The good news is everyone loves food. The bad news is that competition is fierce and the business of dining out is delicate.
— Jason Clampet
Union Square Hospitality Group CEO Danny Meyer and his team have become shorthand for a well-run, innovative restaurant group, and it’s done so through a fine balance of traditional service and a willingness to adapt.
“What’s working today is what’s always worked. I don’t think we are going to want to stop wanting to be with people,” he said at last month’s Skift Global Forum in New York.
That doesn’t mean that USHG has not changed. In addition to its white tablecloth classics including Gramercy Tavern, Meyer’s New York empire extends to fast casual and now fine casual spots offering sit-down meals in iconic locations and takeaway coffee on busy city streets. And it’s all being driven by both an enthusiasm for food and the desire to tell everyone about it.
“The really, really good news is that there is an unprecedented interest in food. Eating it cooking it, taking photographs about it. It’s on TV, it’s everywhere,” he told Skift Table Senior Editor Kristen Hawley. “When I first started Union Square Cafe 32 years ago and saw somebody taking a picture of their food you’d think ‘that’s weird.’ Today I’m kind of hurt if you don’t take a picture of it.”
For Meyer, the competitive set extends from other restaurants to delivery alternatives, better farmers’ markets and groceries, and meal kits. “Today it’s the entire city right at my fingertips,” he said. On the flip side, the restaurant experience can do something others can’t. “We provide at our best the opportunity to come together. I don’t think millennials are immune to the desire to get a hug,” Meyer said.
That does not mean everyone will be a winner. With greater interest has come greater competition. “There are so many players right now is that what it means is that there’s no way on earth that that many players will be as busy as they were when there were 25 percent fewer players.”
Along with broader interest in food, there has also been a sea change in how people think about the work of running and working at restaurants. “There’s an unprecedented acceptance of going into the food and beverage industry as a valid profession,” he said. “When I first got into business I let my family down because I didn’t do what I was supposed to do and go be a lawyer. You weren’t supposed to be a restaurateur. Today it’s a completely validated entrepreneurial pursuit.”
When it comes to USHG’s no tipping “Hospitality Included” program, Meyer describes it as a one of fairer economics as well as better team management. “The divide between what cooks can make in New York City and what waiters are making in New York City has just grown every single year, and for an obvious reason,” he said. “A tip, rather than being any indicator of any service you’ve received is simply a percentage multiplier of the menu price.”
“Imagine if you were a football coach and it’s halftime and your team is behind by 20 points. And now you have to motivate the offense and the defense. The defense is getting paid almost nothing by the owner. The offense is being tipped by the crowd and making a lot more money than the defense. And you’re trying to get these guys to come together. It’s awful.”
“Let’s quit blaming the system,” he said. “And let’s take the system into our own hands.”
At this year’s Skift Global Forum in New York City, travel leaders from around the world gathered for two days of inspiration, information, and conversation for panels such as this as well as solo TED-like talks on the future of travel.
Visit our Skift Global Forum site for more details about 2018 events.