Legendary US restaurateur Danny Meyer, the founder of Union Square Hospitality, was a star guest at CGA’s Big Peach 2020 Digital Experience. Here, in his own words, is what he had to say to CGA vice president Peter Martin and Hawksmoor co-founder Will Beckett.

‘You can’t outrace this virus’

“We’ve been taught that if you use your head more, work harder and get some luck, you can solve any problem. But you can’t outrace this virus, and you can’t open what you’re not allowed to. The greatest thing about this industry is how we bring people together, and that’s the very thing that doesn’t work in a pandemic. It’s very frustrating to have your hands tied and not be able to do the things you love doing.”

‘We’re flexing all our entrepreneurial muscles’

“No-one ever got into this industry because it was easy, and I see people in New York trying so hard to do anything to make money. We’re flexing all of our entrepreneurial muscles on things like take-out, sidewalk dining and selling wine and groceries out the door. If there’s one spark of life it’s from what I call the ‘shanty town’ food shacks that have popped up all over the city. That’s given a sense of safety and normality, and it’s encouraged some people to come back to the city.”

‘People are getting used to change’

“People are getting used to a lot of changes, like Plexiglass dividers, QR codes for menus, hand sanitizer on every table and putting on masks. They want the experience not just of having good food and wine, but of being with people, and they’re willing to put up with things to get that.”

‘Shake Shack has been incredibly athletic’

“Shake Shack has been incredibly athletic and was able to pivot to 100% kerbside pick-up and delivery model using digital ordering as the locomotion. We’re trying that in the full service arena, but there’s a limit to the number of dishes that people actually want delivered. We’re seeing that what people want at home are things like burgers, pizza, lasagne and barbecue, where presentation isn’t that important and where you can reheat it without killing it.”

‘Reopening will be like starting from scratch’

“We’ve only reopened three of our 12 restaurants and we probably won’t be able to wake up some of them at all. I had to lay off about 90% of our company in March—it was the worst day of my professional life—and when we are fortunate enough to reopen they’ll be very different teams. It’ll be like starting a brand new restaurant from scratch.”

‘The landscape is going to look a lot different’

“It’s a tall slope we’re all on. I’m optimistic long-term for New York City because it’s got an irrepressible spirit, but the landscape is going to look a lot different because a hell of a lot of leaves have blown off the trees.”

‘Safety is the new hospitality’

“Safety is the new hospitality and the new ambience in a restaurant. Anything we can do to make it clear that we’ve thought about safety allows our staff and guests to feel more comfortable. We have to show people that we know how important safety is and that we’re on top of it. Only when we’ve done that can we show them the hug.”

‘Every day is a new chapter’

“Every day there’s a new chapter being written in everybody’s book. We’re all experiencing so many things that we never imagined, and we all have to use our compass to navigate a sea that we’ve never seen on any map before.

Whoever you are, if ever there were a time to keep a diary and take notes on a daily basis, this is it.”

You can watch Danny Meyer’s full conversation with Peter Martin and Will Beckett at the Big Peach 2020 Digital Experience here.


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