New York restaurants were allowed to reopen in June but only for outside operations, meaning that many businesses have been forced to create al fresco areas in order to survive.
Speaking during yesterday’s (18 November) Peach Digital Conference, the influential operator and author, whose Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG) has a portfolio of more than 20 restaurants across the US – many of which remain closed – said that in the face of the significantly reduced indoor dining capacity there had been a rush to serve customers from the kerbside.
“I see people trying so hard to do anything,” said Meyer, who was in conversation with Peach founder Peter Martin and Hawksmoor CEO Will Beckett.
“We flex all of our entrepreneurial muscles with takeout, kerbside service, selling wine and groceries out the door, sidewalk dining in very cold with heaters on the street.
“New York looks like a shanty town of outdoor dining shacks right now. Everybody’s trying and I appreciate that.
“It’s very frustrating to have your hands tied, and not be able to do the thing that you really love doing.”
Slashing staff numbers
With no furlough scheme in the US to protect jobs, Meyer said he saw his company go from around 2,300 employees on 13 March to just 150 employees on 27 March; a cut of 90% that he described as being the worst day of his professional life.
Further layoffs occurred over April and May, with Meyer’s team eventually cut to a core group of 45.
Having reopened a few restaurants now, he said he has now built the business back up to 350 employees.
Meyer courted some controversy Stateside earlier this year when it emerged that Shake Shack, the burger brand he founded back in 2004, had obtained $10m in loans through the US Government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).
The international chain subsequently came under fire for taking the emergency funding, which was meant to be targeted at smaller businesses. After receiving new funding elsewhere, Meyer confirmed that Shake Shack had opted to return the money.
It has since been reported that USHG received at least $11m in other PPP loans separately.
In July, meanwhile, Meyer announced that he would be ending the no-tipping policy he famously pioneered at his restaurants in 2015 as a way to make sure all employees (front and back of house) received fair and equitable wages.
At the time, Meyer said: "We’ve come to believe that it’s the inability to share tips that is the problem, not the tips themselves.
“Our ultimate goal is for your tips to be shared among our entire team, so both kitchen and dining room teams can benefit when a guest has a great experience."
‘Safety is the new hospitality’
Addressing the Peach Digital Conference, Meyer also said that having strict processes in place to protect against the Coronavirus had now become an essential consideration for diners.
“Safety is the new hospitality. I can’t feel like you’re on my side if there’s even a centile of a doubt that you’re not going that extra step to make me feel safe. Safety is the new ambience in a restaurant.”
Meyer explained that he has only been able to reopen three of his 12 New York restaurants so far, each one operating under a 10pm curfew and at 25% capacity as per local restrictions.
“Diners are certainly getting used to the changes,” he said. “They know to put on a mask when a server approaches them."
Meyer said the company has installed Plexiglas screens; utilised QR codes for diners to use for ordering and paying; and placed hand sanitiser bottles on every table as part of the company’s attempts to make customers feel safe.
“We’re trying everything we can and it’s costing us more money for less income, but it ensures the guests are comfortable.
“They want the experience of not just you having you cook good food and pour good wine for them, they want the social experience of being with people and they’re willing to put up with restrictions and changes to get that.”
Asked about the general situation in New York, Meyer described it as being ‘not great’, adding that he feared restaurants in the city may be forced to close again in the coming months.
“I guess you can generally solve almost any problem, but we cannot outrace this virus, we’re not allowed to open beyond the capacity levels that New York City in New York State allow us."
He also said it was unlikely that he would be able to reopen the entirety of his New York estate.
“Having had to face the worst professional day of my life, and lay off about 90% of our company at the end of March, when we do come back, they’ll be very different teams.
“It’ll be like opening a brand-new restaurant from scratch because, frankly, we don’t have all of our chefs and general managers intact.
“I don’t have any idea where all of the service staff went or where all the cooks are gone. Maybe they’ve left New York for good. It’s not like a football team where you have everybody on contract and you just have to say, we can get back into action come back now.
“It’s a very tall slope that we’re all on, and I’m hopeful, I’m optimistic long term for New York City, because it’s an irrepressible spirit in that city, it’s never been an easy place to live, it’s always attracted people trying to accomplish something for a greater purpose.
“But the landscape is going to look a lot different because a hell of a lot of leaves have blown off the trees, and so whatever grows over the next couple of years, is going to be very different and very new.”