How Not to Close a Restaurant in New York City

After 24 years without a closing, Union Square Hospitality group CEO Danny Meyer thinks the key to maintaining a brand is to have a sharp point of view.
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TRANSCRIPT

Question: What’s the secret to building and maintaining a brand, especially in New York City?

Danny Meyer: I think the key has been to start every restaurant with a sharp point of view. So we go into each restaurant knowing what it is we’re trying to do. It’s like writing a story but then here’s where it’s different from a story, it’s a highly interactive experience. So the people who come to the restaurant may like part of your original point of view but they may want you to do things a little bit differently and so then it really becomes an ongoing dialog where you’re listening to how the people who like your restaurant would like it even more if only you shifted a little bit.

So you’re having a dialog with your guests, you’re having a dialog with your staff. I think it’s really important to keep the staff as engaged as possible because at the end of the day the restaurant itself is inanimate object and it’s the human beings who work there that are the reason that people like you either want to come back or not. There is a fine line. I’m knocking on wood right now but in 24 years I’ve never had the experience of closing a restaurant. The real fine line is that you’ve got to give people enough of the things they returned for but you’ve got to give people enough new things so they’ll come back as well. If you take away all the reasons that they came back, they may not want to return, but if you don’t change things, they may not want to return. So there’s the art.

Question: Does social media strengthen or weaken a brand?

Danny Meyer: I think what any of the new media is, is actually very old, which is that it’s human nature to want to recommend things to people you like and to want to denigrate things to people you like that you didn’t like. I think that’s always been human nature; we used to call it word of mouth. Now it’s word of Yelp or word of Twitter, or whatever. So it’s really not a new thing, but I think that anyone who has any kind of a business who’s not paying attention to what the world or what their customers are saying, is making a mistake.

Now, it’s equally important that if you’re a radio you want to have antenna that are sharp enough to pick up the stuff that’s out there. But if you’re antenna are so sensitive that they pick up everything, you’re going to pick up static as well that may not be particularly useful. So it’s such a critical thing to learn to tune in the constructive stuff and tune out the stuff that’s just hurtful.

Question: Eleven Madison Park is 11 years old and recently got raised to four stars by the New York Times. Why?

Danny Meyer: The restaurant will be 11 years old this year and I think the secret of any restaurant is you’ve just got to stick at it. You’ve got to stick to the things that you believe in and you’ve got to listen really carefully. In the case of Eleven Madison Park, we listened very, very carefully and we realized that our early point of view wasn’t necessarily on the money. Rather than people using it when we first opened it as a brasserie, which is pretty much what I had envisioned it as, they said instead of saying this is the best brasserie food I’ve ever had in my life, which it would have been if they wanted to use it as a brasserie, they said this food doesn’t seem to be stacking up against this gorgeous decor.

So in order to make Eleven Madison Park into a restaurant that could fulfill its greatest potential, we had to not only listen to our guests but we had to listen to the architecture because the architecture, the bones of that building are not going to change. It’s a gorgeous, beautiful space with lights streaming in. So I feel like we finally gave the space the restaurant it deserved.

Recorded on September 17, 2009