Danny Meyer leads the prolific Union Square Hospitality Group, responsible for New York City dining stalwarts Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, and the Modern, among others, and the global burger chain Shake Shack. On a recent episode of the Eater Upsell, Meyer sat down with Eater editor-in-chief Amanda Kludt and Upsell host Greg Morabito and let them in on how he decides to open up each new, successful concept.
Meyer’s first restaurant, Union Square Cafe, started as an “idea [he] had as a 26-year-old,” but when he opened Gramercy Tavern a decade later, he hit upon a more precise formula. “I really wanted to work with Tom Colicchio, so I had the right chef, and then I had to find the right idea and the right place,” he explains. Since then, the impetus behind all of his restaurants has been matching the location to the desired chef and concept and vice versa. “Almost everything from that moment forward was finding a place that I was intrigued by, and then trying to find what’s the right idea and who’s the right chef for that idea,” Meyer says.
Shake Shack began with Madison Square Park; the Modern was inspired by its museum setting; Blue Smoke was designed to be the perfect complement to the Jazz Standard, the jazz club the group opened underneath the first Blue Smoke location. “More and more what I find interests me is if you give me the frame, I’ll figure out what kind of art belongs inside that frame, and I’ll figure out who to do it with,” Meyer adds.
The king of hospitality further breaks down this process when describing how Union Square Hospitality developed North End Grill, a NYC restaurant that opened in 2012. In this case, “the frame” was Battery Park City, a then-sleepy neighborhood along the southern tip of Manhattan. As with Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern before it, the goal was to be a “place maker” and enliven this part of the city. But, not just any restaurant can achieve this.
“How do you make something authentic in a part of the city that is actually inauthentic?,” Meyer asked at the time. “It’s land filled from when the World Trade Center was first built in the 1970s, that’s what Battery Park City is.” The answer was to dig into the location’s history. Meyer discovered that the area was once home to oyster beds, complete with wooden piers. “So now we've got oysters and wood. That’s where we started,” Meyer says. Next came whiskey, as a natural accompaniment to oysters and wood-fired fare, and the vision for the restaurant was complete. Years later, Battery Park City is decidedly more lively.
Hear the complete interview with Danny Meyer as he discusses leading the movement to eliminate tipping, making his staff read his book, and the worst service faux pas. Subscribe to the Eater Upsell on iTunes, or listen on Soundcloud. You can also get the entire archive of episodes right here on Eater.