In 1985, at age 27, Danny launched Union Square Cafe in New York City. Danny Meyer is the CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group, and his restaurants and their chefs have earned an unprecedented seventeen James Beard Awards. He is the coauthor of The Union Square Cafe Cookbook, Second Helpings from Union Square Cafe, and Setting the Table, and he lives in New York City.
Question: What is food television doing to society?
Danny Meyer: Well I think that, like anything else in life, every coin has two sides to it and I think that the good thing about more and more food on television is that we’re now in a country where good ingredients and good cooking and good recipes are not a foreign concept to people. People are much, much more aware of the role that food can play at the table and I think that young people watch the Food Network. Last time I checked it’s rated G. Most of the stories have a happy ending and I think that to the degree that Julia Child was able to make an impact on a whole generation of people when she was the only game in town. I think the Food Network is, believe it or not, having an even bigger impact on even more people. So I think that from the standpoint of being a restaurateur, it’s a good thing because more and more people are interested and follow what’s happening in the food scene.
The other side of the coin is that the restaurant business is not a sitcom and it’s not a reality TV show. It’s a real day-to-day persistent journey about delivering pleasure for other people and it’s a very, very humble pursuit. And I think that the part of the TV aspect of food that may be less helpful is that what plays well on TV is sometimes brashness as opposed to humility. Serving other people is a humble act. It’s the belief that if I do something for you, that’s going to make me feel better. Sometimes that’s not what’s portrayed on TV; it’s cursing and tattoos and brashness, which is fine, but that’s not really what pleasure of the table is all about.
Question: Will the recession change the high-end dining landscape forever?
Danny Meyer: No, I think we’ll see some changes and I think we always have. One of the things that’s amazing about my industry is that there’s just this incredible sense that there’s always going to be a tomorrow. I’ve now been in business long enough to have seen four pretty serious recessions and, fortunately, so far, to have survived them all. But it’s like a mean, nasty wind that blows a heck of a lot of the leaves off the trees.
What I find amazing about my colleagues, there’s this never say die entrepreneurial spirit and behind every leaf that falls off there’s a new bud that blooms and blossoms. What’s fascinating is to see what each recession generates in terms of the next generation of restaurants. I’ll never forget all the way back in 1991, ’92 when there was a recession connected with the Gulf War. Everybody was saying back then this is the end of fine dining, which was totally not true. There was a period during which people were eating more casually but we have long since passed the point as a country where people are not going to go backwards in terms of the quality of what they eat. No one is going to say, “Oh, it’s a recession. Now I want to eat food that doesn’t taste good.” What they might say is, “Okay. I don’t want to spend as much money or I don’t have as much time. Or I don’t want to pay extra for all the trappings of cushy chairs and beautiful art on the walls.”
That type of thing does come and go. The restaurant that we’ll be opening this fall, which will be called Maialino based on my love for Rome is without question a recession baby. It’s going to be a restaurant that I would hope that people could frequent even in a recession. That won’t put it out of business during a good economy, but what I also find fascinating Blue Smoke, which is our barbeque restaurant that has thrived throughout this whole recession was born just a handful of months after 9/11 and it was born in a recession, 2002. Sometimes the restaurants that the buds, the blossoms, that come to life during a recession are some of the most long-lived as a result of that.
A Trattoria in Rome, there are thousands of them. And nobody goes there to find cutting edge. Nobody goes there only for special occasions. What distinguishes one Trattoria from the next is the one that you go to the most frequently. So the restaurants that are created really for the purpose of allowing people to be with people and to break bread without a lot of the trappings, without paying extra money for the fancy plates and the expensive furnishings in the restaurant, and it’s really more about the soul of eating well than it is the refined restaurant experience.
I don’t believe that the refined restaurant experience ever thrives as much in a deep recession but I also believe that there is always going to be a place for a restaurant that is -- that just gives you that extra sense that you took a trip somewhere. We have a restaurant, Eleven Madison Park, that just got four stars in the New York Times and by all rights it should not be doing well in a recession and it’s doing better now than ever.
Recorded on September 17, 2009