After opening Union Square Cafe, it took this famed restaurateur 10 years to open a second. He learned that you can't rush soul.
Danny Meyer is founder and CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group, which owns many New York restaurants, including Blue Smoke, Gramercy Tavern, and Shake Shack. Meyer is also the author of Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business. He spoke with Inc. reporter Issie Lapowsky.
I'll never forget sitting in the living room with my brother, sister, and mom as my dad tearfully told us his travel company was not going to make it. As a 14-year-old, I'd never heard the word bankruptcy before. After that, I always associated his bankruptcy with overexpansion. I think that's why after my first restaurant, Union Square Cafe, opened, it took me 10 years to open a second one. Now I realize, despite whatever emotional issues led me to go slowly, I gave myself a real gift. I was able to take a deep dive into the skills of being a restaurateur in a way that I never would have done had I lacked that patience.
It's easy to think running a business has to be a sprint. If I've learned anything at all, it's that if you're lucky enough to lead a healthy, long life, there's time.
During those first 10 years, I learned the value of allowing a business to develop its soul. Soul happens almost as slowly as it takes for a baseball glove to break in; you have to play catch for a really long time.
Time helped Union Square Cafe achieve something very few businesses do, which is essentiality, the sense that it mattered in people's lives. The shelf life of innovation is about two seconds today. Even if you have the best idea, it's going to get copied. The thing that cannot be copied is how I made you feel.
So for years and years, we did one restaurant at a time. There were 10 years between No. 1 and No. 2, four years between No. 2 and No. 3, and to this day we can really do a one-of-a-kind restaurant only every three years or so. It's like writing a novel. You need to really take time to research and plan it.
One thing I'm really excited about now is expanding two of our restaurants, Shake Shack and Blue Smoke. It's definitely possible to scale patiently. It just means the way we go about it is going to be slower.
If I could wait 10 years to open a second restaurant after Union Square Cafe, I don't really care if this year we're going to open only six restaurants, even if another chain is going to open 26. What we're going for are excellence and authenticity.