Via a winning combination of experience, passion, hard work and many other contributing factors, Danny Meyer has paved an impactful path in hospitality. Alice Cheng, Founder and CEO of Culinary Agents, had the opportunity to interview him for our series, Mentoring with the Masters. Here Danny shares thoughtful observations and sheds light on his lessons learned from decades spent living and breathing this industry.
Q: Having been in the industry for nearly 30+ years what would you say is one of the biggest shifts that you've seen in the past five years that motivates you?
A: There are many different directions to go with this one question - the guest experience, the employee experience, the kitchen experience, the food, the sourcing, etc. My simple answer is that I am incredibly gratified that so many more people are now taking the hospitality career seriously as a valid career choice and not strictly to earn money while they're waiting for something else. We still have a long way to go, but I think that both the dining room and the kitchen are more professional now than ever. More people are proud to say that they are in the Hospitality business and fewer people feel the need to apologize for having made that choice.
Q: What is a trend that you've seen come and go?
Something that I am really happy that didn’t take too much root is the pay-to-play model for reservations. Several companies have previously popped up with business models based on if guests wanted reservations that they would have to pay to get them. I’m so grateful that the vast preponderance of people who make reservations and want special access to do so by becoming loyal guests at a restaurant instead of trying to outbid somebody else for that prime-time table. I am happy that that trend has had a very short half-life.
Q: For business owners who are starting out and potentially lack resources to implement certain initiatives, what would you suggest as a baby step towards building the proper foundation for success?
A: I’ll never forget when I was first getting into business, I received two major pieces of outside advice:
(1) Spend as little as you possibly can on your buildout because every dollar that goes into it is going to require an additional $100 in revenue just to pay back that dollar. And you won’t be even anywhere near breaking even until you are done paying back everything.
(2) The next piece of advice came from the year that we were just starting to look at Point-of-Sale systems to replace the classic NCR cash register that used to sit behind the bar. People always loved the way the cashier registers look and the big stiff guest check as their bill, but these electronic point-of-sales systems being introduced were all using thermal printers for the check. And the check would roll up because it was a flimsy piece of paper. I had turned to a fellow restaurateur and said, “How can you possibly give someone a guest check that looks like this?” And he said, “At the end of the day son, if you treat people right, put good food on their plates and give them good value, you can give them a guest check on a piece of toilet paper and they are going to come back.” I’m sharing this story because it illustrates the point that it’s not necessarily how beautiful the art is on the wall, or how amazingly plush the chairs or barstools are, or how thin the crystal is on your stemware, people are going to come back to the restaurant if you make them feel welcome, and that is not about how much money you have. Conversely, they aren’t going to come back if you didn’t make them feel welcome despite how many resources a restaurant company has. It’s not an unusual story that some restaurants get unwittingly far away from why they got into business in the first place, which is hospitality.
Q: You have been regarded as a leader in the hospitality industry for quite some time. In the past few years you have put into action certain initiatives such as revenue sharing and hospitality included that have made headlines. What was the biggest lesson learned from implementing these new programs?
You can’t possibly over communicate to your internal and external teams. When you are doing something that involves a shift in both consumer and staff behavior, and investor expectations, there is no amount of communication that is enough. Even then it is challenging to take an initiative that becomes a cultural change as well as an economic change for people. When we do communicate, always beginning with the why — why it matters, we learn that people are willing to try. It doesn't mean that it is easy for everybody because it's not.
It's the hallmark of leadership in general. If you're doing something that's already been done, you're probably not really leading, you're probably following. Leadership requires being able to convey to people why something matters so much to you that you're willing to take a risk and ask them to take a risk and join you in doing it. Generally, I do find that people are willing to give it a shot as long as you are always, always, always communicating.
Q: I have had the privilege to work with your teams for over five years. During this time I have seen your organization grow tremendously in different directions (e.g., Shake Shack, Union Square Events, projects and investments). What were some leading indicators for the need to change and evolve?
A: Generally, it’s when really amazing leaders on the team are ready to grow, which I’ve learned is a double-edged sword; if you don’t grow, you’re going to lose some great leaders, if you want to keep those leaders challenged and motivated then it is often a great time to grow. On the other hand, I don’t think I can overstate enough that there is an art, not a science, to recognizing that not only are you ready to grow and have people ready to grow, but that you also have a great idea that has to be born. If you don’t have a great idea and are just growing for the sake of growing, then you’re probably not adding anything essential to the dialogue, which can in and of itself start a downward spiral.
Q: At what point did you know that Shake Shack could stand on its own?
A: The first Shake Shack was Shake Shake as of 2004. In 2001, it was still a hot dog cart which we did for three years right out of the private dining room kitchen at Eleven Madison Park. It was around 2010, probably 5 years in, that we decided that one department should be independent and that was Public Relations and Marketing. We felt Shake Shack should have its own voice that was distinctive from USHG and our other restaurants. Then one by one by one, leading up to the 2015 public offering, department by department (e.g., Real Estate, Construction, and Purchasing), Shake Shack became increasingly independent over time. Finance and Human Resources remained with USHG the longest and legal was shared. It was an evolution, it was not a one-day thing. By the time 2015 came around and Shake Shack was a public company, I think the very last to go was Human Resources because of shared benefits, shared health insurance, etc. To this day though, we still share culture because that’s not a department, it’s everybody’s job. Shake Shack also had a board of directors for a good five years before becoming a public company, which none of our other restaurants had at that point, which really helped. It’s like when an actress you have never heard of wins an award and you feel like that person came out of nowhere, but she really didn’t. When you look at her career, and you look at how many years she has worked as hard as she’s worked, you realize she didn’t really come out of nowhere.
Q: What is the most common mistake that you see new managers make?
A: The most common mistake is when they don’t understand that their real role is to support their team, not to direct their team. Management is a great term for a compliance officer, and I don’t think most restaurants work best when they are run by compliance officers. I think they work best when they are run by servant leaders whose jobs are to support and provide the tools for the people on the front lines to be able to do their best work with the guests.
A lot of young managers think their role is to be the boss and tell everyone what to do to prove how powerful and smart they are. The real answer is you don’t. You have to be the best listener, the best business person and best ally to the troops who are face-to-face with your guests.
Q: What advice do you have for them?
A: Take your time. Realize that leadership is like being a steward of a bank account; you make deposits every time you take care of someone on your team. You will have to make withdrawals, but you have to make some deposits beforehand. The best way to make deposits is to build trust so that the people you are leading fully believe that you are on their side. They won’t believe that you are on their side if they believe you’re out for your own personal aggrandizement; then you’re going to start to lose the support of the very people you need to help you accomplish your vision.
Q: In your opinion, what separates a good manager from a great one?
A: A great manager is consistent and brings the same self into work every single day. They are very clear about what are the three things that make them happy when you do them and the three things that make them very unhappy when you don’t do them. They treat everybody the same way, they don’t play favorites. They hold up a mirror in a caring and supportive way when you have done good things and when you have done not good things, but they never do it in a way that diminishes your self-esteem. They believe in you. They are confident themselves, and conduct themselves in a way that is inspirational to you.
Q: While it took several years for you to open your second restaurant, in the past quarter alone you have opened Tacocina, Manhatta and Bay Room. For those looking to build their own empire but are currently working on their second or third locations, what is the secret sauce for hitting a stride?
A: I still feel we are far from being a finished product, there is always work to be done, systems to be improved, and feedback - including for me - needed to up our game.
I really believe that going from restaurant one to two, which was going from Union Square Cafe to Gramercy Tavern ten years later, was probably the hardest year I’ve ever had in the industry. Each time we grow, my job changes. I started out being the leading actor, director, producer, set designer and publicist — essentially playing every role at Union Square Cafe. Each time you grow, you only get to grow by surrounding yourself with people who do some of the things you used to do even better than you ever did them. Every time I am able to find someone like that, it changes my role. I’m still an executive producer, sometimes I’m also still a screenwriter, but it’s very different. Never in a million years would I have predicted where my career would head.
Q: Sometimes people forget that mentors have mentors as well. Who were some of your mentors (direct or indirect) and how did they impact your career?
A: Picking mentors is a really, really important thing to do well. I have learned that in many cases the most successful mentors are the people I never met and will never meet. Part of having a mentor is projecting your own needs onto someone else, and you don’t have to have met that person to do it. Just like perfect parents or perfect teachers, there is no such thing as a perfect mentor. Identify what are the things you are trying to get better at and/or what are those qualities in someone else that that you admire, even if it’s because your read a book that they wrote, have seen them on TV, or heard them on a podcast. That might be enough to make them a mentor for you, because you see areas you’d like to improve in your own performance.
The mentor that I picked in this career from the restaurant industry is the late Jean-Claude Vrinat who was the patron of Taillevent in Paris. It was during a time in my career when I was very interested in further refining the food, decor and service in our restaurant, it was a time when I was very focused on Gramercy Tavern, Eleven Madison Park and The Modern. I spoke with someone who had led Taillevent as a three-star Michelin restaurant for more years consecutively than anyone at that point had led a three Michelin star restaurant. What I loved is that Vrinat did it with a twinkle in his eye and he was having a lot of fun taking things very seriously. It was an eye-opener for me because I had never been to a three-star restaurant that was also fun. It was playful. It had a lot to do with how I thought about Gramercy Tavern. I used to tell people that if it were possible for restaurants to have babies, Gramercy Tavern would have been the lovechild between Union Square Cafe and Taillevent, which was a very refined version of a neighborhood restaurant with a twinkle in its eye.
Q: How do you find work-life balance? How do you spend your free time?
A: I don’t have a great work-life balance because I love and live what I do. I incorporate what I do into almost everything I do. I can’t take a business trip anywhere without visiting restaurants, learning about how people eat and trying the wines people drink. The work-life balance question just doesn’t work because you’re never either one quite enough.
What I did learn is that instead of trying to think about balance in terms of your work and your life as separate - because they are not - think about the four parts of your life that you bring with you wherever you go, whether it’s your work or it’s your home. Ask yourself, “Are those four things in balance?" Those four things are caring for your body, your heart, your spiritual needs and your mind. For me, if I’m out of balance, it is usually because I didn’t take enough care of my body, express enough love or I have too much on my mind or I need to go learn more or I didn’t take enough time to go spend some time in nature.
Q: Longevity in the hospitality industry is more desired now vs 10 - 15 years ago. Your organization has pioneered in larger scale initiatives, including paid parental leave, to support work-life balance and longevity in the industry. For smaller businesses who are trying to take steps to also support industry evolution, what can they do to start building the foundation in their organizations?
A: Just looking out at my office right now, I can see three people who have already benefited from our Parental Leave Policy. I’m sure they could go join another company tomorrow, but I bet they won’t if that company doesn’t have this kind of plan. It's the opportunity to know that you can really have it all — you can have a career that you’re really proud of and you can start a family, or continue a family, knowing that your employer values you so much that they are willing to pay you for many, many weeks while you’re doing that — whether you’re the mom or the dad or the partner.
Even for smaller businesses trying to take those steps, it is not how big you are, because we process just as much money to pay someone who’s not here as in a smaller business and our restaurants still have to pay for that. It’s really a matter of what you value. You have to believe in your gut that this is a good investment in a good person whose loyalty and excellence will be repaid to the company.
Q: If you had a chance to tell a younger version of yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
A: Chill out — as long as you’ve truly tried your best. No matter how many mistakes you’ve made, there’s always a tomorrow. As long as you made that mistake in a way that didn’t hurt someone else or lack integrity, there’s always a tomorrow. The road to success is paved with mistakes well-handled. Don’t spend so much time getting down on the mistakes, but learn from them, teach from them, embrace them and find a way to recover from them.
About Danny Meyer
Danny Meyer is the CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group and the founder of Shake Shack. Union Square Hospitality Group comprises some of New York’s most beloved restaurants, including Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, The Modern, and more. Danny, his restaurants and chefs have earned an unprecedented 28 James Beard Awards, and Danny’s recent personal achievements include the Julia Child Award (2017) and his inclusion on the TIME 100 list of the Most Influential People in the World (2015). Danny’s first business book, Setting the Table (HarperCollins, 2006), a New York Times bestseller, examines the power of hospitality in restaurants, business and life. An active national leader in the fight against hunger, Danny serves on the board of Share Our Strength and has long supported hunger relief initiatives including City Harvest and God’s Love We Deliver.