Danny Meyer: Hospitality and Humanity [The Knowledge Project Ep. #115]

Celebrated restaurateur Danny Meyer discusses the intersection between hospitality and humanity, and why we’re all invested in the hospitality business. In this episode we define hospitality and how to deliver it the right way, how to scale a feeling, whether Meyer is a bricklayer or a mason, hiring great people, why restaurants that survive more than one year still sometimes fail, and so much more.

Meyer is the Chief Executive Officer of the Union Square Hospitality Group, which comprises some of New York’s most beloved and acclaimed restaurants, including Gramercy Tavern, The Modern, and Maialino. In 2004 Meyer and USHG founded the wildly popular Shake Shack, a New York fast casual restaurant chain that has since grown to more than 250 locations around the world.

Here are a few highlights from the conversation:

Hospitality exists when you believe that the person on the other side of the transaction is on your side, when you trust that they’re on your side. It really starts with the people you work with.

What I loved about getting to run a restaurant as a 27-year-old in New York City was I could dabble in everything: writing, marketing, tasting food, tasting wine, learning about all those things, teaching those things, hiring to the core, welcoming guests, all day seating people. I really loved all the aspects of it. And I knew that if I just did one thing, there’s a whole lot of other things I would not have gotten to do.

If you define culture as the way we do things around here and you’re a growing organization, well, of course you have to be doing things differently. You have to do things differently around here. The one thing that must not change is your value system. That’s your compass. North always has to be north, and west has to be west, and east has to be east. But your culture does have to change.

I can look in someone’s eyes and tell you whether they have kind eyes or not, because they’ve been using those eyes their whole life to express emotion. You cannot lie in an interview if you don’t have kind eyes, because I can see that you have not been smiling for a good deal of your life.

As a leader I try to be, number one, self-aware. One of the things I’m aware of is that I definitely am loyal to people who are trying hard to learn. You have to be careful that you haven’t created a cult. A cult could be exclusionary to everybody else who’s not the same. That would be horrible in a business. That would absolutely be the kiss of death to have a team of people where everybody believes the same things, behaves the same way, comes from the same backgrounds.

I think foreign languages are so important. It’s almost to a person what learning to be a scuba diver is for a swimmer. You see a whole new world when you learn someone else’s language that you otherwise didn’t even know existed.

And so much more. It’s time to listen and learn.


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