of his vacation so far by early morning building work. But he still makes me feel like I'm doing him a favour – which, in a way, I am – but that's not the point.
He decided to write Setting the Table partly because he loves writing, having co-authored two cookbooks, the Union Square Café Cookbook and Second Helpings from Union Square Café but also because he thought that the discipline of sitting down to write would force him to "create language, so I could be far more intentional about more of the things that I wanted to do more often and do a better job of communicating, especially to my staff that over the years has grown to 1,500 people".
Those people are employed across 11 operations, the oldest of which, the Union Square Café, will have been open for 22 years this October, and still rates as one of Manhattan's best loved restaurants.
In Setting the Table, Meyer puts forward the case for better hospitality across all businesses.
"Hospitality is something that the restaurant industry is known for at its best, but I've never thought that hospitality is something that should only apply to our industry," he says.
"I think it's folly to assume that when people exchange money for goods, all they want is the goods. In any business whatsoever, people want to know that you're happy to see them and that you do see them, and that you're going to put feeling behind your thinking."
Back in the States, Meyer, on the back of the book's message, has been asked to speak everywhere from hospitals to hedge funds to soup companies, and although the way the book is peppered with management-speak might occasionally grate with those who have had to sit through company-sponsored training days, it makes a lot of sense. Particularly the way he differentiates between service and hospitality.
"Service is how effectively the product was technically delivered, so good service would be indicative of getting the right food to the right person at the right table at the right time," he says. "Hospitality, however, measures how the recipient of that technical service was made to feel, and they are very, very different things. The way something works is very different from the way something feels, and we've all been to restaurants or we've all had some kind of business transaction where it worked just fine but it didn't feel quite right. I think this is of particular importance today because any business that wants to do something the right way can figure out how to do that. But the real frontier is learning how to do something the right way and to make the recipient of that action feel like you are on their side."
To ram home this distinction, at one stage he had considered adding what we'd call a service charge to bills at his restaurants, but was instead going to label it ‘hospitality included'.
"I spoke to staff members and I spoke to guests at our restaurants and, interestingly, I found that our staff members actually enjoyed tips and that surprised me as I felt that tips were demeaning in some way and helped to foster this historic confusion between service and servitude in the United States. But I found that the staff really enjoyed the idea of earning commission for their sales ability and their hospitality skills," he explains. "Then, not so surprisingly, I found that the guests would have been upset by it because, even though few of them would do so, it's evidently a very American thing to maintain the power to punish by offering a bad tip and maintain the power to reward by offering a great tip. I always found that to be odd, because they don't need to wield that kind of power over our grill cook or the garde mange if the salad is not good, but they do feel that need when it comes to servers.
"The final crushing blow when I considered doing this was that I realised something quite obvious, which is that there is a huge institutional disparity between how cooks and servers are paid, which exists in any manufacturing and sales organisation. But if I were to take on the salary of the sales team I would then be responsible for this disparity, therefore I'd probably end up raising everybody's pay, which would cause untenable inflation, which would put us at a competitive disadvantage with all of our rivals. So in the end I decided I would not single-handedly try to change the system. Nobody would have been happy and it would have put me out of business." He adds wryly, "So it was hard to make a good case for it."
So does Meyer think he has another book in him and, if so, does he want it removed? He pauses. "I think I'm going to concentrate on my business for the next few years, but I'm interested in maybe writing about how you can spot the hospitality quotient in someone before you hire them," he says.
The hospitality quotient, or ‘HQ' as he likes to abbreviate it, is, crudely speaking, someone's ability to deliver hospitality. As I say goodbye and wish him luck with the rest of his holiday and the Mexican builders I'm left with the distinct impression that Meyer himself has an extremely high ‘HQ'. Either that or he's played me like a violin.
UNION SQUARE CAFÉ Meyer's fi rst restaurant, USC opened in October 1985 in New York, and has since been voted the city's favourite restaurant seven times in the Zagat survey.
unionsquarecafe.com GRAMERCY TAVERN The Tavern opened in 1994 in Manhattan, serving contemporary American cuisine in a restaurant popular for warm service and rustic elegance.
gramercytavern.com ELEVEN MADISON PARK Opened in 1998 in the lobby of the art deco Met-Life building in New York's fl atiron district, and the largest of Meyer's restaurant empire, serving innovative, Modern French cuisine.
elevenmadisonpark.com TABLA Also opened in 1998 in the fl atiron district of New York, and offering Indian-infl uenced New American cooking in the upstairs restaurant, and laid-back Indian food in the downstairs bar.
tablany.com BLUE SMOKE & JAZZ STANDARD Pit barbeque food and jazz music, accompanied by a wide selection of beer and laid back attitude since 2002.
bluesmoke.com SHAKE SHACK Located on the corner of Madison Square Park, part of the profi ts from its informal burgers and hot dogs are donated to the Park's conservation. Open April to November since 2004.
shakeshacknyc.com THE MODERN Serving French American cuisine in the Museum of Modern Art since 2005, a formal dining room with a set-price tasting menu is offset by more casual rustic Alsatian food in the Bar Room.
themodernnyc.com CAFÉ 2 In the same museum as The Modern, Café 2 is only open to museum patrons, as is Terrace 5, also in MOMA. This is a casual Italian restaurant with communal tables and a clean, Scandinavian look.
themodernnyc.com/c2 TERRACE 5 The third establishment in the museum, in black, white and grey, it serves savoury bites, desserts and drinks.
themodernnyc.com/t5 HUDSON YARDS CATERING Newly launched fi ne dining catering service, overseen by Kerry Heffernan of Eleven Madison Park.
MEYER THE PLAYER ON MANHATTAN'S DINING PATTERNS:
"In New York, being first on the scene is a journalist's rite and right. There is a large subsection of the New York dining public too who will descend on a new restaurant just after it opens, simply to fulfil a need to boast about the hottest new place: ‘Been there, done that and I got there first.'
But savvy diners know that it takes a fair amount of time for a staff, no matter how talented, to learn to work together smoothly. A restaurant can take months to understand which of its dishes work and which don't; the fine-tuning of the menu can easily take up to a year. In fact, it generally takes two to three years for our restaurants to even approach their ultimate potential for excellence. And this is because it takes that long for a restaurant's soul to emerge. I tend to hold my nose for the first three months. It's usually a full year after one of my restaurants has been open before I begin to feel truly proud.
By the time I feel confident, however, the critics and the people who simply do not share our chemistry – those who never will enjoy our restaurant, no matter how much it eventually improves – have already moved on to the next new restaurant.
To be sure, a restaurant is fair game for a critic the moment it starts charging patrons. Both the public and the new restaurant can actually be shortchanged by the very early reviews, because these snapshots rarely provide an accurate preview of what the restaurant will actually become.
Am I suggesting that critics or the dining public just stay away from a new restaurant? Of course not. It's useful to know how a restaurant tastes and works when it first opens, but it's also helpful to understand what to expect down the road.
If I buy a case of newly released wine, I'll usually drink a bottle right off the bat – even if I know it's too young – just to have a point of comparison as I follow its development. That's not a bad thing to do with a new restaurant, as long as you trust that the restaurant will continue to grow and evolve. Indeed, opening a restaurant is a little like making wine. The wine is often clumsy or ‘dumb' when it's initially bottled, but wines with a solid pedigree almost always improve over time. I'm a hedonist. I drink wine to enjoy it when it's at its best, once the components have settled into delicious harmony. Similarly, I go to a restaurant to enjoy it at its best."
From Danny Meyer's Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business.
Published in the UK by Cyan Books on April 26, priced £16.99