Today, I saw an interview on CNBC with Union Square Hospitality Group CEO, Danny Meyer. I’ve long been a fan. A few years ago, I read his book, Setting the Table, and greatly appreciated learning about his dream of opening a restaurant, how he got started, the process behind opening each new concept, and how his teams use data/CRM to improve the customer experience. His experiences on opening restaurants at the Museum of Modern Art in New York were so instructive that I passed on a copy of the book to Gillian Thomas, the former CEO of the Frost Museum of Science here in Miami, as they were in the construction phase of the building.
As a restaurant patron, I’ve had the good fortune to dine at Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Café in New York City and have special memories at two of his other restaurant concepts. Here in Miami, we played Ping-Pong at the Shake Shack on Dixie Highway in everyone’s fancy clothes after Tommy’s middle school graduation last May. And, in May of 2014, I traveled to New York City to facilitate a focus group of interior designers for my friends who had launched an online antiques business. We wanted to understand what designers were looking for in the online market—what price points would work, which merchandise would move. Our gathering, at Danny Meyer’s Maialino, was arranged by interior design public relations maven, Cristina Juarez, and included such luminaries as Tom Filicia (from the original Queer Eye for the Straight Guy) and Gary McBournie.
I walked in Maialino that night with my binder, talking points and exercises arranged, nervous as hell. I was considering leaving my job at United Way of Miami-Dade to launch my own consultancy, and this was my first engagement. I headed straight for the bar and ordered a glass of Cabernet. I had the good fortune to sit down next to someone who was open to conversation and we covered raising teenagers, limiting screen time, and the perils of social media. We chatted about the importance of living as much life as possible off line. (FYI, this struggle with teenagers continues.) And, surprisingly, we talked women’s fashion—I happened to sit down for my nerves-calming glass of wine right next to the President of Diane Von Furstenberg retail. So, we covered my Black Halo dress, my YSL shoes, and the wonders of the wrap dress. Such good luck!
Back to Danny Meyer’s CNBC interview…
According to Danny, the restaurant industry in NYC employs 600,000 people. Beyond the employment, he talked about how restaurants help us create a connection to each other and how the root of the word “hospitality” is hope. He shared that his team cannot wait to start cooking for people and welcoming people to restaurants. He fervently believes that people being with people is the definition of hope.
Owing to the coronavirus shutdowns and social distancing, The Union Square Hospitality Group has laid off 2,000 people this week. Meyer asserts that this will help them “live to fight another day”. Danny is forgoing his salary and all USHG execs took massive pay cut. They are paying for health insurance for all of the laid off employees through April. Luckily, most USHG serving staff and restaurant employees are salaried; five years ago Meyer made the decision to eliminate tipping in his restaurants and pay his staff higher hourly rates or salaries. Now those employees can bring their W-2 earnings statements to unemployment offices to demonstrate their level of income, which will help them draw higher unemployment dollars. He feels (and I agree) that this validates his decision to eliminate tipping, which was highly criticized within the restaurant sector.
At the moment, Meyer is bringing together restaurateurs to help advocate for the industry, so that they can enhance the federal government’s understanding about the role the restaurant industry plays in the overall economy. Given how disaggregated the industry is, independent restaurateurs do not speak with one voice. Meyer does not want their industry’s voice to get lost when the government is planning their response. The industry needs help from Federal Government to freeze obligations like mortgages and taxes and assist the workforce with food and housing costs. He shared that at the moment, “No landlords or utility companies are offering abatements—this is a wartime effort right now”.
USHG is down to 150 employees who have been tasked with building “a bridge to the day when the sun is shining again and we have the green light to cook for people again.” Meyer shares that he is, “Looking for ways to bring hope to our society”, while his remaining team is getting very entrepreneurial. “We have kitchens, we have really, really good chefs. We have really good wine directors. Those are assets. We love cooking great food and bringing people together. It’s crazy that the things we love doing are the things we can’t do.” He sees acceleration in the quick services and delivery trends and is considering a broadcast network to share cooking lessons.
I cannot wait until Meyer and his teams can start cooking for all of us again. We will all be better off when we can share special celebrations with them and they can serve us with their special brand of hospitality.