N.Y. restaurateur puts hospitality to work

With 21 years in the restaurant business under his belt — running establishments from a burger stand to a barbecue joint to two Michelin-rated eateries — Jewish New York restaurateur Danny Meyer says the secret to his success is not simply the quality of food or even the service, but the quality of hospitality.

“Enlightened hospitality,” the theme of his new book, “Setting the Table,” involves being a good host, hiring first-rate staff and listening intently to customers. It also involves keeping track of not just names, food and table preferences, but who likes to be left alone and who might like an introduction to a customer at a nearby table.

“One size fits one,” he writes.

“Long after people forget how delicious the chicken was, they will remember how you made them feel,” he said in a phone interview from New York, where he operates nine restaurants and a catering company under the rubric of the Union Square Hospitality Group.

“Enlightened hospitality [means] understanding that excellence — whether it’s the roast chicken or the quality of the service — only gets you 49 percent of the way toward the finish. The next 51 percent is how well you make people feel.”

Meyer made several appearances in San Francisco on Oct. 16 and 17, including an event at the Commonwealth Club and a Cooks with Books luncheon.

His autobiographical book, subtitled “The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business,” is also a case study on how to provide that additional 51 percent.

“There is a lot of great food in our country. That only gets us so far,” said Meyer, who co-owns New York’s Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern, Eleven Madison Park, and operates the restaurant and cafes in the Museum of Modern Art. “People want to feel great while eating that food. They want to feel that we’re on their side.”

Among his approaches is to treat solo diners as royalty, he writes, noting that too often restaurants treat them like pariahs.

Interestingly, Meyer puts the customer in second place. He reserves the first-place position for his staff, treating employees with the respect usually reserved for volunteers while providing them with training and growth opportunities. In third place comes the community — and Meyer has done much to revive the neighborhoods surrounding New York’s Union Square and has put money into restoring Madison Square Park. (Suppliers and investors come fourth and fifth.)

Meyer says his formula ensures that everybody wins. Since he got into the business in 1985 at age 27, he has never closed a restaurant. Those are pretty favorable odds, considering that about 60 percent of new restaurants close within three years, according to a recent Ohio State University study.

Meyer credits much of his style and his business ethics to the influence of his family. Growing up in an assimilated Jewish family in St. Louis, he enjoyed frequent trips to Europe, thanks to his father, who operated a travel business, among other enterprises, not all of them successful. The family also enjoyed good food and wine, from European to African American. Among those to whom he dedicates his book is Mary Smith, the family’s longtime housekeeper, whose fried chicken, macaroni and cheese and sweet potato pie inspired the menu of his New York barbecue restaurant, Blue Smoke.

While his father co-founded the Reform Temple Emanuel in St. Louis and was on the board of Hebrew Union College, Meyer admits that being Reform in St. Louis was more than unorthodox: “We met on Sundays, not Saturdays, and bar mitzvahs were not performed.”

But, he said, “I certainly did learn quite a bit about the ethics of being a Jew and spent a lot of time with Jewish cooking.” Later he put those disciplines, cooking and ethics, to work in his business — “though we’ve never sold tsimmes as a side dish.”

However, he said he got himself “in hot water” with another Jewish-inspired dish. “My grandmother Louise Meyer used to serve these absolutely delicious matzah balls with prime ribs, as a side dish.” Experimenting with matzah meal, which he calls “a wonderful kitchen staple,” the Union Square Café created matzah meal polenta. He printed the recipe, which called for both chicken stock and dairy, in the cafe’s newsletter

“I received 40 to 45 angry letters saying how dare you, what kind of Jew are you anyway? I answered every single one of those letters and tried to make it clear that this was not a recommendation for Passover but a celebration of an ingredient,” he said.

Meyer, who lives in New York with his wife and their four children, did not set out to get into the restaurant business. After graduating from Trinity College in Connecticut, he served as Chicago-area field director for John Anderson’s 1980 independent presidential campaign before venturing into sales. But ultimately, he wanted to return to the kitchen.

“I think certainly in the 1980s, the restaurant business was not viewed as a particularly valid career choice for someone with a college degree,” he said. “While I never had pressure to become a doctor or lawyer, there were not a lot of champions in my family for that kind of career choice. But once I made it, they were supportive.”

With the recent hullabaloo in the Bay Area restaurant world over the Michelin ratings and why such renowned restaurants as Chez Panisse received only one star, Meyer was philosophical. “At least they got one,” he said, noting that last year Union Square Café received a Michelin listing, but no stars, and Gramercy Tavern got a single star. “But I don’t feel discredited.”

“Setting the Table” is about Meyer’s life and career, but it is also designed as a business book. “The fact that my business happens to be the restaurant business,” he said, “is almost beside the point.”

“Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business” by Danny Meyer (320 pages, HarperCollins, $25.95).

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].