When Morton Meyer was an intelligence officer stationed in France shortly after World War II, he spent much of his free time visiting small inns that, he discovered, served great food. After he returned stateside and opened a travel agency in St. Louis, he stayed in touch with many of the inn owners.
In 1954, several of them banded together to create the organization that was to become Relais & Chateaux.
Meyer, meanwhile, built up his agency and, along the way, became the first American representative of Relais & Chateaux, helping to establish the brand here. But in the late '60s, he became overambitious in his agency expansion plans, and when the economy took a wrong turn, the business collapsed.
Over the following years, he started several travel-related enterprises. He opened a hotel; it didn't survive. He then packaged and sold group tours. This thrived for many years, but it, too, eventually went under. Then another hotel.
His son, Danny, went to college in Rome and worked for him as a tour escort there. Although Danny took a degree in political science and flirted with the idea of entering politics, there was a lot of his father in him, and he was drawn to the links between food and hospitality.
Today Danny Meyer is, by many standards, the most successful restaurateur in Manhattan, having opened the Union Square Cafe, the Gramercy Tavern, 11 Madison Park and the Modern, among other establishments highly rated for both cuisine and atmosphere. I met him recently at an event celebrating 11 Madison Park's acceptance into Relais & Chateaux, bringing things for his family and R&C full circle.
There are many themes in Morton's and Danny's stories that seem to have relevance to current economic conditions. The first is about businesses that fail during hard times. Failed-business owners who still have enthusiasm for life pick themselves up, dust themselves off and jump back into the industry they love. If they're smart, they don't duplicate their first failure exactly.
But even though Morton Meyer had an outsized impact on those around him, from the founders of Relais & Chateaux to his clients and family, his businesses were not particularly successful financially. It's always a mistake, however, simply to judge a man's life through the narrow measure of business acumen. Danny recalls his father as "my childhood hero: a hedonist, a gastronome and a man who passionately savored life."
And Morton's vision was, in fact, ultimately realized, spectacularly, through the lessons he imparted to his son.
Even so, after the success of Danny's first restaurant, he was temporarily paralyzed by the fear that he had also inherited his father's inability to expand businesses successfully, and it took years for him to get up the nerve to open a second restaurant.
At the recent Relais & Chateaux event, Danny spoke metaphorically about hospitality and bad economic times.
"It's like really bad weather," he said. "You can talk and talk and talk about it. You can stay in your house, where it seems safe, and try to wait it out. But in reality, you can't do that for very long. Fear of going out does not help you. You need to put on your hat and take your umbrella and go.
"The root word in hospitality is 'hope,'" he continued. "Those in travel and hospitality can have a positive impact on the way people feel when they do venture out. We can give hope. In good times, luxury made people feel good. But what is luxury today? It isn't extravagance. It's simply the quality of how you spend your time. And you don't need to wait until the storm is over to spend time well."
I thought about Danny Meyer's words and his family's business history when, the next morning, I met Jeremy Palmer of Tauck to hear about Culturious. It's a new brand the family-owned company is launching that's aimed at boomers who want to "stretch their minds and stretch their legs."
"We are not launching into the best environment; we know that," Palmer said. "But we bring a long-term perspective to this. And it doesn't hurt to launch this when others are weak."
Well, maybe that last statement doesn't sound as warm and fuzzy as the end of my holiday column should. But the reality is that these times call for a blend of hopefulness and hard-edged business judgment. Morton Meyer had the hopefulness. But if you don't have the latter when times get tough, you, too, may have to wait -- perhaps for a generation -- to see your ideas find full expression.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected].