As much fun as the lunches, dinners, tastings, and chef meet-and-greets can be, sometimes it's more rewarding to be far away from the food and the bubbles, listening to sober stars of the industry discussing the minutiae, some of the details that led to their success. So it was at on Friday at the Esplendor Hotel Breakwater in South Beach where Jennifer Baum of Bullfrog & Baum moderated a panel featuring restaurateur Danny Meyer (the 2014 honoree at the festival’s annual Tribute Dinner) and some members of his Union Square Hospitality Group. The subject? Opening up about the challenges, successes, and “a-ha” moments they’ve experienced in the more than 20 years since Danny’s first restaurant, Union Square Cafe, opened its doors.
You don't necessarily get breaking news out of these kind of events. Mostly you get a feel for the restaurateurs, chefs, and their processes, which if you're looking for insight and clues into what makes some of them successful while others fail, is valuable enough in and of itself. But there were a few good tidbits from Friday's event. One, it was evident during the panel talk when Shake Shack CEO Randy Garutti was talking about his early days with Danny Meyer – speficically before joining him – that he'd interviewed with both Drew Nieporent and Danny Meyer before taking a job at USHG.
Another, that there are plans for Shake Shack in both Chicago and California ("Chicago this year and Texas, but we’ll get there," said Meyer. "We’re taking our time"). Perhaps with the in-the-works California joint somewhere on the horizon, the inevitable In-N-Out and Shake Shack showdown (and the Shake Shack vs. In-N-Out newspaper articles and blog posts) will finally take place in one West Coast market. On a tangent, given that there's In-N-Out in Austin and Shake Shack is opening there late this year, that showdown will likely happen there first. (A showdown in front of Texas natives, and New York and California transplants won't really count though, the true test, the reckoning where Californians finally all acquiesce that their justly beloved burger chain is inferior to Danny Meyer's growing burger empire, has to happen on Cali soil.) You can speculate all you want that this isn't on the USHG radar, but given their business acumen, and the healthy competitive nature that the group discussed, you better believe Danny Meyer and Randy Garutti are very much conscious of this whole story arch.
Regardless, there was plenty else to discern from Chef Nick Anderer (Maialino), Chef Michael Anthony (Gramercy Tavern), Carmen Quagliata (Union Square Caféfo), and Randy Garutti talking with Meyer. Read on for highlghts, keeping in mind that the sounds of South Beach infiltrated the lobby for much of the panel.
On what the USHG folks first noticed when joining the team:
Garutti: "It was really Danny and Drew who were doing the most exciting things in the city. I interviewed at both."
Meyer: (Mouths with a smile) “I didn’t know that.”"Chicago this year and Texas, but we’ll get there," said Meyer of when people might expect USHG to open a Shake Shack in California. "We’re taking our time."
Quagliata: "Every time I came into contact with someone the first week I could tell that they genuinely cared and that there was a sincerity. There was a genuine friendliness."
Anthony: "I was stepping into one of most respected restaurants in the history of New York City. It was so well established, there were so many question marks. How would a young chef make his mark on a restaurant, and essentially not mess up the systems and the charm of the restaurant? I had a perfectly-scripted entrance from Danny Meyer, The guy sitting next to me, Nick Anderer, was working in that kitchen, I was lucky to step into a great team, but almost by chance I was able to work with somebody I admired and who I knew was immensely talented."
Anderer: "I had come back from Italy, I had been working with Mario, and a week before starting at Chanterelle I got a call to go work at Grammercy where for the first three years I worked for Tom Colicchio and his team and then with Michael when he took over. To work with one team and to take some of the best qualities of that one team and keep some of one culture and trasnform it into an experience where it was part of the culture is still there when another team takes over, that was a really interesting and valuable experience."
On transitions at restaurants in the Union Square Hospitality Group and changes at the company in general:
Anthony: “Coming into Gramercy, it was about the evolution of a restaurant, not a revolution. I worked there for about two to two-and-a-half months before making any changes to the menu. Unfortunately, the first step I took was to take a longtime favorite signature dish off the menu: the grilled fillet of beef. Who would have known that people would be so passionate about a grilled filet of beef! But there were some folks that missed it. And believe me, they let us know. I started to get a sense of how strong they felt about it when the emails started rolling in and they started out, ‘How could you take my dish off the menu? I was surprised to get a sense of that possession and ownership.”
Garutti: "The orientation for every manager of Shake Shack includes them getting to meet with the chefs and sous-chefs, Danny is at the heart of all of it, but we all love each others’ restaurants. Years ago when we were both working there, Carmen and I were doing something at Union Square Cafe, and I thought it was the biggest decision I was ever going to make in my life. It was probably about a fork, and I pulled Danny aside and I said, 'I need to discuss this with you,' and he told us at that moment, 'You’re not going to unseat Union Square Cafe with this choice. Go and make a decision.' And that's the key. We have the Danny's faith that we will make the decisions to make our businesses successful."
Meyer: "Each restaurant has an executive chef, even Shake Shack has a chef who has worked at Gramercy Tavern. We have a celebrity chef in every restaurant and what they all have in common is a philosophy about how to make business decisions and what matters. And they all agree that we put our employees first, our customers second, our community third, our suppliers fourth, and our investors fifth."
How does a restaurant like Maialino happen?
Anderer: "This all started because I was approached by our new director of business development. The two of them are always scouring the city and looking at opportunities. And he asked me, 'Would you be interested in doing something Roman-inspired.' And Danny and I had both done history programs in Rome several years apart, and I was like, 'Are you kidding me? Hell yeah!' And then that all happened really, really fast. I feel like the next day we were on a flight to Rome to look for ideas to open Maialino. You know, I don’t know how much people know how competitive Danny is, and how competitive we all are. We’re constatnly feeding off of each others’ energy. We'll have staff meetings where people will recap what they've done lately, and another team will come in really strong, and we'll come off of it asking ourselves and each other, 'What did we do wrong? What can we do better than that?' I have this feeling inside, we all do, of how can we do something differently, or even better? Or even better than they did it. We feed off each other that way."
Meyer: "We call it 'sibling revelry.' There is competition. That’s a good thing. We've done something in the past that we call the 'Barrista Olympics.' Each one of our restaurants nominated who they thought was their best barrista, and they would compete to see who could make the best espresso, the best cappuccino, and the best fancy coffee. And we gave them prizes. And what was great was that we were able to create sibling rivalry where we had people coming in from each restaurant rooting for their own guy, and a sense of house pride rooting for own restaurant, and also a sense of working for a greater whole. And as a result, you know what? Our coffee programs for all of our restauants all got better! We’ll look at three or four other things we want to get better at and do the same thing. Hiring in hospitality, it isn't just about hugs. Hugs are important, and we hire for that, for people who will make other people happy, but we want people who want to lead the league in all categories."
If you were not a chef what would you be?
Anderer: "A surfer. A competitive surfer."
Anthony: "A journalist."
Quagliata: "I would be the senator of Kansas."
Garutti: "A college basketball coach. And I feel like I'm still young enough to squeeze that in."
Meyer: "I’d like to write more. And then occasionally I have fantasies of being in private equity. I really like betting on people and ideas and they don’t always have to be mine."