The hospitality quotient

Born into a travel family, Danny Meyer has always had hospitality front and center in his life. One part businessperson, one part philosopher, the creator of Union Square Cafe and Shake Shack joined our consumer travel editors roundtable to talk about how the pandemic has impacted his operations and beliefs. Part 1 of 2.

Danny Meyer — son of an ASTA president, former tour guide, best-selling author — is widely known as the creator of innovative restaurants, from the three-Michelin-star 11 Madison Park to the ubiquitous global chain Shake Shack. His company, Union Square Hospitality Group, is as respected for its approach to guest service as for its cuisine and has caught the attention of hotel companies, airlines and even hospitals, which have engaged Meyer to help them up their game as regards both food and customer interactions.

Last month, he joined the 16th annual Travel Weekly Consumer Editors Roundtable for a discussion centered on hospitality and travel and touching on subjects ranging from the endurability of pandemic trends to global foodie capitals to the impact of the Great Resignation on hospitality to Anthony Bourdain’s mixed legacy.

Also at the table were Jacqueline Gifford, editor in chief of Travel + Leisure; New York Times travel section editor Amy Virshup; Conde Nast Traveler executive editor Erin Florio; Afar digital content director Laura Dannen Redman; National Geographic Travel associate editor Starlight Williams; Town & Country executive travel editor Klara Glowczewska; and WonderlustTravel.com editor in chief Bob Guccione Jr. Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann moderated the discussion.

Meyer hosted the group over lunch in a private room at his restaurant, The Modern, in midtown Manhattan.

The original transcript has been edited for length, and the chronology has been altered to keep dialogue about specific topics together, though the topic might have recurred at intervals during the course of the conversation.

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You’re eating on the street, trucks and SUVs this close to your table. You think, “Wow, this could be the day.”

Starlight Williams, Associate editor, National Geographic Travel

Arnie Weissmann, editor in chief, Travel Weekly: Danny, you have various types of restaurants, various clientele, various geographic locations. What insights did you gain about your business and guests during the pandemic?

Danny Meyer, CEO, Union Square Hospitality Group: At the very beginning, when we first started serving — pre-vaccines, so the summer of 2020 — guests were so happy that we were back that they were throwing flowers and tips at everybody. 

But then … the biggest change that I’ve seen in restaurants — and on airplanes, and even in hotels — is a diminishing amount of civility on the part of a lot of patrons. Either they forgot that service and hospitality is truly a two-way street or they’re frustrated after two years of being on the sidelines and losing two years of how they used to live their lives. Often the people on the front lines are inexperienced because so many people had left their line of work. The people who have been hired are often working harder, with less experience, and therefore more mistakes are probably made in every element of the service industry. The crowds are pretty short-tempered when it comes to that. And that, unfortunately, exacerbates things and makes more people more reticent about joining the hospitality industry. I’m just hopeful that we get back to a point where, whether it’s in a restaurant or taking a long trip, there’s a sense that we’re all in it together. You can actually improve the odds of having a great hospitality experience if you’re civilized to the person delivering it.

Laura Redman, digital content director, Afar: Do you continue to face staffing shortages or challenges in hiring?

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We had 2,400 employees
before the pandemic,
and at the low point, 45.
We’re back to 2,100 now.

Danny Meyer, CEO, Union Square Hospitality Group

Meyer: We just hosted 22 hospitality professionals at Borgo Finocchieto, a restaurant I’ve invested in in
Buonconvento, in Tuscany. We brought in restaurateurs, chefs, people from technology, a business professor specializing in organizational psychology, the woman who is responsible for all flight attendants from Delta. And the topic, for four days, was the Great Resignation, or the Great Reassessment, whatever you want to call it. Amongst all industries who have had somewhat of an exodus, our industry has led the league, which is not something that we’re happy about or proud of. Instead of allowing this just to happen to us, we discussed what could we do or what steps could we imagine that could be taken to address it.

And, as you can imagine, over the course of four days, a few topics bubbled to the top. The single biggest one was our own self-image and the need to project, via our own messages and the media, the fact that this is a very, very valid profession and takes care of people. It can be a first job for people, and people can advance and actually make a very, very good living. [What came out during] the MeToo movement was a big blow to our industry. And when George Floyd was murdered, that also revealed a lot of systemic racism in our industry. 

And yet, that’s not the full story everywhere. I know how revered Anthony Bourdain was, but after he wrote “Kitchen Confidential,” which showed one side of our industry — knife throwing, cursing, angry people — that led to a lot of reality TV. “Ain’t it bad, ain’t it bad, ain’t it bad.” Why would you want to work in an industry where that’s the case? That’s actually the thing that most inspired me to write “Setting the Table,” which says, “OK, but it doesn’t have to be that way.”

So, the single biggest thing that popped up is that our industry needs to proudly proclaim that we are about hospitality. We are about caring thoughtfully for people. And once that narrative gets going, it could, hopefully, become a self-fulfilling prophecy. That was thing No. 1. 

Thing No. 2 is that we have to look at compensation models and how we train people to be leaders, because most people who leave their job leave their boss, not their company or restaurant. And there are a lot of bad bosses.

And third, our systems. How we hire. How we on-board. What are the benefits packages like? 

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Restaurateur Danny Meyer hosted the Travel Weekly Consumer Travel Editors Roundtable at the Modern in midtown Manhattan. (Photo by Jill Rittymanee)

Restaurateur Danny Meyer hosted the Travel Weekly Consumer Travel Editors Roundtable at the Modern in midtown Manhattan. (Photo by Jill Rittymanee)

Restaurateur Danny Meyer hosted the Travel Weekly Consumer Travel Editors Roundtable at the Modern in midtown Manhattan. (Photo by Jill Rittymanee)

Amy Virshup, editor, New York Times travel section: You said that when people first came back, they were showering everyone with love and tips. But now, they’re not. Was there a moment where that shifted back to the old way, but even worse?

Meyer: I think there are people who were stimulated to be generous and are still being generous and thoughtful and kind and reinforcing the gift of hospitality. But I think mask mandates and checking people’s vaccinations, whether it’s in an airplane or a restaurant, pushed a button in a lot of people to give them a sense of entitlement. “Well, if you’re going to make me do things, it’s no longer a hospitality experience. You’re a gatekeeper, not a maitre d’.” For that part of the population, which I don’t believe is the majority — not by a long shot — those can be really rude experiences. I’ve seen people cry.

I had originally said we were never going to open a restaurant if you have to wear masks. And how wrong was I! Because the alternative was closing. And I have to tell you that only yesterday, after two years-plus, the staff at this restaurant went mask-optional. Today is the first time I have seen the smiles of at least 30 people who have worked in this restaurant for 10 to 15 years. It’s a different thing to be greeted by someone whose face you can see. I think the absence of seeing human beings’ smiles contributes to what we were just talking about.

Weissmann: It seems that some trends arose during the pandemic, like QR code menus, that go against aspects of hospitality. I understand why it seemed necessary when we all thought the virus spread primarily through surfaces, but some restaurants are still using them. Personally, I like menus.

Starlight Williams, associate editor, National Geographic Travel: I also appreciate a menu. And when I’m dining with, maybe, my grandparents, they’re sitting, struggling, like, “I can’t get this to open on my flip phone. Can you show me your phone? Can you scroll it for me? I can’t see.” I’m struggling to connect and look at my own phone. I hate it for that part. It’s inaccessible for so many people. So, by the time the waiter does come, I’m, like, “I’m sorry, I’m not ready yet.” I despise the QR.

Redman: And also, many of us were trying to get away from putting phones on the table. But with QR codes, immediately, the first thing you do is pull out your phone and all of a sudden, you see Slack, or you see email, or you have a missed text. 

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At the luxury price point, you’ll get chamber service. At the standard price point, you won’t.

Amy Virshup, editor, New York Times travel section

Klara Glowczewska, executive travel editor, Town & Country: And you go down the rabbit hole.

Erin Florio, executive editor, Conde Nast Traveler: And it’s a wild assumption that everybody has a smartphone.

Bob Guccione, Jr., editor in chief, WonderlustTravel.com: They all actually have a menu. Every place I’ve gone, I’ve refused to use the QR, and they’ve produced one. I just say, “Sorry. My phone doesn’t scan. And I’m an older guy.”

Meyer: You’ll be happy to hear that we gave that up months and months and months ago. However, we should all recognize it had its purpose at the beginning, especially for contact tracing. But it doesn’t need to survive.

Glowczewska: I’m reacting to the spread of this, to it becoming permanent. In some hotels, you’re not going to have a regular check-in. You’ll just check in digitally, before you even arrive. And for me, the check-in is such a part of the pleasure. It’s not just in dining; it’s in traveling, it’s in living, you know? It’s theater.

I’ll never forget when I was 10 years old, on a first trip to Italy with my parents. A half-century later, I remember: There was a waiter, really cute to my 10-year-old eyes, and he said to my parents, “Latte freddo per la bambina?” You know, “A glass of cold milk for the child?” I was swooning. Do you know what I mean? There’s just the joy of it. The joy’s the attraction, and all those devices take it away.

Guccione: I think you’re so right. And even before the pandemic, I think we saw a dilapidation of service and hospitality. That’s the saddest thing. The worship at the altar of new technology has brought a lot of laziness in the way people interact and the services you get when you travel. Institutionally, there’s an impersonalization. I think it’s sad.

Florio: What you said, it’s completely true. We’re moving toward this touch-free technology and lack of human interaction, getting rid of people in the most historic hospitality roles, at check-in desks, et cetera. And the pandemic accelerated all of that. But I’m hoping that, as a result, it also gets a lot more attention and a much bigger backlash. I’m hoping that one of the long-term benefits of the pandemic is that interpersonal interactions come back and slow down this contactless world that we were moving toward, pre-pandemic. 

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Seeing a restaurant in our neighborhood close after holding out for two years …I started sobbing.

Jacqueline Gifford, editor in chief, Travel + Leisure

Guccione: Yes, maybe we’ll realize, “You know what’s lacking in the travel industry? The hospitality end, the personal touch, more warmth and friendship. Thirty, 40 years ago it was very, very personal. There was no such thing as a digital key. It was a key, and you got messages on little pink sheets. I know it sounds so archaic, but there were wonderful touches.

Virshup: I think it’s all going to be price point-related, though. The personal touch is going to be a luxury, like getting your room cleaned every day. At a luxury price point you’re going to get chamber service, and at the standard price point, you’re not.

Williams: You need those small moments of interaction, of conversation, so that someone can later remember the details of who you are and provide hospitality that goes above and beyond basic expectations. We can have these small, nice interactions: “I remember you enjoyed this pastry.” “I remember you sat at this table.” It’s give and take, back and forth. And part of that is, it’s up to me to realize that when I say thank you, they’re going to remember that, too, and we continue the relationship in a different way.

Weissmann: The restaurant ecosystem changed during the pandemic. Many restaurants closed and didn’t reopen. And, like an old growth forest that gets thinned by a fire, room was made for new growth. Are there any restaurants that closed that you’re going to miss? And, of the new ones, any great discoveries?

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It has been fun to see outdoor cafe culture go up in cities like Washington, D.C.

Laura Redman, digital content director, Afar

Meyer: Well, the one I miss the most is Maialino, which we haven’t been able to open again because the Gramercy Park Hotel remains shuttered. I’ve only been able to walk in the space once in two years. And I did start crying when I went inside. 

Why we have not been allowed to open is a mystery that is in the courts right now, between the owner of the hotel and the owner of the ground lease beneath the hotel. It was not only a big part of our restaurant group — we served breakfast, lunch and dinner there — but it’s kind of the heart and soul of its neighborhood. The entire Gramercy Park neighborhood feels kind of …

Guccione: Bereft?

Meyer: I mean, we’ve had people putting flowers on the doors and writing Post-It notes. 

I miss it and I just hold out hope. We haven’t taken another lease for it because I don’t want two of them, and I know that the minute I sign a lease somewhere else, this thing will be resolved. So we’re hopeful that one day we’ll be back open again.

Virshup: But how did you manage to open a very hot restaurant during the pandemic? I’m talking about Ci Siamo.

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Pain au lait was among the dishes served during the Consumer Travel Editors Roundtable.

Pain au lait was among the dishes served during the Consumer Travel Editors Roundtable.

Pain au lait was among the dishes served during the Consumer Travel Editors Roundtable.

Meyer: We opened it in October of 2021. No one in their right mind would have opened a restaurant then, but it had been gestating for two-and-a-half years, and it just had to be born. And we named it Ci Siamo earlier that year, meaning, “We finally arrived.” 

We’ve learned something fascinating from Ci Siamo, which is doing really, really well. We learned that, as challenging as it is to open a new restaurant, it was even harder to open Gramercy Tavern, again, in 2021. To open Union Square Cafe, again, in 2021. Because with a new restaurant, no one has a favorite table or a favorite dish or a favorite waiter or a favorite maitre d’, right? People would come back to Union Square Cafe or Gramercy Tavern, and they’d go, “Why doesn’t the maitre d’ know me?” “Because it’s a new maitre d’.” “Where’s my favorite waiter?” “They moved back to Kansas.” “What happened to my favorite salad?” “The woman who makes those croutons is still in the Dominican Republic and can’t get out.”

So we didn’t say we were reopening, because those were new restaurants, too. But Ci Siamo was a blank slate, and it gave us a chance to just be something new, without expectations.

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Are there any restaurants that closed that you’re going to miss? Any new, great discoveries?

Arnie Weissmann, editor in chief, Travel Weekly

Weissmann: Were there any restaurants that aren’t in Union Square Hospitality Group that you were sad to see go? Or new ones you’ve discovered?

Meyer: Well, there was one: Barbuto. I was supposed to celebrate my birthday there in March of 2020 and couldn’t do it. I spent two years pining away for Barbuto. But happily, Jonathan Waxman just opened a new version of it a block and a half away.

Weissmann: So, the one that you miss and the one that you’re happy to see is the same one?

Meyer: Yeah.

Weissmann: Anyone else?

Jacqueline Gifford, editor in chief, Travel + Leisure: A little French restaurant in our neighborhood closed. Nothing formal, but it was known for mussels. And it held out for a really, really long time, and it just closed about a month ago. They were negotiating with their landlord and couldn’t come to an agreement. I watched the arc of that restaurant during the pandemic, how it set up outdoor dining and then opened for indoors at 25% when that was allowed. So to see it finally close, after almost two years of thinking they were going to make it … I started sobbing.

Florio: A similar story: There was a restaurant in my neighborhood, Jolie Bistro. Wasn’t the best food in the world, but it was great hospitality. I could be walking through the neighborhood at 6 in the morning and I would see the man who owned it, from France, at the restaurant. He was so dedicated to it, you could see how much he loved it and wanted to create a space of hospitality for the neighborhood. But finally, I think it must be six weeks ago now, they put up the sign. They just couldn’t maintain it.

It was really sad. It wasn’t just that the neighborhood was losing a spot. You saw the story of a man so invested in something and lose that thing. It’s always tragedy or triumph for those invested in these spaces.

Glowczewska: There’s a new one that I’ve tried that I really like: Iris.

Gifford: Oh, I love Iris. It’s wonderful.

Glowczewska: It’s on Broadway at 55th Street. Very pricey, but very good. Mediterranean.

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Checking in is such a pleasure. It’s theater. There’s just the joy of it.

Klara Glowczewska, executive travel editor, Town & Country

Meyer: If you’re a young, first-time restaurateur, this should potentially be a great time to get into business. You won’t have to lay anyone off, because you hadn’t already hired them. You won’t have to renegotiate your lease based on today’s reality, because you are in today’s reality. And if 25% of the restaurants in New York City went out of business, there might even be some really good opportunities to walk into a place and, even if the landlords are holding tight on rent — and they are — you can still save a lot of your upfront capital expenses because somebody else already put in the hood, the electrical, the plumbing needs, air conditioning, et cetera. 

So this is a great time for someone who just graduated from culinary school and who wants to own their own restaurant to do it. And to your very first point, those are the green shoots that are going to make the next couple of years exciting.

Weissmann: Danny, how are supply chain issues impacting you? 

Meyer: Because we work with smaller producers, the food supply chain has not hit us as hard. Those are not the people trucking stuff across the country. But to-go packaging has been nearly impossible because much of that comes from overseas and is all blocked up in California. 

Equipment’s the biggest problem. If something breaks and you can’t get it fixed for weeks, we sometimes have a tough time.

Weissmann: Many cities have permitted outdoor dining. Is it here to stay?

Meyer: It is here to stay. Without the outdoor dining, you would have gotten a lot more answers to your question about restaurants you miss. That one city initiative saved a huge number of restaurants. 

All that said, I think what you’re going to see next is some type of regulation that is going to bring more of these outdoor structures up to safety code. You have to understand that when the city first allowed what they call “open streets seating,” no one had any money and no one had any view as to whether it would last. So, you got the cheapest plywood you could and a couple of nails and threw something out there. But many of them are just dangerous. 

You’ll first see regulations for safety at such point as we can all say Covid is behind us, Hallelujah!, and the restaurant industry is back on its feet. My bet is that the city will start charging for using the sidewalk and/or street.

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Worship at the altar of technology has brought laziness to the way people interact.

Bob Guccione Jr., editor in chief, WonderlustTravel.com

Redman: It has been fun to see outdoor cafe culture go up in cities where it wasn’t. Like, Washington, D.C., put a lot of investment in it. I think they’re going to keep it.

Williams: As someone who lives in D.C., I appreciate that they will just shut down a street and say, “Let the people have it.” Like, no cars, no anything. I like the concept. Otherwise, you’re eating on the street, but giant trucks and SUVs are riding by, this close to your table, and you’re like, “Wow, this could be the day.”

Weissmann: Danny, is work-from-home impacting your business, for better or worse?

Meyer: I think lunch business is the most affected by that. If you’re working from home, you’re probably not entertaining a business client. The business lunch is going to be the slowest part of our industry to recover. However, it’s coming back. Every week it seems to be better, but, unfortunately, a lot of people are now saying, “It’s not that I am afraid to go to my office. It’s that I don’t want to.”

Weissmann: You had spoken about the difficulty in recruiting earlier and, from what you just said, it sounds like business hasn’t fully come back. What is your staff size compared to what it used to be?

Meyer: We had 2,400 employees, and at the low point, 45. I just asked our chief people officer about this, and she said we’re up to 2,100 right now. So, we’re still short. And, for that reason, we’re not open seven lunches and seven dinners in all of our restaurants just yet.

But the good news embedded in that is that, after going down to 45 people, when we came back we’ve been able to accelerate our diversity and inclusion goals by several years. Only 30% of those 2,100 people used to work for us. That means 70% are new. And we’ve been able to make our restaurants look and feel a lot more like New York, a lot more quickly right now. 

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I hope a benefit of the pandemic is that interpersonal interactions come back and slow this contactless world.

Erin Florio, executive editor, Conde Nast Traveler

Williams: Can I ask what your specific diversity and inclusion goals are?

Meyer: You can. We post them on our website. We want to hold ourselves accountable so, quarterly, we show where we are. In short, whatever the New York City [demographic] statistics are, that’s who we want to be.

Glowczewska: I saw that, and I was struck by the care with which you discuss community. You have it all broken down — where you are, where you hope to be in terms of gender equity, racial equity, various measurements in various parts of your restaurants and leadership team. 

Are there lessons for the travel industry in your approach? I have not seen such careful metrics. They make it so concrete, yet you don’t feel like you’re being made to eat your Brussels sprouts. 

Meyer: I’ll answer your question by saying thank you. Because I don’t ever want to cross that Brussels sprouts line. I don’t. Never. What I hope we can do is to show that it’s good business to do the right thing, because ultimately, that’s what motivates people. The reason Brussels sprouts went from being the most hated vegetable in the world…

Glowczewska: …to the most beloved …

Meyer: …was because our parents had overcooked it. Then, most beloved, because people made it delicious. Right? And when you make something delicious or show it’s good business, more people will do it.

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Crispy salmon with potato gnocchi and radishes.

Crispy salmon with potato gnocchi and radishes.

Crispy salmon with potato gnocchi and radishes.

Weissmann: Did you use outside consulting to come up with your approach?

Meyer: After George Floyd was murdered, we did a lot of listening to people on our team, most of whom had been laid off, so they had other reasons not to be happy at that point. But the president of our company happens to be African American, and we had already made the choice early on that if there were a chief diversity officer in our company, it should be me and not him. If it’s not heartfelt coming from me, no one is going to believe it anyway. We started working with James Pogue from Texas [a noted diversity and inclusion consultant]. I give him credit for helping many of us over many, many, many, many Zoom sessions, hundreds of people on Zoom calls, to navigate how to move from being a nonracist business to an anti-racist business.

In the same way that, 30 years ago, I would have said hospitality and service were the same thing, two years ago I would have said nonracist and anti-racist were the same thing. And they couldn’t be more starkly different. Without his help, we wouldn’t have gotten where we are, and we still have a long way to go. But he has really helped set us on the right path.

The conversation continues in Part 2 in the May 2 issue as Danny Meyer talks about growing up as the son of a travel advisor; his work with Hyatt, Marriott and Delta Air Lines; and the difference between service and hospitality. And the consumer travel editors share insights about their readers — and their travel experiences and plans.

Photos by Steve Hockstein/Harvard Studio Photography

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