Danny Meyer, the St. Louis native turned New York restaurant magnate, has his fingers in all sorts of business pies, but he was first and foremost a restaurateur. At just 27, Meyer opened Union Square Cafe in 1985. In 1994, he unveiled Gramercy Tavern a few blocks east, followed by Eleven Madison Park in 1998. (EMP was sold to chef Daniel Humm and general manager Will Guidara in 2011). Then there was Meyer’s now-famous foray into fast food, Shake Shack, which opened in Madison Square Park in 2004, went public on the New York stock exchange in 2015, and now numbers over 130 locations in 12 countries across the globe.
Meyer’s restaurants (excluding Shake Shack) live under the banner of the Union Square Hospitality Group, where he is CEO. USHG is made up of 16 restaurants (all New York City-based, except Greenriver, in Chicago), including two locations of barbecue concept Blue Smoke, a cocktail bar called Porchlight, and restaurants inside the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum. The restaurateur’s newest concept is Daily Provisions, an all-day, fast-casual cafe that sells loaves of bread, pastries, coffee drinks, sandwiches, and salads. (Meyer is also known for pioneering a no-tipping model of restaurant dining service in 2015, but that’s another story.)
Of late, Meyer seems to have morphed into something of a venture capitalist — restaurants aside, he and USHG have been investing money into a range of smaller, sometimes forward-thinking businesses. Here’s a list of where Meyer and USHG have put their money.
Year invested: 2012
Creative Juice was an early USHG partnership with gym chain Equinox. The fresh pressed juice concept opened inside a handful of NYC-based Equinox locations in 2012 and 2013, offering cold pressed juices, various juice cleanse options, and some food, with USHG culinary development executive and chef Michael Romano working on menus. Meyer and USHG reportedly left the partnership “years ago.” In 2016 Equinox replaced its Creative Juice locations with Juice Press, another juice brand.
Year invested: 2014
Fast-casual salad chain Sweetgreen — founded in 2007 by three Washington, DC business graduates, Nicolas Jammet, Nathaniel Ru, and Jonathan Neman — was one of Meyer’s earliest investments, back in 2014. Between Meyer and other investors (including Daniel Boulud), the bowl slingers got their hands on around $18.5 million. That allowed the company to (so far) more than double the number of Sweetgreen locations across the country (64 at present), all while the chain shifted its headquarters to the urban pastures of California.
Year invested: 2015
In 2015, USHG backed California farm-to-fork chain Tender Greens, which was founded by Erik Oberholtzer, Matt Lyman, and David Dressler in 2006. There’s some clear overlap between Tender Greens and Sweetgreen: both are lunch-oriented, and salads are a major component of Tender Greens’ menus (although sandwiches and other dishes make up a solid chunk of the offerings, too). Tender Greens recently announced it was opening a new location in New York.
Year invested: 2016
Last year, Meyer shifted away from investing in brick-and-mortar food service, directing money towards Umi Kitchen, an app offering meals delivered from home cooks. This one’s a bit different though — Meyer’s daughter, Hallie, was one of the app’s co-founders, and it had plenty of other support, including investments from Sweetgreen and a SoulCycle founder. But it’s not totally clear there’s enough of a market for the numerous food-on-demand apps out there in various forms, and Umi Kitchen shut down early in 2017.
Year involved: 2016
Not long after the Umi investment came more interest in the tech side of the food world, this time from USHG instead of Meyer personally. Earlier this year USHG invested in ResyOS, a reservations and waitlist program, in partnership with Apple to develop an app for the Apple Watch. The start-up, founded by Ben Leventhal (an Eater co-founder), Michael Montero, and Gary Vaynerchuk has been testing the app with managers at Union Square Cafe for the past few weeks. The app is meant to keep management looped in on various restaurant machinations from wine orders to guests left waiting too long.
Year invested: 2017
This year, Meyer and USHG moved back into the brick-and-mortar restaurant investment game, with USHG announcing that it would be getting involved with New York-based third wave cafe chain Joe Coffee, founded by brother-sister team Jonathan and Gabrielle Rubinstein. USHG explained their reasoning to Eater: “they share our philosophy of putting employees first, align with the culture of USHG, they are leaders in a category we believe has tremendous potential.” It’s early days in the investment, but Joe Coffee plans to solidify its bases in New York City and Philadelphia, before likely expanding to other cities in 2018.
Salt & Straw
Year invested: 2017
Meyer’s most recent investment is in Portland ice creamery Salt & Straw, which has just ten locations on the West Coast. There was no word on the amount invested, except that it was “substantial,” and Salt & Straw’s founders (cousins Kim and Tyler Malek) will stay in charge. All signs here point to an expansion for the mini-chain. At the same time as the investment was announced, Salt & Straw confirmed a collaboration with USHG cafe Daily Provisions, finally making their ice cream available in New York.
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Update 5/2: This post has been updated to clarify that Resy is not a POS system, but is an operating system that connects to POS systems, and that its Apple Watch app is currently being tested at Union Square Cafe.