Danny Meyer - Creating a Better World Through Enlightened Hospitality


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Danny Meyer

Danny Meyer

Why would a man pursuing a career in law and politics suddenly give it all up and gamble his future on a restaurant? Just ask Danny Meyer, who turned that one restaurant into a hospitality empire and eventually founded Shake Shack, the beloved burger spot with over 250 locations around the world.

Aside from the countless awards Danny Meyer has earned as a restaurateur, he also penned Setting the Table, which distills his philosophy on hospitality and leadership. But in his earlier years, he wouldn’t have predicted this future for himself.

After the success of his first restaurant, he wanted to prove to himself that it wasn’t a fluke. That challenge brought him face to face with a harsh reality: he was a horrible manager. If he was going to make both restaurants work, he had to sharpen his leadership skills and instill the values of enlightened hospitality into his team so they could carry on in his absence. This self-improvement mission would be the spark for Danny’s restaurant empire: Gramercy Tavern, Blue Smoke and Jazz Standard, Shake Shack, The Modern, and many more.

Today, with his philosophy of enlightened hospitality and belief in the importance of building community wealth, Danny Meyer continually prods the restaurant industry to level up and create better career opportunities for its workers, while challenging himself to share his insights with new industries through his investment fund.

More About Danny Meyer

Born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, Danny Meyer grew up in a family that relished great food and hospitality. Thanks to his father’s travel business, which designed custom European trips, Danny spent much of his childhood eating, visiting near and far-off places, and sowing the seeds for his future passion. In 1985, at the age of 27, Danny opened his first restaurant, Union Square Cafe, launching what would become a lifelong career in hospitality. 

Thirty years later, Danny’s Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG) comprises some of New York’s most beloved and acclaimed restaurants, including Gramercy Tavern, The Modern, Maialino, and more. Danny and USHG founded Shake Shack, the modern-day “roadside” burger restaurant, which became a public company in 2015. USHG also offers large-scale event services, foodservice solutions for public and private institutions, industry consulting, and educational programming. 

Under Danny’s leadership, USHG is renowned not only for its acclaimed restaurants but also for its distinctive and celebrated culture of Enlightened Hospitality. This guiding principle of prioritizing employees first and foremost has driven and shaped USHG’s ongoing evolution from a small group of restaurants into a multi-faceted hospitality organization.

Danny and USHG’s diverse ventures have added to the hospitality dialogue in many contexts including dining options in museums, sports arenas, and cultural institutions, as well as prescient investments in burgeoning neighborhoods. In 2016, USHG launched a pioneering initiative to eliminate tipping throughout its New York restaurants. This new way of business, called Hospitality Included, is designed to compensate the restaurant team more equitably and professionally, while providing clear paths for professional advancement.

Danny’s groundbreaking business book, Setting the Table (HarperCollins, 2006), a New York Times Bestseller, articulates a set of signature business and life principles that translate to a wide range of industries. A celebrated speaker and educator, Danny has set industry standards in areas such as hiring practices, innovative leadership, and corporate responsibility and addresses a wide range of audiences on such topics around the country.

Danny has been generously recognized for his leadership, business achievements, and humanitarianism, including the 2017 Julia Child Award, the 2015 TIME 100 “Most Influential People” list, the 2012 Aspen Institute Preston Robert Tisch Award in Civic Leadership, the 2011 NYU Lewis Rudin Award for Exemplary Service to New York City, and the 2000 IFMA Gold Plate Award. Together, Danny and USHG’s restaurants and individuals have won an unprecedented 28 James Beard Awards, including Outstanding Restaurateur (2005) and Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America (1996).

Danny and his wife, Audrey, live in New York City and have four children.

Read the full transcript here.

Key Topics:

  • Introducing Danny. [00:42]

  • Why Danny wrote Setting The Table in secret. [01:51]

  • Missing out on genuine interactions in a highly transactional society [03:08]

  • Danny’s philosophy on hospitality as an organizational principle. [04:12]

  • The turning point of Danny’s professional life. [06:53]

  • Developing a unique leadership style by managing volunteers. [10:04]

  • Having a growth mentality towards employees. [11:42]

  • Early lessons from Rich Melman. [12:42]

  • Finding and hiring for the 51%. [14:16]

  • Why Danny was so hesitant about opening a second restaurant. [16:45]

  • Being forced to become a better manager. [18:14]

  • Managing difficult family dynamics. [19:41]

  • Why you shouldn’t spend too much money on your first venture. [20:31] 

  • Learning what it means to be responsible to your investors. [22:28]

  • Early inspiration for Shake Shack. [25:25]

  • Restoring Madison Square Park. [25:51]

  • Testing Danny’s theory of enlightened hospitality with a hot dog cart. [27:17]

  • Building community wealth. [30:06]

  • The role Shake Shack plays in the Madison Square Park community. [30:51]

  • The downside of the tipping system. [32:45]

  • Taking the restaurant industry to the next level. [37:25]

  • Managing with constant gentle pressure. [41:32]

  • Investing in enlightened hospitality. [43:11]

Mentioned in this Episode:

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