Chef Jean-Paul Bourgeois will be starting brunch at the Southern-inspired barbecue spot February 7 and 8
Southern brunch? Expect lots of biscuits and Andouille sausage.
Shake Shack isn’t the only uber-successful Danny Meyer eatery. Blue Smoke, the Louisiana Southern barbecue joint in Battery Park City, New York, just got a star from The New York Times, and now the restaurant has announced that it will be starting a weekend brunch.
With acclaimed chef Jean-Paul Bourgeois at the helm, Blue Smoke will be doling out authentic Southern and Creole brunch favorites like a biscuit and fried egg sandwich with Andouille maple sausage, baked eggs Sardou, and a brisket burnt-ends sandwich topped with scrambled eggs and white lily waffles. The menu will also feature pastries like scones, beignets, muffins, and biscuits prepared by new pastry chef Emily Isaac, formerly of Union Square Café.
Here are some more of the most intriguing dishes on the menu: bananas foster oatmeal, Delta Scramble (scrambled eggs mingled with Louisiana crawfish, Andouille sausage, and Benne seed crackers), and the Blue Smoke take on a breakfast burrito and the famous Blue Smoke burger, as well as a selection of meats from the pit (available after noon). You’ll also be able to order a Corpse Reviver, or one of the daily juice concoctions made from fresh fruit juices, collard greens, and seltzer.
From Info Technician to Barbecue Magician
How Pete Daversa dropped his day job to purse his finger-lickin' fantasy.
May 22, 2009 -- By Pete Daversa's telling, the road to becoming a grandmaster of barbecue was unusually long. It started before he left a career in information technology to enroll in cooking school. It began even earlier than his first childhood experiences in the kitchen, peeling potatoes for family Thanksgiving feasts under his mother's watchful eye.
As Daversa tells it, it started before he was born, in the early chapters of human history itself, on hunting grounds where pre-civilized man cooked meat on spits over open flame.
"I think it's primeval," Daversa said in a recent interview at Hill Country Barbecue Market in New York City, where he reigns as pitmaster and chef de cuisine. "I mean, it's like you are dealing with raw hunks of meat and it's, I don't know what it is, I really think it's in my DNA to really feel like just handling the meat. And like it almost brings me back to a primitive state, where I'm out in the fields and I'm like killing the game and bringing it back to the house. I think that's really what it is. I can't explain it. I'm just drawn to it."
Watch the full story tonight on "Nightline" at 11:35 p.m. ET.
For barbecue recipes courtesy of Pete Daversa, click HERE
Barbecue Magician: Meat and Heat
By responding to the age-old call of barbecue, Daversa has climbed into a job that untold ranks of weekend grill-out warriors would give a rib to snag. After graduating from the Culinary Arts program at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York, Daversa hooked up with Danny Meyer's Blue Smoke, one of the crop of restaurants that drove the city's barbecue renaissance in the early 2000s. Two years later, in June 2007, he joined the newly opened Hill Country, where he was quickly promoted to the top of the kitchen.
Daversa's relatively quick transformation from tech guy to top chef was made possible by years of informal training. In his early days as a backyard cook, before the Internet made an infinite trove of recipes universally available, Daversa discovered new flavor combinations through the time-honored technique of trial and error. He cooked for family and friends whenever he could. He cooked on vacation. He cooked anywhere there was meat and heat.
The Art of the Restaurateur Nicholas Lander owned L'Escargot in London in the 1980's. He is a renowned food columnist for the Financial Times.
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Until 30 years ago, restaurateurs were considered the most important figures in any restaurant’s success, with chefs consigned to the kitchen. This process began to change with the elevation of chef-patron Paul Bocuse in the late 1970s, and has continued with the rise of the celebrity chef.
Restaurateurs are hugely important but rarely written about and significantly under-appreciated. The profession, other than its commercial and social aspects, has a fundamental human appeal: restaurateurs derive their name and profession from the French verb restaurer when their role was to restore the health of travellers battered by the potholes of French roads in the early 19th century.
The role has changed a lot since then, and continues to evolve in fascinating ways. Despite the interest and increased professionalism of many restaurateurs, however, the restaurant business is still one of the most financially risky.
In the UK only the construction industry sees more liquidations. Brands and chains have also made life difficult for the independent restaurateur. But these individuals all have an extraordinary story to tell, stories that will appeal to those disenchanted with a corporate world, give inspiration for the next generation of would-be restaurateurs, and provide a compelling read for anyone interested in the modern restaurant.
Learn how Alan Yau lost control of Wagamama in a family feud and how Danny Meyer, with two hugely successful restaurants behind him (Union Square Café and Gramercy Tavern) opened Blue Smoke, a barbecue restaurant, without appreciating that all New Yorkers consider themselves barbecue experts, so they all thought he was doing everything wrong. Behind each of these successes is an equally dramatic story of something that went very badly wrong. When they got the tricky recipe right, they succeeded in creating some of the world’s landmark restaurants.
Covering subjects as diverse as finding the right location and the importance of getting the design right to choosing the best chef and deciding what food to serve to managing staff and dealing with difficult customers, every story is fascinating, different, and has something to tell about the creation of a successful restaurant. Specifications:
- Format: Hardback
- Size: 245 x 172 mm (9 5/8 x 6 3/4 in)
- Pages: 352 pp
- ISBN: 9780714864693
"Nicholas Lander is such a fluent writer in this fascinating book, The Art of the Restaurateur. His system of completing each profile with a salient restaurant point applicable to all is brilliant."—Danny Meyer
"Nobu wasn't built in a day. In Nicholas Lander's gorgeous illustrated book. Drew Nieporent and 19 other proprietors reveal what it takes (pluck, creativity, Clintonian people skills) to run a top dining establishment. A must-read for restaurant lovers."—Details
". Serves as an excellent primer to the world of running a restaurant. In a world where chefs get all the attention, it's nice to see the incredibly difficult work of restaurateur get its due."—Eater National
"In an age of celebrity chefs, this book turns its eye on the unsung heroes of the restaurant industry. In retelling stories of the rise of our era's most famous restaurants and the owners behind them, the book studies successes and failures of each, as well as their decisions behind such as aspects as location, design, menus, and more."—La Cucina Italiana
"Most [Restaurant Hospitality] readers who read this one will likely deliver the same verdict: Finally, a book about us!"—Restaurant Hospitality
"If you've ever wondered what goes into running a single stalwart or growing empire, now's your chance to learn."—The Wall Street Journal
". The book also offers food for thought on the restaurateur's art. Lander does not resort to the waspish prose that makes some other restaurant critics fun to read. But in these splendid establishments perhaps there was simply nothing to sneer at."—The Economist
"So many people fantasize about starting their own restaurant and few have the slightest idea of what it takes. Meet 20 of the greats including Danny Meter and Joe Bastianich to learn the elements that make for an establishment's success and staying power. (Love the illustrations, too!)"—GOOP
". Lander offers a globe-trotting tour of gastronomic proportions. The culinary writing is restrained. Without a hint of snobbery, and an absence of interest in all things trendy. Look for valuable lessons and sound advice."—Macleans
What restaurants do you visit when you’re in St. Louis? St. Louis icons like Steak ’n Shake, Ted Drewes, maybe Crown Candy Kitchen—the kinds of things I can only get in St. Louis. I would go somewhere on the Hill and eat a salad with Provel cheese and some toasted ravioli—and then I might eat some barbecued pig snoots.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF UNION SQUARE HOSPITALITY GROUP
Danny Meyer has always loved food, but when he left his Ladue home in the mid-1970s for Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., he planned to pursue a career in politics. A quarter-century later, Meyer runs some of the best restaurants in New York, including Union Square Café and Gramercy Tavern, named by Zagat the most popular restaurants of 2004 and 2005, respectively. His two most recent endeavors prove his culinary range: This year he opened The Modern, bringing fine dining to the Museum of Modern Art, and last year he debuted the Shake Shack, a kiosk selling burgers, frozen custard and hot dogs in Madison Square Park. Now a New Yorker through and through—he lives there with his wife and four children—Meyer nevertheless feels deeply connected to his hometown.
How did your calling to the public life morph into a career in restaurants? After graduation, I went to Chicago, dabbled in TV, then got a job with John Anderson’s presidential campaign. After the campaign, I moved to New York. That’s where I really wanted to be. I loved the restaurants, theater, horseracing, jazz. I got myself a job selling electronic tags to stop shoplifters. I would plan all my sales calls around where I would want to have lunch. In late 1983, I finally decided to get serious and do what I’d gone to school for. The way to get into politics was to get a law degree, but on the eve of taking my LSAT, I freaked out. I was talking to one of my uncles, and I said, “I don’t want to be a lawyer.” He said, “All I’ve heard you talk about your whole life is food and restaurants, so why don’t you get into restaurants?”
How did you go about switching gears? The first thing I did was take a class in restaurant management at the New York Restaurant School with a college roommate. About two weeks into it, his dad caught wind of it and made him drop out and go to business school—restaurant school was not what he was to have done with a liberal arts degree. He felt so guilty for leaving me in the lurch that he connected me with a $250-a-week job as an assistant manager. I said to myself, “I need to get this out of my system I’m either going to love it or I’m going to hate it, but I can’t wonder about it.”
Did you intend to stay in restaurant management? The fantasy was that I would be a chef, so I went off to cook in Italy and France. I had a great experience and learned a lot, but I also learned that I was more of a generalist. I love food, and to this day I’m very involved with the food in my restaurants, but I’ve surrounded myself with chefs who can cook circles around me.
And how have New Yorkers reacted? Oh my God, it’s packed. We’re open from 11 a.m. to 11 at night, and the line never stops. We had no idea how it would captivate the New York public. Blue Smoke, the barbecue restaurant, was also infused with a lot of things I love about St. Louis—we had homemade toasted ravioli when we first opened, and to this day our most popular ribs are the St. Louis spare ribs.
Anything new on the horizon? There are two things we’re working on right now. One is to establish a catering company, which will be called Hudson Yards Catering. It will be located in a new area called Hudson Yards, where there are a lot of old railyards. If New York had won the Olympic bid, a lot of the development would have happened there. I’ve always enjoyed trying to locate businesses in what I consider to be emerging neighborhoods, then naming the restaurant after the neighborhood and trying to play a role in that community.
The other project nearing the finish line is a business book I’m writing, a peek behind the scenes in the restaurant world that will be applicable to a lot of different businesses.
Have you ever considered bringing your restaurant expertise back home? No, I really haven’t. The Modern represented the first time I’d ever even opened a restaurant outside my own neighborhood. Oddly, there was something in the Post-Dispatch about how I was going to be working with Busch’s Grove. The man who is doing the project, Lester Miller, FedExed me the article and said, “I know we’ve never talked, but I thought I could get your attention by putting this in Jerry Berger’s column.” I connected him with a top restaurant-designing company called David Rockwell in New York.
How have your St. Louis roots colored your New York endeavors? The thing I learned growing up in St. Louis—going to Schneithorst’s, Dominic’s, Giovanni’s, Busch’s Grove—was the power of hospitality, the enormously warm feelings of loyalty that come from feeling welcome and being recognized and having the sense that the restaurant is happy to see you. When I came to New York in 1980, that didn’t exist. It was the velvet-rope era—how many people can you keep out to make more people want to come. Which never made sense to me. One of things we’ve done, with Union Square Café first and then all of our restaurants, is to bring that sense of welcome to New York.
So that’s your recipe for success? Yes. Hospitality is king. The trend that is never going to go out of style is that when people go to a restaurant, they go there to be restored. It’s not just how a restaurant nourishes people but how it nurtures people. The emotional experience is everything.
DANNY MEYER: I had spent three or four years selling electronic tags to stop shoplifters, which was basically my ticket to living in New York, and it turned out I was a really good salesman. I was completely ignorant to my own burning passion.
REID HOFFMAN: That’s Danny Meyer, recounting his former life as a crime-fighter of sorts in the rough-and-tumble of early 80s Gotham. And like many troubled heroes, he was haunted by his past, and uncertain of his future.
MEYER: I decided I should opt towards getting a law degree.
HOFFMAN: After months of grueling study, he was finally ready to sit the test that would set him on course for a comfortable life in law.
MEYER: The night before I took my LSATs, I had dinner with my aunt and uncle and my grandmother, at an Italian restaurant here in New York City. I was in a foul mood and my uncle turned to me and he said, “What the hell’s eating you anyway?”
And I said, “Well, I gotta take my LSATs tomorrow.”
He said, “Well, duh, you want to be a lawyer, of course you’re gonna take your LSATs.”
And I said something really stupid to him at that point, which changed my entire life, which was, “I don’t really want to be a lawyer.”
He got furious with me. He said, “Do you not realize that you’re going to be dead forever?”
And I said, “What do you mean?”
He said, “Do you not realize that relative to how long you’re gonna be dead, you’re gonna be alive for about a minute? Why in the world would you do something that you don’t want to do?”
And I said, “Well, I don’t know what else I would do.”
He said, “You gotta be kidding me. All I’ve ever heard you talk about is restaurants your whole life.”
I actually said at that point, “Well, should I go eat in restaurants for the rest of my life?”
And he says, “No, you fool, you should open a restaurant.” And it just… it’s not something that people were doing in the 1980s. You just didn’t do it.
HOFFMAN: “You just didn’t do it.” That phrase is the precursor of many a great entrepreneurial story. Because many founders have to go up against the kind of received wisdom that says: “You just don’t do certain things.”
And, if they’re lucky, that weary-sounding “You just didn’t do it” becomes a vibrant “I’ve got to go do it.”
Received wisdom can take many forms. It can be cultural. It can be industrial. It can be familial. And it can be personal. Deeply personal.
I believe you must cast off received wisdom in order to revolutionize an industry.
HOFFMAN: I’m Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, investor at Greylock, and your host. My voice is noticeably sore after a week of promoting my new book, Blitzscaling. But Danny’s story is so compelling, I wanted to get it to you as soon as possible. Hopefully, the delight of Danny will shine through the gravel of my voice. Here we go: I believe you have to cast off received wisdom – be it personal, professional or cultural – in order to revolutionize an industry.
But first, a word in favor of received wisdom. It’s powerful. It’s evolutionary. It helps us avoid the mistakes of our ancestors. But, like any set of rigid directives, received wisdom can blind us to new possibilities.
I wanted to speak with Danny Meyer about this, because his success is a direct result of his willingness to go against received wisdom, from his first innovative restaurants, Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern in New York, to the dramatic scale story of Shake Shack.
The first thing you have to know about Danny is that his real product isn’t food. It’s how his restaurants make you feel. And this is what he has scaled.
It’s somewhat ironic that Danny, who reads the feelings of his customers and employees so closely, didn’t consider pursuing his own passion.
MEYER: I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, which is not necessarily famous for amazing food. But I was getting this education in food because of my parents.
HOFFMAN: Danny’s parents had spent two years in France, when his Dad was in the army.
MEYER: They were there during a time when there were just no conflicts, apparently, because they spent all of their time driving to family-owned restaurants in the countryside of France.
HOFFMAN: When they returned to the U.S., Danny’s father started a travel agency.
MEYER: His specialty was designing driving trips throughout the French countryside, stopping at these little inns.
HOFFMAN: And French culture stuck with them.
MEYER: Every single night, we had a bottle of Beaujolais on the table and French was spoken, primarily so that my brother and sister and I wouldn’t understand what my parents were talking about, and our little dog Ratatouille was, you know, waiting for table scraps. But I was getting this education in food that never in a million years did I expect would become a career.
HOFFMAN: You might be able to predict where this story will end. But when it starts, Danny was still following received wisdom. He followed it to Washington D.C. where he worked briefly in politics, and to New York where he sold those security tags. But then, there was that fateful dinner with his uncle.
MEYER: Two days after our dinner, I applied to the New York restaurant school. I convinced one of my best friends from college to join me. I said, “You be the money guy. I’ll be the food guy.” He didn’t tell his parents about it, which was a big mistake because when they learned after two classes, they made him drop out. They said, “No son of ours is going to go into that nasty business.”
HOFFMAN: There it is: the received wisdom from parents everywhere at the time. The “nasty” restaurant business was no place for someone of good social standing. But Danny was determined to keep going. He landed his first restaurant job as an assistant lunch manager.
MEYER: I said to myself, “You just gotta get this out of your system.” But getting it out of my system kind of put it into my system even more.
HOFFMAN: He did internships in both Italy and France, and returned to New York, ready to start a restaurant.
HOFFMAN: And did you already know what you wanted with Union Square Cafe? Did you have like, “Here is how I’m going to create something unique or different and this is the kind of thing I’m going to do. This is this is how I think I’m going to succeed”?
MEYER: I had been eating in restaurants with gusto for my entire life. I guess I knew a lot more about food than I knew I knew about food. But I knew how I wanted to be treated and that was the big deal.
HOFFMAN: Danny’s vast experience eating out led him to believe that one thing ranked above all else in restaurants. While received wisdom said the food was the star attraction, Danny knew better.
MEYER: I knew how it felt to not be treated well in a restaurant and I was picking up lessons about what not to do as much as what to do. Union Square Cafe became my… It was kind of like a big grab bag of all the design elements, food elements, wine elements, value elements, and above all hospitality elements that I wanted in my favorite restaurant.
HOFFMAN: Danny made feeling – not food – his guiding principle. Other restaurants may focus on the menu, the ingredients, the wine list or the ambience. Danny knew these things were important. But he also believed food and wine were nothing compared to how the experience made his customers feel.
This belief in how to treat people guided all his decisions in the crazy early days. And the way Danny recounts them, they really do sound crazy. Farcical, in fact.
MEYER: I didn’t know anything except how to treat people. And the first bookkeeper I hired didn’t know how to balance his own checkbook. And the first waiter I hired, I found him trying to open a bottle of champagne on opening night with a corkscrew. That is a dangerous thing to do.
HOFFMAN: Danny’s empathy for his diners made up for his failings.
MEYER: We couldn’t get drinks from the bar. We couldn’t get food out of the kitchen, but damnit. We…You know what it was? I had this ability from the beginning to figure out how people were feeling and to figure out what it was going to take, whether it was going to be via food or alcohol or caffeine or remembering their favorite table, whatever it was going to take, I had a desire and an ability to figure out how to make sure people would leave a little happier than however they came. And that became really the bulwark for for the restaurant.
HOFFMAN: Despite those early mishaps, Union Square Cafe became one of New York’s most beloved and innovative dining spots. But for the next decade, Danny famously resisted opening any more locations. Why? His deep-seated belief that scaling would end in calamity. This received wisdom came from a dark episode in his family history.
HOFFMAN: As I understand it, you had kind of promised to yourself you would only ever have one restaurant. Why did you make yourself that promise? And then how did you eventually decide it was time to change that?
MEYER: My experience of watching my dad on two different occasions, go through business bankruptcies, was deeply, deeply etched in my psyche. An incredibly painful thing to see your best friend, your hero, which my dad was both to me, suffer, totally suffer, and see our family suffer emotionally through two different bankruptcies.
And I made the assumption that doing anything for a second time or doing a second thing for the first time or doing anything that looked like growth beyond one business would obviously lead me down the path of bankruptcy.
HOFFMAN: When his father passed away in 1990, Danny lost the person who had ignited his lifelong passion for food. But Danny also began to lose something else: the fear that scaling his business would result in ruin. This kind of deeply personal received wisdom is the hardest kind to overturn. When you do finally break out of it, it can feel like a revelation.
MEYER: It took experiencing my dad’s early passing away at the age of 59 from cancer, to deal with that and to learn more about myself, and to really come to grips with the fact that I’m not my dad. And that there’d been a whole lot of businesses in history that expanded without necessarily going bankrupt and, and really trying to figure out what had led him down that path and it wasn’t expansion. It was a failure to surround himself with a lot of people who knew how to do things he didn’t know how to do. He had a need to be the smartest guy in the room, which I don’t.
HOFFMAN: Surround yourself with people who are better than you. It’s a key trait that I see in all the best leaders. You have to let go of any fear that a smart team will outshine you. In fact, brilliant coworkers raise the game for everyone. It worked for Danny. He began to unpack his received wisdom around scaling a business. And when he got the opportunity to hire an up-and-coming chef named Tom Colicchio, he took it. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Tom is now the head judge on the TV show Top Chef. Together, Danny and Tom worked on a new idea that would again go against prevailing wisdom.
MEYER: I came up with this notion: Wouldn’t it be cool to create a restaurant that would almost be the product if a really refined and yet very friendly three-star restaurant had a baby with Union Square Cafe? And you would end up with a a rustic, accessible version of a fancy restaurant or a fancy-ish version of a neighborhood restaurant. And that became Gramercy Tavern.
HOFFMAN: Danny had overcome his fears. He was opening a second restaurant. And he was running with a bold new idea that would bridge the gulf between upscale dining and neighborhood eats.
Another person who made his reputation by casting off received wisdom is NBA legend Rick Barry.
Rick is famous for his free throws, the individual shots that players get to take when they’ve been fouled. His record is extraordinary.
RICK BARRY: In my last six years, I shot over 92%. In my last two years, I shot over 94% and only missed ten free throws in one season and nine free throws in another and take great pride it it because it’s the only part of the game that you could be selfish and help your team.
HOFFMAN: To put those figures in context, the average NBA player makes around 75% of their free throws. A rate of 80% is considered excellent.
But it wasn’t just Rick’s ability that stands out. It’s the way he shoots. He actually throws the ball underhand, holding it with two hands and hurling it from below his waist. His father had taught him that way, but it had fallen out of favor by the time Rick started playing.
BARRY: I’m shooting my free throws and I hear a guy from the stands yelling, “Hey, Barry. You big [bleep], shooting like that.” And I heard as clear as a bell, the guy next to him says, “What are you making fun of him for? He doesn’t miss.” And I was cool from that point on.
HOFFMAN: It’s not just the results that back it up. Scientifically, the underhand throw should, all things being even, be more accurate.
BARRY: There has been a lot of research done with regard to the underhanded free throw. Physicists have done that, and it’s proven that it is the most efficient way to do it. There are less moving parts. It’s a softer shot. And yet, people are reluctant to try to do it.
HOFFMAN: So why are players so reluctant to give underhand a go?
BARRY: I think because people refer to it as a “granny shot”, because in the old days, as they say, girls shot that way. But girls don’t shoot that way anymore. I was teased a lot about it, but as my father said, and I can remember the words so vividly as if he were here, still, with me today, saying, “Son, they can’t make fun of you if you’re making them.”
I think the most important thing is, in life is that you have to be comfortable with yourself and what it is that you’re doing. And if you know that you’re doing something that is out of the norm, that people look strangely at, but it’s success for you and it works, and as long as it’s not illegal, then, keep doing it. Don’t worry about what other people think.
HOFFMAN: For Danny, the worry wasn’t what other people may think. His demons were of his own making. A Broadway star can overcome stage fright by striding purposefully onto the stage and launching into their first number. Likewise, Danny flung wide the doors of Gramercy Tavern, his new venture with Tom. Danny strode out onto the stage, puffed out his chest and prepared to belt out his opening song. It was a watershed. It was a brave new beginning.
MEYER: It was horrible. It was absolutely horrible because I was still trying to come to grips with some of my father’s demons.
HOFFMAN: In agreeing to launch a second restaurant, Danny had made a deal with himself.
MEYER: “I’ll open a second restaurant if it can satisfy these three things: it’s even better than the first, the first one gets better in the process, and I’ll actually have a more balanced life in the process of opening this.”
HOFFMAN: Any time you double anything – whether you’re going from one million to two million or just 1 to 2, like Danny did – you’re going to feel growing pains.
MEYER: So I opened Gramercy Tavern and the very first year that it opened, we got horrible reviews. Union Square Cafe, for the first time ever, dropped in the Zagat survey, and my life was a mess. So I was 0 for three. I wasn’t even one for three, I was 0 for three. And it was bad. It was really really hard. I didn’t know how to be in two places at once.
HOFFMAN: Not only was the new Gramercy Tavern struggling, but Danny’s first restaurant started to slip. Union Square Cafe had been riding high on the Zagat restaurant review survey for a decade. But now, with Danny torn between two locations, its crown started to slip.
Were Danny’s deep-seated fears about scaling not so irrational after all? We’ll see how the answer lay in a plate of overcooked salmon.
When he opened Gramercy Tavern, Danny had gone against his own, personal received wisdom. This was his fear that if he scaled his restaurant business, it would all come crashing down. And now, it looked like those fears had been justified. Danny was hit by two clear signs in one day.
The first came from his bookkeeper, but it wasn’t to do with the finances.
MEYER: On his desk I noticed two sets of keys and one of them had a yellow smiley face, like you used to see in the 70s, and one had a yellow frowning face. I said, “What’s that?”
He said, “Well, I think you know.”
I said “No, what are you talking about?”
He said, “Well the smiley face is Union Square Cafe and the frowning face is Gramercy Tavern.”
I said, “Why?” And he said, “Because Gramercy Tavern doesn’t feel like one of your restaurants.”
HOFFMAN: There it is again. The emphasis on feelings. If you’re a left-brained sort of person – and I know a lot of you are – you might immediately find this approach squishy and suspect. But feelings matter. Every product and every business has to fulfill both functional and emotional roles for customers. By the way, Clayton Christensen wrote a great piece about this with Scott Cook. We’ll link to it from this episode page on MastersofScale.com.
Danny knew the same was true in the restaurant business. Of course the facts are important: Is the food tasty? Is it served promptly? But none of that matters if the experience feels bad. In that case, even the most delicious meal will leave your customer with a bad taste in their mouth. But Danny’s new restaurant had lost sight of that. It took one of his customers to tell him directly.
MEYER: She said, “Why doesn’t this restaurant feel like Union Square Cafe?”
And I said, “What do you mean?”
And she said, “You know, I was entertaining this group of people at lunch today and something happened that never would have happened at Union Square Cafe.”
And she said, “First of all, my salmon was overcooked.” And she said, “I mean, that’s happened at Union Square Cafe, but what happened next would never happen.”
And she said, “Well, first of all, no one noticed. At Union Square Cafe, they would have noticed, they would have come up and they would have discreetly asked me if I’d like to have it recooked, but no one noticed and I wasn’t gonna say anything because I’m trying to entertain other people. But there it sat and I took a couple bites because I had to eat something even though I didn’t like it. And at the end of the meal your manager came up to me and and said, ‘The rest of your salmon, would you like me to put it in the coat check room so you can take it home?’ And I was like, ‘What are you, kidding me?’
He then leaves it on the bill. At Union Square Cafe, they would have taken it off the bill, they would have brought me something else with your compliments, what’s going on here?”
So all in one day I said to myself, “This sucks.”
And that was the day that I finally, in addition to relieving that particular manager of his job, came up with a name for what really really mattered to me and I called it “enlightened hospitality.”
HOFFMAN: “Enlightened hospitality.” It’s what Danny had been doing instinctively for years. And it was possible to scale. It just needed the crystallization that comes from the simple act of naming. Danny could now express it to his staff in words as well as deeds.
MEYER: We had an all-staff meeting at Gramercy Tavern and I said, “Guys, instead of making you guess what matters to me, I’m going to start to tell you, right now.”
I had never done that before. I just been it, but I hadn’t taught it.
And that low point probably turned into the high point of what has allowed us to scale all kinds of businesses over time, which is: not what do you do but how do you do it? Not what do you serve and how do you set the table, but how do you make choices and what what are the priorities? I never thought about the word culture, you know other than in yogurt, back in those days.
HOFFMAN: Danny realized he needed a scalable way to transmit his almost instinctive feeling for hospitality. But as in meditation, enlightenment could not be reached by writing edicts for others to mindlessly follow. That would merely create more received wisdom and an unthinking, unfeeling team. Rather, the path to enlightened hospitality lay in creating a culture where everyone became as attuned to their guests’ feelings as Danny is.
MEYER: Hospitality, as I define it, is very simple . It all comes down to one preposition: “for.” If you feel like the other guy did something for you, that’s hospitality. If you think about every single transaction you go through in life, you don’t necessarily feel like they did something for you. In fact, sometimes you feel like they did something to you.
And by the way, if you ask for your salmon rare and I bring it to you rare, that’s not hospitality. That’s what you expected. Hospitality might be that I remember and I don’t even have to ask you. And I started developing a language where I could teach this to people.
People expect the food to be great. They expect you to get the right food to the right person at the right temperature at the right table at the right time and get your coat back, and all the stuff that’s expected.
HOFFMAN: How do you go beyond what’s expected? You surprise and delight someone.
MEYER: Service is just the word for the technical delivery of the product. So when you tell me a place has great service, I’ll tell you it works. But to tell people that “hospitality” was a completely different word than “service” was something they hadn’t heard before, that hospitality describes an emotional transaction whereas service describes a technical transaction – and you need them both.
HOFFMAN: I love this distinction. “Hospitality is an emotional transaction. Service is a technical transaction. And you need them both.” It’s a simple idea with radical implications for any industry. If you treat your relationship with your customers as merely technical, a contractual exchange of goods or services, then don’t expect them to stick around for the long-term.
To make it easy for his staff to digest his formula, Danny boiled it down to make it even simpler. Though it might be hard for traditionalists to stomach, as it flies in the face of some of the most revered received wisdom.
MEYER: I took it a step further and said, “I’m going to give you guys the best recipe you’ve ever had in your life. And it only has two ingredients. So it’s really simple. It’s 49 parts performance and 51 parts hospitality. And that’s what you are going to be judged on. That’s how you’re going to get paid. That’s how you’re going to get your bonus. And guess what guys? In this business, the customer is going to come second. And by the way, the customer is not always right because no one’s always right.”
HOFFMAN: That’s right. Danny told his staff to put the customer second. Heresy for some. But for my money, the idea that “the customer is always right” has resulted in more dismay than delight in the long term.
This wasn’t the only lame old sacred cow that Danny brought to the slaughter before the eyes of his shocked staff. He continued, reiterating that, in this restaurant, the staff would come first.
MEYER: “You’re responsible for doing extraordinary, unexpected things for each other and showing off for each other what it’s like to be great at what you do and even greater, 51%, at how you make people feel and I believe that if you do that for each other, our guests are going to be in for a treat when they come in and they’re second. The third stakeholder that gets hospitality is the community in which we do business. And the fourth are the suppliers with whom we do business. And fifth, we’re actually going to put our investors fifth.”
HOFFMAN: You might expect me, as an investor, to take issue with Danny. But he’s actually right.
Danny isn’t saying “investors suck.” Rather, he is saying we can re-evaluate how we treat the relationship between investors, founders, employees, suppliers, and customers in a way that is additive for all.
MEYER: This is not a linear one-through-five list where the investors just at the bottom of the totem pole, but it’s actually a virtuous cycle and if you break the cycle anywhere you break the whole thing.
HOFFMAN: Focus on your team, your customers, on hospitality, on your culture. In doing so, you’re creating a long term virtuous cycle, a compounding loop that will ultimately get your investors bigger long term returns.
There is one huge challenge with this plan that could bring it tumbling down: if you do not invest your core team with the power to surprise and delight through hospitality, if they merely meet expectations through service, then your virtuous cycle will break. I asked Danny about this, because I believe his virtuous cycle and ideas of hospitality are hugely relevant far beyond the restaurant trade.
HOFFMAN: How did you kind of teach the emotional connection, because a phrase I use is: how do you surprise and delight? Right, so like… thinking about something that is not just “Yeah, yeah, that’s what I expect” but “Oh, that’s really great.” What were some of the key elements of that?
MEYER: For me, I think it gets back to servant leadership, which is: how do you find opportunities on a daily basis to take care of the people who are ultimately going to take care of you? And I inculcate it by talking about it till people roll their eyes because they’re so sick of hearing me talk about it.
And I just feel like culture is driven by language. I don’t know any culture in the world that is not glued together by language. Whether it’s your family, your religion, there’s language. And I think that the CEO of a company is the shaman of that culture. And they either have to be more fluent at that language than anybody else or the language is going to go sideways and lose its very special meaning.
HOFFMAN: I like Danny’s image of a CEO as shaman, the living, breathing embodiment of their company’s culture. As CEO, you are the vessel for your company’s received wisdom. But you are not a passive vessel. You keep the received wisdom vital and relevant. You stop it from going sideways, from losing its special meaning. But you also constantly shape it so it evolves along with you, your employees, and your customers.
This approach is what allowed Danny to scale his virtuous cycle to such great effect. But it wasn’t instantaneous.
HOFFMAN: How did you inculcate the way that they would treat each other? Because this is obviously, you know, culture is no longer something you think of as only as yogurt but obviously as something that as part of a scaling organization, which is really key.
But how did you get it so that, “Okay, it’s not just from me, not just from how I’m leading but how from everyone’s treating each other.” What were some of the key parts there?
MEYER: Well, I’ll start by talking about a stumble. Even though I called it a virtuous cycle, I think, people really thought I meant “take care of each other”, which is great. But I think that I failed to say, “…So that you can take even better care of our guests. So that we’ll have even more revenue with which we can do more things for our community and have better suppliers. So that we’ll have more money left over for investors.” I didn’t go through all that stuff at the beginning.
I think the other thing that that I didn’t do a great job of at the beginning was making it really clear that it’s “ Your job to take great care of each other.” I think a number of people, when I said, “We come first”, made the assumption “What can Danny do for us?” and you know, you can take Romulus and Remus but there’s not enough milk to go around for all of Rome, ultimately. You gotta you gotta have the Romans take care of each other.
And so finally I found an even stronger way to describe it, which was, “It’s not my job to take great care of you. It’s your job to take care of each other.”
HOFFMAN: The effect was immediate – not just on restaurant ratings – but in putting to rest Danny’s demons about scale once and for all.
MEYER: Each time we opened a new restaurant, now that I have this sort of secret way of talking about things with our team, it would just zoom right to the top of New Yorkers’ favorite restaurants. I’ll never forget, there was a year where we had four of the top ten of New York’s favorite restaurants, maybe five. This helped me to understand that you can actually scale culture.
HOFFMAN: The ultimate test of Danny’s virtuous cycle of enlightened hospitality would be Shake Shack. But it wasn’t intended to be.
MEYER: Well, the first Shake Shack was kind of a mistake. Probably the best mistake, certainly the most lucrative mistake I’ll ever make in my life. But it was truly to try to prove to myself that hospitality was not a fluke.
HOFFMAN: That lucrative mistake was born out of an eye-catching piece of public art in New York’s Madison Square Park by the artist Navin Rawanchaikul, named “I heart taxi.” It featured a pair of iconic New York cabs on stilts and a working hotdog stand. The park committee asked Danny if he’d be interested in operating that stand. Danny saw it as an opportunity to put his theory of enlightened hospitality to the test.
MEYER: “Can hospitality actually be expressed in something as mundane as a hot dog cart?” We came up with the idea of serving Chicago hot dogs, which I love, but not only do I love them but they have eight classic toppings. And I wanted to test if we could remember: “Susie’s the woman that likes everything except neon relish.” “Reid’s the guy that likes everything except mustard!”
HOFFMAN: I actually haven’t had a hot dog in years. But I plan to get one from Shake Shack the next time I visit New York. If you have a special idea on what I should order, tweet me @MastersofScale.
MEYER: Could we actually express hospitality to our guests and could we do all the things that we have been doing in fancy restaurants before?
HOFFMAN: It was a low-stakes small experiment. But…
MEYER: Lo and behold, 50, 60, 70, 100 people would line up for these damn hot dogs. And you know, they were good but come on. What was what was really going on there?
HOFFMAN: What started as a proof of concept would turn into by far, the biggest exercise in scale of Danny’s life.
MEYER: We added burgers and fries and shakes to the hot dogs. Man, we did that for one year, two years, three years, four years. Finally in the fifth year one of my colleagues Randy Garutti, who’s now the incredible CEO of Shake Shack, said, “We got to do a second one. Let’s go.”
This was the first time we had ever opened anything for a second time. And the thing that convinced me to do this was I was always looking for these crazy licenses to do what my father’s training had taught me not to do: to grow, to scale.
HOFFMAN: Danny had the wind at his back. Shake Shacks began springing up across New York, and soon the rest of the country. But although Danny had a clear idea of the culture he wanted his company to embody, he was worried that the rate of growth would dilute it. He sought the advice of organizational development consultant Erika Anderson.
MEYER: And she said, “I don’t know that culture wants to be maintained. I really look at culture like a shark. It’s moving forward or it dies. It’s changing or it dies. You don’t want to maintain a culture. You always want to be growing it.”
And so she said, “Why don’t you try a different question, which is, how can we use our growth to advance our culture?”
And all of a sudden that was like, that was one of the greatest gifts ever. What she really helped me to see was that the most powerful thing I think a leader does is to signal through the people that they hire and promote what are the behaviors that they want to propagate. If you are super careful about promoting not just the people who are great at what they do, but the people who are great at how they do it, you are sending the most powerful message.
HOFFMAN: But the battle to overcome received wisdom is never fully won. Before we close the episode, there’s one more example that Danny will defy: the so-called “rule of two”.
MEYER: Architects and contractors have this law that I hate, called the rule of two: Quality, speed, and price. Which two do you want? And I think our industry did that as well. You know, in the world of fine dining we basically said, “Ok, if you want it to be that good it’s obviously going to cost a lot of money and it’s going to take more time.”
Fast food had a great answer for that and they said, “You want it fast? You want it cheap? Great, just don’t expect very good meat. It’s not going to be high quality.”
Here’s what’s happened with this mashup that’s happening right now in what I call the “fine casual world”. We’ve challenged it to say, “Well whoever wrote the rule that you only get to two by going one plus one plus zero?” And so what fine casual is doing is saying, “.65 plus .65 plus .70 equals 2. And we’re going to save you 65% of the money. We’re going to save you 65% of the time. And we’re going to give you 70% of the quality. You’re not going to get a waiter or waitress, you’re going to have to pick up your own food and you’re probably gonna have to take your compostable plastic to a special trash, but you’re not going to give up one ounce of what you put in your mouth qualitatively.”
HOFFMAN: Next time you find yourself saying something can’t be done, think about the rule of two. And how this rule, like other pieces of received wisdom, contains truth and non-truth. And how you choose to make use of it is entirely up to you.
Why Every Cook in the Country Wants to Work for Danny Meyer
He has seen a whopping 4,500 percent increase in applicants for chefs since he banned tips.
When New York restaurateur Danny Meyer got rid of tipping at his high-end Manhattan restaurant the Modern two weeks ago, he also increased menu prices by roughly 21 percent, funneling the extra revenue to both his serving staff and cooks. "We're raising our cooks' hourly rate by just $2 an hour, so [now it's] $14-$15," Meyer said Thursday at an event at the Hearst Tower. "Since we announced this at The Modern, [we've had a] 4,500 percent increase in applications from excellent cooks."
Doing away with tipping is, of course, a controversial move. Americans have been trained to reward good service, but Meyer cited the disparity in earnings between his front-of-house and back-of-house staffs as one motivation. The average customer at the Modern, he explained, tips on about 21 percent of his or her bill (including tax), so, although servers only made $2.13 hourly, they were raking it in with massive tips most nights. Meanwhile, those in the kitchen aren't tip-eligible, according to the Fair Labor Standards Act, because they're not spending time interacting with guests, so they were stuck with $9 or so an hour no matter how good their Blanquette of Suckling Pig or Foie Gras Tarts were. "You may say, 'Why don't you pay your cooks more money?'" Meyer said. "If we just raised our cooks' hourly wage and that's all we did, our main prices would have to go up to reflect that, and, once again, the gap would go up because the tipped employees would continue to make 21 percent off the higher menu price. So, push has come to shove."
His decision to ditch gratuity comes as chefs in the nation's most expensive places are struggling to attract talented cooks. Their relatively low wages just aren't enough to make ends meet in cities like New York and San Francisco. "Our industry in New York is in the face of a really serious culinary crisis right now," Meyer said.
"There's been this misperception that the only way we could do this is to take from the waiters' pockets and put it in the cooks' pockets. We're raising our prices to cover the costs and we're raising our prices by 21 percent, more or less," he said, explaining that the hourly wage for his servers went from $2.13 to $9 and that they will now get a percentage of the restaurant's revenue. He also plans to implement an Uber-style system in which patrons can rate their servers. "We don't have this down in the tech sense yet, which we will, but there is a manual opportunity to rate your experience zero to five stars," he said. "We think that we learn a lot more from that, because I don't give five stars to every Uber driver, but I give 20 percent [tips] to every NYC taxi driver."
And while Meyer has said he'd make no tipping the norm at all 13 of his restaurants&mdash a roster that includes Blue Smoke, Gramercy Tavern, and Union Square Cafe&mdashby the end of 2016, he says he wants to be realistic. "If you come to one of our restaurants and you see a bunch of unhappy people shuffling around the dining room because it's not working, you're not going to be happy," Meyer said. "It will work if our team is happier, and if you're happier&mdashand we have to make more money. If we don't make more money, you're not going to see our other restaurants doing it."
Smoke and the City: A Barbecue Cook-Off
THE Big Apple Barbecue Block Party, which returns to Madison Square Park this weekend, is an event that invites comparison from pit to pit and encourages discussion on sauce and smoke: there will be seminars for those who prefer their barbecue musings structured.
The block party also affords New Yorkers a chance to compare their local barbecue with some of the best of what the rest of the country has to offer. And those comparisons lead to all sorts of questions about style, about the culinary and cultural hurdles specific to trying to cook and serve barbecue commercially in the big city. They raise the question of how good it is in New York and how good it's going to get, and force the city's barbecue proprietors to answer.
Fortunately, it is no longer debatable whether the real article is being produced in New York City. It is. There are places that do more than just slather on sauce and call what they're serving barbecue. Accomplished chefs are practicing the culinary alchemy that is real pit barbecue, overseeing tremendous amounts of tough meat as it inches toward tenderness in a haze of smoke.
And the population of real barbecue joints has risen markedly since the turn of the century five short years ago, when the city had next to none. In the last year Righteous Urban Barbecue, Smoked, Bone Lick Park, Spanky's and Dinosaur have joined stalwarts like Virgil's, Blue Smoke, Daisy May's and Pearson's.
Some of these restaurants call themselves practitioners of urban barbecue, an undefined style that while having a ready-for-television name, has a meaning that is at best ambiguous. Explaining the urban barbecue he serves at Blue Smoke, where large white letters over the bar proclaim the phrase, the restaurateur Danny Meyer talks about sauces. "We can't out-Memphis Memphis," he said. "But there's not another place with a selection of beers, wines and bourbons -- what I like to think of as alcoholic barbecue sauces -- like ours anywhere in the country."
Adam Perry Lang at Daisy May's said the opportunity "to be more daring" defines urban barbecue for him. "My style is rooted in authenticity," Mr. Perry Lang said. "But I am a trained chef and, because of my training, I might achieve flavors in a different way, like using sambal instead of vinegary hot sauce to achieve heat."
Oddly enough Paul Kirk, a competition circuit legend and the most recent entrant in the city's barbecue fray, isn't buying into the idea of urban barbecue as a style, regardless of how prominently his Righteous Urban Barbecue trumpets the name. "R.U.B. is a catchy name," he said of his two-month-old restaurant. "But we serve my competition barbecue. That's it."
John Stage, who opened Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, his third outpost, on the fringe of West Harlem last winter, doesn't call his barbecue urban. But his approach is the prevalent one in Manhattan and different from the regional styles of pit masters from Memphis, Kansas City or Texas, who use a limited range of meats or cuts and serve them either with a carefully composed barbecue sauce, or with no sauce at all.
"Out in the country you might just get pork shoulder and one kind of bottled beer," he said. "We've got 23 beers on tap and a lot more barbecue. Maybe that's what urban barbecue means: more barbecue under one roof. More choice."
Choice is good, but a wide-ranging menu is difficult for a chef to master immediately. Mike Mills is sensitive to the culinary challenges his recently arrived colleagues face. He is the patron saint of Blue Smoke (technically, a consultant and a partner, though barbecue seems to build stronger bonds than other foods), and he and his daughter wrote the recently published "Peace, Love & Barbecue" (Rodale).
Mr. Mills made his name in Murphysboro, Ill., where he worked as a dental technician and ran the 17th Street Bar and Grill on the side, serving occasional batches of pulled pork on weekends until its popularity led him to expand his menu and take on barbecue as a full-time vocation 11 years ago.
Even as the leader of the only team to win the grand champion barbecue cooking title three times at the Memphis in May International Festival and the proprietor of two restaurants in southern Illinois and three in Las Vegas, he will admit that barbecue takes time to get right.
If prodded, he will also admit that the barbecue at his restaurants was not as good when they opened as it is now, quickly adding, "though Iɽ like to tell you otherwise." It took him "about six months of practicing before I had myself a brisket I could brag on," he said, with obviously fond memories of wrestling the ornery cut of meat into his repertory. (Mr. Mills is from predominantly pork barbecue country.) "All I really remember is me and all my friends were eating a lot of brisket at the time."
Mr. Perry Lang, who opened Daisy May's after cutting his teeth in fancy restaurants in New York and in France, said that doing just one kind of meat would be simple, but he turned brusque when presented with the idea that cooking pit barbecue is a Sisyphean challenge. "I didn't just pick up cooking two years ago when I opened Daisy May's," he said. "It's not that difficult to cook something right. The hard thing is zeroing in on the flavors you want."
But it wasn't smooth sailing right from the start. "I didn't sleep much during the first six months we were open," he said. "Any time you work with new equipment -- an oven, a grill, a pit -- it will have hot spots and cool spots. It takes time to understand what you're working with."
New York pit masters say that there are other obstacles to doing barbecue in the city. The difficulty of raising enough money to open a restaurant here and the scrutiny of the news media are intense, even for a casual cuisine like barbecue. Real estate prices and the costs of furnishing a restaurant and installing the smoke-scrubbing technology required by clean-air regulations for real pit cooking do not afford a chef the months it might take to season the pits and get the food where it should be.
Construction wasn't entirely finished when R.U.B. opened its doors. "We weren't in a big hurry, but I don't know that we were ready," Mr. Kirk said. "I guess you've got to have your baptism by fire at some point." The brisket was drier than the paint on the walls on an early visit, but a month later it had improved considerably, though it might not yet be at "95 percent of competition quality," as Mr. Kirk put it.
But beyond rushed openings and the swift and occasionally intemperate judgment of the dining public, the people behind the new wave of barbecue places feel a bigger challenge. They are almost unanimous in citing nostalgia, in one guise or another, as their chief competitor.
Every New York pit master I spoke with made a hypothetical example out of some food -- pizza, hot dogs, bagels -- and conjectured that given the same ingredients, prepared the same way, someone eating it in the hills of central Texas wouldn't feel the same about it as in the heart of Times Square.
Jeffrey Steingarten, certainly among the most fastidious and assured food writers, recalls in the introduction to "Peace, Love & Barbecue" that he had a "very, very good" pulled pork sandwich at the Big "S" Grill in Memphis, which he describes as "a tumbledown house next to the railroad tracks." He continues, "Whether I would still remember it as the best pulled pork sandwich I've ever eaten if I had encountered it at a slick New York restaurant, I cannot say."
Kenny Callaghan, the pit master at Blue Smoke, and his mentor Mr. Mills take the same position almost word for word when talking about putting their barbecue up against the memories of a customer's favorite. Mr. Mills said: "It all depends on where you cut your teeth. And depending on where you cut your teeth, nothing is going to meet that expectation." They both said that if they, as Mr. Mills put it, "can come in second place to your memories from home or your dad's barbecue," then they've done their job.
No one has sepia-toned memories of great barbecue in Madison Square Park, where the block party is now in its second year. But on this one weekend each year, some of the biggest names in barbecue -- Chris Lilly, Ed Mitchell and other members of the pit-master elite -- converge and serve up indisputably great barbecue, despite the presence nearby of incongruous neighbors like the Flatiron Building and subway stations. And those city dwellers who eat barbecue more than once a year have Daisy May's pulled pork sandwiches, Pearson's smoked brisket and Blue Smoke's ribs. The jury is out on how righteous Paul Kirk's urban barbecue will be without his being around regularly to supervise, though hopes are high.
The proprietors of New York's barbecue restaurants are enthusiastic about the future, saying that competition will make the scene only better with the passage of time.
"The more the merrier," Mr. Callaghan said. "It will bring a heightened awareness about real barbecue to the city. And it keeps you on your toes." Mr. Mills said that "there is no reason that New York barbecue can't become great."
"The longer we all are around," said Mr. Stage, of Dinosaur, "the more people will realize it's not a trend. That this is the real thing."
He then considered the scope of our conversation, which had ranged from a discussion of urban versus rural, where barbecue in the city has been and where it is going, and the responses of the news media and the public to it.
"All this overintellectualizing barbecue is the just about worst thing you can do," he said finally. "It sucks all the joy out of it."
Excerpt: 'Setting the Table'
The First Course
I've learned more of what I know about life from people than from books, and I've learned much of what I know about people from the food they eat. I'm on the road a number of days each year, solo, or with my family, buddies, or colleagues -- and when I travel, the first thing I do in my first free moments in a town is visit its food markets, pastry shops, butchers, and grocery stores. I read menus posted outside restaurants. I watch the residents argue back and forth with the merchants over the virtues of their wares. When I meet people who look like locals, I ask them where they'd eat if they had only one or two days in town, as I do. Cultures that care deeply about food often care about life, history, and tradition. I'm constantly on the lookout for local idiosyncrasies, ways of eating that exist nowhere else. And I'm always energized by a hunt for the best version of any local specialty.
In towns throughout Italy's Piedmont I've tasted a meringue-hazelnut cookie called brutti ma buoni ("ugly but good"). In Siena I've searched for the supreme panforte, a sweet cake. In New York's Chinatown I walk into butcher shops -- not necessarily to buy, but to observe how people select their cuts of meat and and sausage. In Maine, of course, I cherish tiny wild blueberries. In northern Wisconsin I'm unable to resist perch, bass, pike, and Native American fry bread. In Miami, I look for Cuban counter restaurants. In Texas, there isn't time enough to visit all the Mexican taquerias for breakfast. And the barbecue -- within a thirty-five-mile radius of Austin in the Texas Hill Country lie five towns I revere, each with a distinctly different style of barbecue. The elements of barbecue are limited -- ribs, brisket, pulled pork, chopped pork, minced pork, sausage, chicken, cole slaw, beans, and a handful of side dishes -- but it has become an American culinary language with thousands of dialects and accents. I try to understand each variation. During one thirty-six-hour road trip through North Carolina, I tasted fourteen variations on chopped pork, each defined by subtle and dramatic differences in texture, the degree and type of smoke used, the amount of tomato or vinegar in the sauce, how much heat was applied to the meat, as well as how much or how little crackling got chopped up and tossed in. And that's in addition to checking out the many styles of fried chicken, Brunswick stew, and hush puppies on offer.
From as far back as I can remember, I've been eating with my eyes, nose, and mouth. When I was four I fell in love with stone crab at the Lagoon restaurant in Miami Beach. I couldn't stop eating it (and apparently I couldn't stop talking to anyone who would listen about the "cwacked cwab"). Over the next years I remember savoring variations of key lime pie in Key West eating my first roadside cheeseburger somewhere in the hills outside Santa Barbara trying Dungeness crab and saline abalone at San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf and having a lobster roll in Ogunquit, Maine. I devoured my first custardy quiche lorraine as a seven-year-old when my parents took us to the city of Nancy in France. I tasted bottled water (Evian and Vittel) for the first time in the town of Talloires, and I can also remember exactly how the water of Lake Annecy tasted as I swam in it. I discovered fraises des bois (wild strawberries) and crème fraîche at La Colombe d'Or in Saint-Paul de Vence I tasted a baguette with saucisson and pungent moutarde in Paris's Jardin des Tuilieries. My writing improved because my mother insisted that I keep a diary of our trip. At the time, I hated doing this. But the diary turned out to be one of the greatest gifts she ever gave me. I wasn't writing about the museums and churches we'd seen. Instead I chose to write about food.
Back in my hometown, St. Louis, I was no less curious about what people ate. When I brought my lunch from home to elementary school, I swapped and shared sandwiches, not because the other kids' lunches were better, but because this was the best way I knew of to learn about another family. I had never heard of Miracle Whip until I traded my braunschweiger on rye with another kid for his baloney sandwich (one slice of Oscar Mayer and Miracle Whip on Tastee white bread). It tasted nothing like the Hellmann's mayonnaise we used at home, and I began to understand something about families, solely on the basis of their preference for Hellmann's or Miracle Whip. I was fascinated to discover that the household across the street used Maull's, the thin, tangy classic St. Louis barbecue sauce, whereas my family was in the more mainstream Open Pit camp, using it as a base to be doctored with other ingredients. I learned that various brands of peanut butter tasted better with certain brands of jelly. I observed that some families chose Heinz ketchup, while others used Hunt's or Brooks. I got to know and cared about the differences in the flavors of these ketchups.
These explorations of food not only taught me about myself and others but were central factors in how and why I chose to go into the restaurant business, and perhaps even in why the restaurants have fared so well. My discoveries have also convinced me that there's always someone out there who has figured out how to make something taste just a little bit better. And I am inspired by both the search and the discovery. The restaurants and other businesses I have opened in New York City -- Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, Eleven Madison Park, Tabla, Blue Smoke, Jazz Standard, Shake Shack, The Modern, Cafe 2, and Terrace 5 (our cafés for visitors within the Museum of Modern Art), plus Hudson Yards Catering -- were all conceived and are all driven by a passion to add something new and compelling to what I call a dialogue between what already exists and what could be. When I decided to create Tabla, our Indian-inspired restaurant, I wrote a list of ten things that one could ordinarily expect of an Indian restaurant in New York -- they included a predictable menu ornate décor with background sitar music and austere service and hospitality. Then I asked myself what Tabla might add to these expectations -- what it could perhaps add to the dialogue New Yorkers already had with Indian restaurants. Although its earliest years were rather rocky -- perhaps because we were trying to learn and educate at the same time -- Tabla has more than exceeded my goals for it, pioneering "new Indian" cooking in America and building a solid foundation of loyal customers. Perhaps the surest sign of its success is that it has inspired derivative restaurants in New York and beyond.
Whether the subject is Indian spices, new American cuisine, the neighborhood bistro, barbecue, luxe dining, a big-league jazz club, the traditional museum cafeteria, or hamburgers and milk shakes, my passion is always to explore the object of my interest in depth, and then to combine the best of what I've found with something unexpected to create a fresh context. I then look at the result and ask myself and my colleagues what it would take to do this even better. Creating restaurants or even recipes is like composing music: there are only so many notes in the scale from which all melodies and harmonies are created. The trick is to put those notes together in a way not heard before. For us, the ongoing challenge has been to combine the best elements of fine dining with accessibility -- in other words, with open arms. This was once a radical concept in my business, where excellent cuisine was almost always paired with stiff arm's-length service. Sometimes, we've moved in the other direction, beginning with the casual atmosphere of a barbecue joint or a shakes-and-burgers stand, and then attempting to exceed expectations by employing a caring staff and using the finest ingredients. Our formula is a lot tougher to achieve than it sounds, but it can be applied successfully to virtually any business you can name.
Excerpt from Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business by Danny Meyer. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022
A Movable Feast: Danny Meyer on a Roll
Danny Meyer scaled the subway stairs two at a time, emerged on Lexington and 77th, lengthened his stride and called over his shoulder: “Have I told you about the Meyer Street-Crossing Method? Meyscrom.” He scanned traffic. “Cut off every possible angle without being killed.”
A car whipped by. Another stopped. He sliced off the last 10 feet of 75th Street (“That was a baby jay”) and reached the Whitney museum, home of his newest restaurant, in two minutes.
Meyer — 53, trim, salt-and-pepper hair — greeted me an hour earlier in his Union Square office. It was March, and the branches outside his windows were just beginning to blur green. He stood up from behind a desk, backed by a wall of books (sample title: “The Power of Nice”), took my hand and applied the ideal amount of pressure for the ideal amount of time: a better handshake than any I could recall.
It was 9 a.m., and he was reviewing final edits for “Eleven Madison Park: The Cookbook,” a collection of recipes from his four-star restaurant. In the hall, his assistant, Haley Carroll, examined lunch reservations on a computer.
“I’m looking for notable people,” she said. Meyer would spend from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. visiting their tables. A prominent book publisher would be eating at Union Square Cafe. “He’s made 878 reservations and always sits at Table 38.” Onscreen a note said to give him 38 unless someone named Peggy wanted it.
“Does Danny do dinner visits?” I asked.
“He will depending on where.” She called out, “Danny, how often do you do dinner drop-ins?”
“Three times a week for Maialino” — the Roman-style trattoria across from his apartment — “two times a week somewhere else.”
Carroll told me: “If there’s a school play at 7:30” — Meyer is the father of four — “he can stop by the bar at 6:45 and say hello. It’s all about schedule.” To Meyer: “Adam Moss is at Maialino tonight . . . Angie is in the Modern’s Bar Room dining with Judy. They get together a couple times a year. Gramercy Tavern, Sy Sternberg is there . . . Vincent Ottomanelli, Jason Epstein for dinner. Jamie Niven.”
Carroll handed a printout to Meyer. He pointed to a name and asked, “Doesn’t she write us notes?”
“Danny caught one that I missed.”
After going over the cookbook manuscript (“They’re trying to get me out of the present. . . . I don’t want to be in the conditional”), Meyer made his way to the Whitney for a 10 a.m. meeting with his staff. The scheduled opening of the restaurant, named Untitled, was a week away. Meyer devotes unlimited time to his new ventures, tasting every item on the menu multiple times, suggesting alterations to such minutiae as the size of a sous chef’s dice and constantly consulting with the manager. I heard him instruct Untitled’s chef to alter a B.L.T. so the bacon would stick out on either side. “That’s called turning up the ‘home’ dial,” he explained.
In the museum’s basement, Untitled’s chef, manager and three dozen waiters, waitresses, busboys, runners and line cooks sat on uncomfortable chairs. Meyer greeted them and went into a speech — one of three he would give that day — calibrated to inspire. (His mother, Roxanne Frank, told me of his public persona: “That’s something that has evolved as he matured. He was a little bit shy growing up.”) “When an artist can’t decide a name it’s untitled,” he told the group. “When the name is Untitled, it’s underlined. We are underlining it. . . . I thought it would be refreshing — make of it what you want. Put it on yourself. ‘I’m Untitled.’ Put it on a coffee. Every coffee has a big brand on it. Wouldn’t it be great if you could just serve really good food and make people happy?” He segued into the decline of the Upper East Side coffee shop, the ascent of boutiques, the economics behind corporate entities that can afford to pay almost any rent for exposure at a particular location. “We thought, Let’s do a New York farm-to-table coffee shop. Why is it that coffee shops aren’t that good with coffee? . . . When was the last time you went to a coffee shop that cured and smoked its own bacon? Right here at Untitled. We’re here for you and what you want to be.”
We left and walked up to the Upper East Side branch of Shake Shack, one of his five hamburger stands in Manhattan. On Park Avenue he was recognized by a pedestrian, and briefly stopped to talk. “Occasionally they’ll see me up here, and I’m like that doorman they can’t place,” he told me.
When we reached 86th Street, Meyer asked, “Smell it?” I did. Shake Shack makes its first impressions olfactorily. He breathed deeply, stepped inside, stood atop a flight of stairs leading to the cash registers and slowly scanned the scene. “My favorite thing is watching people enjoy our food,” he told me earlier. “I get sort of an insane amount of pleasure out of that.”
After a quick walk-through — Meyer spotted and comped a woman he referred to as “New York’s first celebrity woman chef” — we stepped back outside to ponder logistics. Could we hit the Upper West Side Shake Shack, and then the Modern, his restaurant at the Museum of Modern Art, and still make Eleven Madison Park, where he was expected to address a private party, by 2 p.m.? It was 11:50 a.m. Into a cab. Through the park. Out in front of the Shack, on 77th and Columbus, where Meyer was recognized by a slender woman pushing a stroller. He greeted her without breaking eye contact, then, as she walked off, turned to me and pointed out a damaged chair through the Shack’s window (“See that slat?”) that he somehow noticed without looking away from the stroller pusher. He went inside, had a brief word with the manager and descended a staircase to “the scrum” — a basement dining room with a flat-screen TV, packed full of kids and nannies.
Meyer told me: “One of my greatest moments was right here. A bunch of sixth or seventh graders were carrying their trays down. One said, ‘Yeah, I guess I’m glad we’re here — I couldn’t bear one more day of Chipotle.’ ”
He decided to add the theater-district Shack to our itinerary. After grabbing another cab, we stopped at 44th and Eighth Avenue. “Former Chipotle manager here,” Meyer said with satisfaction. We entered into the Smell. Now that Meyer had pointed it out, I was struck by its tactile qualities — the presence of more airborne grease than even the most advanced exhaust systems can dissipate. In the manager’s office, pictures of a multibranch Shack outing on a booze cruise covered a bulletin board. Meyer smiled and said, “That’s what I want to see — people goofing around and having fun.” As we exited, the staff waved, and Meyer told me, “This is management by walking around.”
To make it to MoMA he opted against a cab — we’d Meyscrom through parking lots and breezeways, cheating the Manhattan grid. Midblock in a hotel atrium, he stopped, shook his head and said: “If you can get joy out of this, life isn’t so bad.”
At the Modern, Meyer pulled a silk tie out of his jacket pocket, knotted it on and made for a grand cru Chablis tasting in the private dining room. He approached a young man in a thick-napped brown suit: Romain Collet, of the Jean Collet wine dynasty. Meyer introduced himself, in French, and began detailing the long relationship between his restaurants and the family’s vineyard.
Next, dining room visits: with a former neighbor from his home town, St. Louis the chairman of the Sotheby’s board (which Meyer had just joined) and a gray-blond, very attractive businesswoman who, refusing the half-hug Meyer offered while she was seated, exclaimed, “That’s not enough I need a full-body hug,” stood up and got it.
We took a cab to 26th and Madison, Meyer on a call all the way downtown. Then he hopped out and skirted the park, still talking into his phone while pointing out the first flowers of spring (yellow), crossed the avenue and stepped through the revolving doors of Eleven Madison Park. We walked to the back of the restaurant, passed through an upstairs kitchen where penny-size petit fours were being arranged, then into a room where a group of Tammanyesque men, the Country Club Chefs of Connecticut, had just pushed back their chairs. One stood and introduced Meyer: “He’s a man with a lot of ambition.”
Meyer delivered an effortless postprandial speech, insidery for the industry crowd, dropping the surprise that he was planning a Shake Shack for Connecticut. Huge applause.
After jaywalking across 23rd Street and making Union Square in six minutes, Meyer told me: “This is what I do. I couldn’t sit in a chair in an office all day.”
New York is a city of rooms. Most of them are tiny, dark, lonely and the wrong temperature. Meyer makes rooms that are exquisite — overlooking, in the case of the Modern, the greatest sculptures of the 20th century — and intimate. You feel at home. His goal, he told me, is for customers to make his restaurants their clubhouses.
Meyer’s track record is near perfect: one closing (Tabla, a 283-seat Indian place that lasted for 12 years), 25 openings and counting. And for most of his career he has expanded without repeating himself. He has created new restaurants as though they were each his first and only — the singularity of a place always as important as the food. His looseness and precision are qualities more reminiscent of an athlete or an artist. Whatever Meyer is engaged in — jaywalking, French-speaking, grease-inhaling — receives his complete attention.
Some of this is hereditary. Meyer’s father, Morton, owned hotels and had a gift for hospitality. As Meyer told me, “My dad gave me the gene to enjoy cooking, and to enjoy consuming good food and wine.”
After college, Meyer apprenticed in European kitchens, worked as a successful salesman (of plastic shoplifting-prevention tags) in New York, became an assistant manager at a Manhattan seafood restaurant, got to know chefs and critics and one of his future partners, and met the woman who would become his wife, Audrey Heffernan, who was working as a waitress. In 1985, he withdrew his savings and opened Union Square Cafe. Anticipating that The New York Times was going to review the place, he came down with Bell’s palsy. The left half of his face was paralyzed, and the left half of his tongue lost its sense of taste. Symptoms abated after two weeks. The review was a rave. And Union Square Cafe went on to critical and popular acclaim. The natural next step was to try to repeat his success at another restaurant. But Meyer had seen his father overextend and fail. Morton Meyer was in the travel-tour business before jumping into owning two hotels — in Rome and Milan — and spending much of his life on an airplane. Unable to balance ambition and finances, the elder Meyer went bankrupt at 42, destroyed his marriage, went bankrupt again and died at 59, when Danny was 32. Meyer told me his father’s notions of hospitality were always “right on the money,” but his weakness was “business disciplines” and “team-building.”
The son has managed every aspect of his career to avoid repeating the mistakes of the father. It would be nine years before his second restaurant, Gramercy Tavern, opened. Other restaurants followed, approximately one every four years, each requiring vast investments of time to meet his standards. It has taken Meyer 26 years to go from the owner-manager of a single place to C.E.O. of a company — Union Square Hospitality Group — that employs 2,200 people and oversees the operations of all his restaurants. His mother calls the company “his business family.” Its core is a tight-knit group of five general partners whom Meyer has known for an aggregate of 102 years. Together they oversee three places that are in the Zagat Guide’s Top 5 (Gramercy Tavern, Eleven Madison Park, Union Square Cafe), plus the Modern, Maialino, Blue Smoke, the two cafes at the Museum of Modern Art, the newly opened restaurant at the Whitney, a jazz club, a handful of seasonal stands including one at Citi Field and a catering and events company. Meyer is on the board of Open Table, the Internet restaurant reservations service that not only allows him to materialize midlunch for a full-body hug but also tracks the eating habits of his 3,500 or so fine-dining customers each day. (Shake Shack feeds more than 12,000 daily.) This has all taken decades. And Meyer might have remained an incrementalist were it not for Shake Shack, which began as a hot-dog cart that he told the staff of Eleven Madison to set up in the park across the street in 2001. The cart was such a sensation that he expanded the menu to include burgers and milkshakes and opened an actual 400-square-foot shack in the park in 2004. Eleven Madison owned Shake Shack from 2004 to 2009, when it became its own company — but the mobbed burger stand provided the capital required to hire the Swiss chef Daniel Humm away from a restaurant in San Francisco, reduce the seats in his new dining room, double his staff and establish a venue so elevated in its pursuits that it’s less a restaurant than a graduate program in taste. Four stars from The Times ultimately followed.
Shake Shack began spreading throughout Manhattan in 2008, along the Eastern Seaboard in 2010 and 2011 (Miami and Washington) and now overseas, with branches newly opened in Dubai and Kuwait City. The total number of Shake Shacks now stands at 13 — in three years, Meyer has doubled his restaurant holdings.
In “Setting the Table,” his memoir cum manifesto on hospitality, published just after Shake Shack opened, Meyer describes his mood upon opening restaurant No. 2, Gramercy Tavern: “I had the sense of being close to a dangerous outcome. Was I now treading down the same path my father had taken — expansion to bankruptcy?”
These fears have been definitively put to rest, and Meyer has embraced what he described to me as “the profitability edge” of Shake Shack — an edge that is sharpened by volume and expansion, in contrast to the world of white tablecloths. According to the National Restaurant Association, profit margins in “full service” restaurants, with an average check of $25 or more per person, range from -2 percent to 6.8 percent, with a median of 1.8 percent. Meyer, having perfected fine dining, may only just be beating 30-year Treasurys. Shake Shack changes that, with margins in its category, “limited service,” as high as 13 percent. Of course, odds are that Meyer is beating all these markers. But for the first time in his career, Meyer finds it impossible to visit all his restaurants in a single day. Ubiquity and hands-on attention — essential to his success — are incompatible with expansion.
Union Square Hospitality Group has begun to produce some Shake Shack ingredients in a Louisiana factory (instead of in an auxiliary kitchen at Eleven Madison Park). In the walk-in fridge of one branch, I handled a gigantic plastic pillow of cheese sauce: designed to travel. A day earlier I wondered about a sticker on a bag Meyer was carrying: MSY, the New Orleans airport code. I imagined him flying in, sniffing the cheese vat, recalibrating machinery. It was a reassuring vision. But I had to wonder if Meyer — without being present to indulge customers, tweak recipes and notice every broken chair — can perpetuate the dining experience that is expected of him. Later I walked past Union Square Cafe and saw that it had been given a Health Department grade of “B,” indicating 14 to 27 sanitary violation points. (It now has an “A.”) In a non-Meyer place this would barely be worth noting. But how can Union Square Cafe and his other inimitable restaurants preserve their essence without constant infusions of Meyerness?
This past winter, in Miami, Meyer participated in a mass grill-off called Burger Bash. Shake Shack, past winner of the event’s People’s Choice award, was a returning champion. Meyer opened a Miami Shack in 2010, and he wanted to use this trip to scout for a second location — with a management group in place, he needed to give it more to do.
In South Beach, under a huge oceanside tent, American celebrity chefery was prepping to sear hecatombs of flesh. There for the weekend were Bobby Flay, Rachael Ray, Emeril Lagasse, Martha Stewart, Anthony Bourdain, Giada De Laurentiis — the gods and demigods of an industry that generates an estimated $1.7 trillion.
Shake Shack would produce a few thousand burgers and chorizo cheese fries. As we dodged front-end loaders and harried interns, Meyer took a call and said, “I’m walking the grounds of Burger Bash the way they take a racehorse to the paddock before the race.”
Shake Shack competes with “better burger” chains — Five Guys, In-N-Out, etc. But the scale and execution are different. Those chains have hundreds of locations and exponential expansion plans. In-N-Out operates two meat-processing plants. Meyer told me the vast majority of Shake Shack’s management “began their careers with us in our fine-dining restaurants,” and the meat comes from Pat LaFrieda, a third-generation butcher who produces a blend of sirloin, chuck and brisket designed by Richard Coraine, former general manager of Wolfgang Puck’s Postrio in San Francisco and now one of Meyer’s partners. As Meyer put it: “There are a zillion variables to a hamburger. What part of the animal went into it. What coarseness. What temperature.” Coraine spent months “tasting and modifying the blend to hit the right chord.” Coraine explained the details in an e-mail: “You can also factor a few other elements . . . the amount of butter brushed on the bun before griddling it (there is fat in butter, so the brisket was taken down a level) the composition and amount of ‘Shack Sauce’ (flavor in there as well) and the type and ‘slice width’ of the American cheese.”
The critic Oliver Strand told me — hyperbole be damned — that the meat was “every bit as excellent as what you’ll find in Peter Luger’s or Keens’s.” Beyond the exalted flesh, the Shake Shack aesthetic is unintimidatingly midcentury, the marketing is cheeky (if you want cucumber, tomato and relish on your hot dog, the kitchen will “drag it through the garden”) and each branch supports a local charity.
At the Shake Shack booth I was introduced to one of Meyer’s partners in Union Square Hospitality, David Swinghamer, a straw-haired Wisconsinite so tall he stooped. Swinghamer fed me a Shack burger: cooked-through, barely a suggestion of pink at the center, as they are in every Shack. Then I sneaked off to Umami Burger, a five-unit Southern California chain coming to Miami in 2012. The competition. Umami’s meat was capped with a mushroom, but it was raw on the inside. I got a sample for Meyer. He and Swinghamer devoured it, communally — ripping it apart with their hands.
Meyer, mouth full, declared, “It’s not cooked, but the beef is mighty good.”
Swinghamer: “I like the shiitake.”
Me: “Maybe I should tell them the meat’s not cooked.”
Meyer, solemnly: “If they asked, I would tell them. But as Napoleon said, ‘Part of brilliance is winning and part is leaving your opponent alone when he’s losing.’ ”
A line formed for Shake Shack burgers. A Frenchman jostled up to say: “Hi, Danny. You look great.”
Meyer said: “Laurent. You left Chicago. You got your Michelin stars and — ” He pantomimed a goodbye wave then handed him a burger.
The Frenchman devoured it.
After he’d gone, Meyer said: “Laurent Gras. Incredible chef. Three Michelin stars.”
An 11-person band started cranking out covers. A man hollered at Meyer: “I e-mailed you! We met a couple years ago!” Then he was swallowed up by the crowd.
I took a walk and came upon Bobby Flay, standing in a cloud of smoke surrounded by young women in “Get Crunchified” T-shirts, all screaming to INXS’s “What You Need,” while fans’ camera flashes lighted up billowing explosions from the grill. I got a burger and brought it back to Shake Shack.
Meyer grabbed Swinghamer, and we all withdrew to a stainless prep table.
Regarding the offering, Meyer said, “This is Bobby Flay.”
A dissection ensued. He removed the top bun. Something white jiggled to the bass line.
“Is that an egg?” Swinghamer asked.
He broke it up and began to eat.
Then, with a vulnerable gleam in his eye, Meyer asked, “How long is their line compared to ours?”
At the end of the night, Meyer left the tent and sat down, wearily, on the boardwalk. “There were some slimy people there,” he said. “Just picking at me. Pick, pick, pick! . . . ‘I e-mailed you.’ What kind of greeting is that?” He continued: “I can’t believe how many people tried to get me to sign a lease in Las Vegas. We’re the only ones who haven’t gone into Vegas yet.”
Most of these people want to recreate one of Meyer’s marquee restaurants in a casino. In an e-mail later, Meyer provided three reasons that this won’t happen:
1) “I . . . cannot imagine spending my life in an airplane for the purpose of visiting a fine-dining restaurant. . . . Saw my dad try that . . . and saw a very unhappy family outcome.”
2) The impossibility of bonding with customers in a city “built upon so much transiency.”
3) Chemical sensitivity: “I actually have a bad reaction to . . . the synthetic deodorizers they pump through to eliminate smoke. Really, those smells almost sicken me.”
But he’ll leave the door open for Shake Shack: “We never know who’s eating there day-to-day anyway,” Meyer wrote in an e-mail. “There’s no reservation sheet to scour no dining room to host.” In an interview with Business Insider, he said: “Think about a business where each one does not have a chef, or a pastry chef, or a dining-room manager, or a maître d’, or a florist, or a linen company, and you start to notice that a lot of the cost structure that goes into a fine-dining restaurant is missing. . . . From a cost-structure standpoint, it’s a good way to go.”
Swinghamer found Meyer on the boardwalk and invited us to join Dan Tavan, general manager of the Miami Shake Shack, for drinks at a Japanese gastropub.
Over sake, Meyer asked Tavan, “What was tonight, six in sales?”
A $9,000 dinner rush. Everyone drank to that.
The next morning, Meyer, Swinghamer and I drove to Shake Shack, which is in a Herzog and de Meuron-designed building, just off a pedestrian mall (Meyer sniffed and said, sadly, “It smells different before it opens”), then on to south Miami to scout for a new location. As we crossed Biscayne Bay, Meyer admired the palm-covered islands, with their 1920s architecture. But as the traffic got thicker and the buildings blander, he said: “This strip is so antiseptic. Needs to be cool. ” Then, “This whole area just gets me nervous.”
Of the 13 Shake Shacks, a majority are in parks or areas with lots of pedestrian traffic. Such locations create a boutique quality Meyer calls “Shackness.”
Credit here goes to Swinghamer, who Meyer told me has a “sixth sense” for real estate. “The ideal doesn’t just come up for rent,” Swinghamer said. “You need to have inside knowledge. People on the ground.” He explained that they had “inside information about the place we’re going.” He added, “It’s not on the market yet, so nobody else really knows about it.”
We were following a commuter rail line, boxed in by strip malls. As we passed a corner Chipotle, Swinghamer said, “Reliable sources say they do $2.7 million there.” Pause. “We do a lot more business than a typical Chipotle.” He looked hard at the corner. “Gotta do a lot . . . and be in a place that expresses Shackness.”
Meyer was only getting more nervous. Financial upsides aside, he seemed unable to tune out the surroundings. “It’s a sea of dreck,” he said, and began reading the names of businesses: “Puritan Cleaners. Hookah Lounge.”
“Meyer Mortgage,” I pointed out.
“Saw that — I’m looking for signs.”
We arrived at the place they’d been tipped to: a barbecue joint with good parking, straddling the highway and a bland residential district, within walking distance of the University of Miami.
“Can this be a Shack?’ Meyer asked.
“I see something looking back real far to the iconic hamburger/hot-dog stands,” Swinghamer said. “We’ll put our modern twist to it.”
They began refining a concept. Every Shake Shack is nominally tailored to its presumptive clientele: the TV room for kids and nannies on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, communal seating for tourists in the theater district, site-specific “concretes” (frozen custards with various mix-ins), like the vanilla, fudge sauce, peanut and shattered-sugar-cone “Nut-Thing but Amazin’ ” for Mets fans at Citi Field.
Here the clientele would be undergrads. “Should have a lot of TVs, and ultra-cool music so the students come over,” Swinghamer said. “This is an alternative to going to a bar.”
“You’d want some neon that said something about ice-cold beer,” Meyer said.
“Yeah,” Swinghamer said. “A touch of a roadhouse. That would work for college.”
“I like the tree,” said Meyer, indicating a banyan up against the building. We pulled alongside, and Swinghamer lowered the windows.
Meyer mused, “We could name a concrete after it.”
For years the question of how to expand has been something Meyer struggled with. Then he met Susan Reilly Salgado, a doctoral candidate in business at New York University. She’d been eating at the bar at Union Square Cafe, getting to know the staff, listening to waiters say things like, “When I found this job, I felt like I’d come home.” In 1998 she saw Meyer “working the room” on the opening night at Tabla, introduced herself and said she wanted to do her dissertation on his restaurants. He agreed, provided she work as a hostess for six months.
Five years later she informed Meyer that his company was too dependent on him. “There’s no system for opening restaurants without you,” she said, “and the more you open, the more diluted your impact becomes.” Salgado proposed forming a curriculum “to make explicit everything that Danny . . . intuitively knew.” Practically speaking, this would allow for succession (part of avoiding his father’s mistakes is ensuring the business can continue without him) and, in the shorter term, for the company to open new restaurants not just in Miami but anywhere in the world.
Meyer has often been approached with the idea of franchising Shake Shack in the United States, which he has never wanted to do — “How can you franchise hospitality?” But in 2008, after Shake Shack opened its second branch, an international franchiser, Alshaya, approached him. They operated Starbucks, Estée Lauder, Dean & DeLuca, Pinkberry and H&M outlets in the Middle East. Meyer, flattered by the interest, went to Dubai, noted that Alshaya’s Starbucks were “as well run if not better than the ones on Union Square” he told Business Insider he decided to “get a master’s degree in replication . . . but so far away that our audience wouldn’t watch us doing it, and at the same time give us a chance to grow.” Shake Shacks in Dubai and Kuwait are the first phase.
Salgado now leads a new company, incorporated last year under the name Hospitality Quotient (H.Q.), that franchises not food but Meyer’s style — franchises, in effect, his eye contact, handshaking, infectious capacity for pleasure. As Meyer put it, hospitality is “the degree to which it makes you feel good to make other people feel good.”
Salgado told me of Meyer’s feelgood style, “We decided the model was sustainable, the concepts transferable.” And many were the companies that could benefit.
The abbreviation comes from Meyer. As he put it, an I.Q. is native and can’t be taught so, too, is an H.Q. “But it can be identified. . . . Someone with a high H.Q. is at their best when providing happiness to someone else.” And with H.Q., “we’re working with companies that . . . want to be the best in the world at how people feel.” To this end they’ve trained staff at Beth Israel (“A hospital should be hospitable,” the head of orthopedics told Meyer), a Broadway theater company and a supermarket chain.
Alshaya’s management teams for Dubai and Kuwait came to New York for a sort of kindness boot camp, months before opening. Then Meyer sent a group of his high-H.Q. staff members to Dubai and Kuwait for on-site training.
The businesses that Alshaya franchises are the exact sorts H.Q. hopes to work with. Should all proceed as planned, the profitability edge will be unbluntable.
Floyd Cardoz, the chef of Tabla, which closed last year, was waiting in Meyer’s office on a clear March afternoon. The decision to shutter Tabla was, Meyer told me, “excruciatingly hard.” He resisted for years, losing money, laying people off for the first time in his career.
“I always genuinely believed we could turn Tabla’s fortunes around,” he told me in an e-mail. “I was hanging on to the false pride of being able to say we had never closed a restaurant in our first quarter-century of doing business.” He continued, “But I was ultimately convinced by my partners that — counterintuitively — the cruelest thing we could do for people’s careers was to keep it going.”
Now Meyer and Cardoz embraced. A new tenant had just taken over the Tabla lease, and the chef said, slowly, “I have a lump in my throat. . . . I handed my keys over today.” Tears were in his eyes. Meyer’s too. “It was a very good 12 years,” Cardoz said. “I learned a lot about myself. I don’t know what the outcome was.”
“It was good, Floyd,” Meyer said. “You’d like to think that a restaurant will go on forever, like you think your life will go on forever.”
Soon they began to leaf through a stack of menus from the ’20s and ’30s (Meyer has a collection), looking for ideas for a new Battery Park City restaurant that U.S.H.G had just announced. It would serve seafood and grow its own vegetables. Cardoz would be in the kitchen.
Meyer mentioned that the shrimp at Blue Hill, where he ate for his birthday the night before, were cooked on hibachis, with charcoal made from the bones of animals raised on an upstate farm affiliated with the restaurant.
“That’s a gimmick kind of thing — it’s not going to flavor the food,” Cardoz said.
Meyer countered that it was smart recycling and good marketing.
Cardoz: “Lot of carbon emissions making charcoal. Not that green.”
Meyer ended the argument by pointing out that the farm used the emissions to heat its greenhouse. (He turned out to be wrong the farm used the heat generated by composting.)
They started debating what they’d serve at the new place. Cardoz had been to the Oyster Bar at Grand Central: “Bad food for high prices, paper cups for sauce and full of people.”
Meyer leafed through his menus.
Cardoz: “A whole section on eggs.”
Meyer: “Anchovies on toast. How long ago was this? Broiled lobster, $2.50.” He pointed — 1939.
“Vegetables are an important part of this restaurant,” Meyer continued. “What if vegetables were the main course? Not just to keep vegetarians happy, but to make the restaurant a destination.”
Cardoz was jotting down menu categories. “Lose ‘sides’ and call it ‘vegetables,’ ” he said.
Meyer said: “It’s become totally cliché to have a big platter of raw stuff. . . . At the Oyster Bar, how many oysters were there, 20?”
“And the waiter didn’t even know what they were,” Cardoz said.
“I want to have the best oyster you can have in New York today, opened perfectly.”
New York Restaurants: Classic
While Keith McNally’s Soho brasserie is no longer the city’s buzziest spot, it remains perennially crowded, both for its still-terrific French dishes (steak frites, towers of raw seafood, warm goat cheese and caramelized onion tart) and the now oft-emulated, faux-Parisian look. balthazarny.com
Brothers Bruce and Eric Bromberg started their nine-restaurant Blue Ribbon mini-chain with this acclaimed Soho original in 1992, which is still a late-night chef’s hangout (food is served until 4 a.m.). The draws: delicious pan-cultural dishes like matzo ball soup, pierogies, and beef marrow with oxtail marmalade. In addition to Blue Ribbon Sushi, the brothers Bromberg have opened branches of Blue Ribbon in the West Village, Columbus Circle, Brooklyn, and Las Vegas. blueribbonrestaurants.com
Recently, chef Gabrielle Hamilton has found acclaim as a memoirist (2011’s Blood, Bones & Butter), but she’s still in the kitchen at this little East Village bistro, opened in 1999. The simple menu changes frequently, but there’s usually marrow bones with toast and parsley salad, some kind of grilled whole fish and always her bar snack of canned sardines on Triscuits. Prune’s brunches, with dishes like homey butter-crumbed eggs with spicy stewed chickpeas and a selection of ten different Bloody Marys, are among New York’s best. prunerestaurant.com
Union square cafe’s bar nuts
Four years ago, when I was home for a couple days between book tour stops and I had about 3 gazillion errands to run but I was also hungry (because proper meals are the first thing to go when I’m busy) and really craving a great salad (because vegetables are the first thing to get stiffed when you travel a lot) and I didn’t want to eat it out of a takeout container or on my lap or in a hurry, I wanted to sit down and eat it off a plate like a civilized person with water in a glass, not a plastic bottle, and the want for this was overwhelming and I looked up and I was right in front of the Union Square Cafe and thought, “Why not?”
Do you ever go out to eat alone? I really don’t. When I had the freedom to do this more often, I always felt awkward and fidgety and now that I’m old enough to not care, we only occasionally have the luxury of going out without two small people and snack cups of Cheerios, and certainly not alone, you know, sitting at a bar, reading a book like one of those grownups you always thought you’d be? But this time I did. The salad was perfect. The bread was warm. The bartender talked me into (I’m sure I was terribly hard to convince) a glass of wine and 35 minutes later I resumed my errands happy and fed and cared for and swore I’d do this more often, although I really don’t.
I’ve been thinking about this because The Union Square Cafe reopens this week and although it’s been twenty-six years since its cookbook came out, the bar nuts recipe inside is as easy to make and addictive as ever. It seems hard to imagine that such simple ingredients — a pat of butter, brown sugar, salt, cayenne and minced rosemary — could transform even the unloved Brazil nut into something you cannot stop snacking on, but that’s really what a timeless recipe does. I hope it becomes your new holiday habit, too.
Union Square Cafe's Bar Nuts
- Servings: Makes 3 2/3 cups
- Time: 30 minutes
- Source:The Union Square Cafe Cookbook
The original recipe, which can be found verbatim from one end of the internet to the other, calls for 18 ounces or 2 1/4 cups of assorted unsalted nuts, which would be just fine if 2 1/4 cups of nuts didn’t weigh about 11 ounces, no matter what nut you use. This led me to make this twice, first with 2 1/4 cups nuts — it was a tad too salty and spicy, even with halved volume cayenne — and then with 18 ounces (which is more like 3 2/3 cups of nuts), in which the seasoning was more spot-on. No surprise really that restaurants cook using weights, not cups. I then made it a third time, this time with some nuts pretzel nuggets (I used this brand) and it was excellent. Hi, would you like to come over for some spiced nuts? We have buckets!
I make another change from the original, which is I bake the nuts further after tossing them in the spiced butter, which helps it set. You’re supposed to serve them warm (and they rewarm well) but they’re also just as addictive at room temperature.
Finally, but it’s a big finally, the flavor here hinges on both salt and cayenne, which is great because: yum but terrible for recipe writing because 1 teaspoon of salt varies wildly by saltiness depending on type and brand (even among Kosher salts, some weigh more than twice as much as others) and I find that some cayennes are much hotter than others. What should you do? Well, I use Diamond brand kosher salt, the lightest weight of them. For any other brand of kosher salt, you should start with half and use more to taste. For a coarse sea salt, you’re safe using the full teaspoon and possibly even more. For a flaky featherweight Maldon sea salt, you could probably safely use 2 teaspoons, as Nigella does. If your cayenne packs a lot of heat, as mine does, I found that half (1/4 teaspoon level) gave the nuts a nice kicky but not overpowering heat. If you carry hot sauce in your purse, you should use the whole amount.
I know that a lot of people think that they don’t like rosemary but I am willing to wager a bet that at least 2/3 of rosemary-averse people will still like it here. Everyone does, really.