Meyer opened Union Square Cafe in October 1985 at age 27. The restaurant, a New York take on an Italian trattoria, occupies a crowded yet airy space in the Flatiron District and began to earn a reputation based less on sizzle than on welcome and value.
"Three restaurants changed American dining in the last twenty-five years," says Richard Coraine, a former employee of Wolfgang Puck's and now a partner of Meyer's. "Chez Panisse introduced the idea of fresh food from market to table. Spago introduced the idea of a chef-owner at the front door making sure everyone had a good time. And Union Square Cafe combined those two ideas and moved them to New York."
In 1994, after years of vowing never to expand, Meyer opened Gramercy Tavern. It initially failed to live up to its hype, however, and Meyer sank to an incredibly low point. "I thought I'd made the worst business decision in my life," he says. "My dad went bankrupt-twice. Those talks he had with the family when I was young, he would be crying.... And now I was heading down the same road."
Meyer hired a "business therapist," who pointed out something that would change Meyer's life: Union Square Cafe was ranked 10th in the Zagat Survey for food, 11th for service, and was not even in the top 50 for décor. Yet the restaurant was rated the city's third most popular. "Union Square Cafe is far, far greater than the sum of its parts," the consultant said. "You must be scoring off the charts in something that Zagat didn't ask in its surveys." That something, they decided, was hospitality. Meyer and his team defined hospitality as what happens "when the people for whom you are providing it believe you are on their side," and Meyer went on to rank five core values that embody this vision: "1) caring for each other; 2) caring for our guests; 3) caring for our community; 4) caring for our suppliers; 5) caring for our investors."
Every gesture, every act, in a Danny Meyer restaurant is designed to fulfill these corny-sounding tenets, which make working there akin to joining a cult or the world's jolliest company softball team. They also make the job intensely and unexpectedly personal.
One of the more striking things about greeting people at an elite restaurant is how many customers come in unhappy, scowling at their partner or apprehensive about how they will be received. The hosts at Union Square Cafe know this. "All guests must be greeted within one minute," the manual states.
"I love that tie."
"Happy anniversary, Mrs. McCoy."
"You know it's my anniversary!" she beams. "Don't guess how many years."
Two seconds in the door and mission already accomplished. She and her husband will be back to celebrate next year.
I knew this at the door because of the elaborate codes built into OpenTable, a more efficient version of what for years they wrote by hand. R means "regular"; HB, "Happy Birthday"; Hanniv, "Happy Anniversary." One couple prefers a table by the window, another "doesn't like green olives." If a guest has been particularly obnoxious when booking, the computer notes this, too, with a curt NL-"Needs Love."
Though there is something Orwellian about all this information being stored in a computer, as a practical matter it tends to encourage the servers to think about each customer as an individual. Plus, it gives the staff esprit de corps: We know something you don't think we know. This is the unexpected brilliance behind Meyer's tenets. The customer does not come first; the staff does. Only by developing the proper atmosphere of congenial cooperation among themselves can they properly welcome anyone else.
The restaurant has a number of procedures designed to bring small pleasures. Those going to the theater get a card under their salt shaker to ensure speedier service. If it's raining, they'll give guests a free umbrella to take home. If guests are having difficulty deciding between two desserts, the server will often deliver their choice-and the other at no charge. "You are working for a company that is looking long-term at those kinds of decisions," Meyer tells recruits. "Not 'Oh my God, we gave away eight desserts.'" This system is even more striking when things go wrong. When a child dropped a Sprite in the bar, the entire family got new drinks. Meyer calls this "writing a great last chapter."
"The restaurant business, like every business, is a series of mistakes," he says. "If someone finds a small screw in their risotto, they're going to tell everyone they know. I can't change that. But what I can do is make sure that when they tell the story they go on to say, 'But do you know how the restaurant handled that?'"
To function in this system is to spend an enormous amount of time thinking about other people-not just what they need, but what they feel. Meyer says he hires people based 49 percent on technical skills and 51 percent on emotional skills. I quickly understand why: To work here is to discover your inner therapist. Those closing a deal will rarely look up; a couple on a blind date will practically beg for interruption. On my second night, I watched a young man and his date at Table 63. He gripped his glass a little too tightly and drank his cocktail a little too quickly. "He's clearly nervous about something," I thought. Later that evening he proposed to his girlfriend.
Sometimes, providing hospitality means providing a sympathetic ear. On Thursday, three twenty-something hipsters arrived in a limousine with three knockout blonds and were seated at Table 27. "Call girls," the host whispered. I was skeptical, until two of the girls-we dubbed them Brandy and Savannah-left Table 27 and draped themselves over two older gentlemen at Table 28. They soon began doing a standing lap dance (until the manager suggested that perhaps they might continue to enjoy their evening at their tables).