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Talking to Ted: Danny Meyer Suggests Serving Hope, Chicken Soup

Danny Meyer
Danny Meyer
Photo: Courtesy of Danny Meyer

This is the third in a series of five conversations with event pros about what's working now.

If it’s true what they say about history repeating itself, good food may soon be the topic of not just texts and blogs, but jogs. Because the tall, salt-and-pepper-haired man who quietly opened Union Square Cafe 24 years ago, and then went about gastronomically transforming the entire Madison Square Park area with Tabla, 11 Madison Park, and Shake Shack, has set his sights on another piece of turf. This May, Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group is planning to submit a bid for the license to operate Tavern on the Green, and I am hopeful that maybe for once the landmark will live up to its potential.
I watched you on CNBC talking to Jim Cramer about your hospitality index, the 17 companies that you recommend as investments.
In these times, companies that leave their customers with a good feeling will have a big leg up. With so much to worry about, a positive experience stands out more, and the consumer remembers that and will return for more.

Cramer did a follow-up show; your index is outperforming the Dow.
I heard that.

Any thoughts of becoming a hedge fund manager?


So what’s working now?

Thoughtful service. For a group birthday, I ate at the Modern, [Meyer’s restaurant at MoMA] in the bar, and when the kitchen sent out seven plates of dessert, one woman observing Lent couldn’t eat sweets, and felt uncomfortable—as did the rest of us by extension. But the waiter was paying attention, and soon up rolls the cheese cart, to all our delight. I was so proud. He cared, and that left a great impression.

I’m planning an event at Blue Smoke or the Modern for a group of 10 to 20. How can I get the most bang for my buck?

Pick one menu you love in advance, and don’t give your guests a choice during the seated meal. Not only will that save you money, but it will also save time. I’d also recommend looking at your wine choices; spend less on the white wine and a little more on the red. People drink a lot more white at a party—especially because in the early hours, folks are getting to know one another. By the time they get to the main course, most people have slowed down a bit.

Any tricks for getting people in the door?
Lower prices. Anyone who is not doing that is either lying or losing business. We have all sorts of new prix fixes. Or let’s say you have a small group and you want to make it an occasion. You can go to 11 Madison Park to the private dining room. You’ll have to share it with other people, but it is still a heightened experience.

Sounds great.

By the way, can you mention that 11 Madison just got the nod from Relais & Châteaux?

Any other promotions or tricks?
Well, we decided to push chicken soup. It’s the universal feel-good food, right? You can see a chicken soup in the pot of every one of our restaurants, and it’s selling. We’ve also lowered our corkage fee to $10 a bottle of wine at most of our restaurants. We’ve always let people bring their own wines, and now we’re making it even more affordable.

What’s not working now?
Trophy wines. And late night. Restaurants have a hard time generating turns after 9:15, as opposed to a year ago, which would have been 10:30.

How about managing costs? Any tips you are willing to share?
Honestly, costs were much tougher a year ago.

Well, speaking of tips, are people still leaving proper gratuities?
I haven’t heard of any problems.

Summer is on the way, and hopefully with it warmer winds of time. What should I serve for my Memorial Day guests to spur the economy?
Hope. Serve togetherness and fun. And nothing too serious. Barbecue, burgers, spiked milk shakes, pigs in a blanket, artisanal beer on draught, and five kinds of pie: banana cream, strawberry, blueberry, chocolate cream, and black-bottom.

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