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One On 1: Restaurateur Danny Meyer

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NY1's Budd Mishkin continues his series, "One On 1," with a profile of one of the most successful restaurateurs in the city, and in the country, Danny Meyer.

 View the full, uncut interview with our web-only "One On 1 Extra" feature at the bottom of the page.


It should come as no shock that restaurateur Danny Meyer is passionate about food. All types of food.

“I can find as much pleasure trying to hunt down the best pulled pork sandwich in North Carolina, in fact, sometimes greater pleasure doing that than trying to find the best three-star Michelin restaurant in Paris,” he says.

Danny Meyer and his restaurants are so successful now that he doesn't need to go to North Carolina for some good pulled pork - it comes to him.

Meyer is one of the driving forces behind the annual Big Apple Barbecue Block Party in Madison Square Park, hosting a seminar called "Wine For Swine" at one of his places, the Jazz Standard.

Meyer is so passionate about food he doesn't even need to taste it. Walking through the Union Square Green Market with one of his chefs, Michael Romano, Meyer can simply smell it.

"When you walk through this green market, you know exactly what day of the year it is,” he says. “And you can almost go through here with your eyes closed and know that there's going to be a point where you smell strawberries, there's going to be a day where you smell peaches and apricots."

This year, the James Beard Foundation, the Oscars of the food world, named Meyer the nation's best restaurateur, 20 years after he opened his first restaurant, the Union Square Cafe, which quickly became known for breaking the rules.

"Who ever wrote the rule that you can't have a neighborhood restaurant with a three-star chef, with down-to-earth, intelligent waiters, with a great wine list and really good value because it is in an emerging neighborhood?” he says.

“Emerging” is one way of describing the Union Square neighborhood 20 years ago. But a friend in the real estate business advised him, go there.

"Every Saturday morning you got to basically trip over the chalk outline of someone who was shot outside the Underground nightclub, and that actually lasted for the first six months we were in business here,” he says. “But she said, ÎTrust me, this neighborhood is going to hit, and you can help make it happen.’”

And it happened. A good review in the New York Times helped put Union Square CafŽ on the map. It led to the Gramercy Tavern, Eleven Madison Park, Tabla, Blue Smoke, the Jazz Standard, and perhaps Meyer’s quirkiest venture, the Shake Shack in Madison Square Park.

The last place is a chance for the St. Louis native to bring his old home to his new home and break the rules once again.

"Back home, it was the car culture with parking lots that gave rise to these great places,” he says. “New York City doesn't really have an automobile culture, but we said, ÎWell, whoever wrote the rule that the park couldn't take the place of a parking lot?’"

Meyer settled on the name Shake Shack, and then remembered watching a scene from the movie "Grease."

“The scene takes place in front of a stage set for an amusement park, and the ride that John Travolta and Olivia Newton John is dancing in front of is called Shake Shack,” he says. “Obviously in the 10 previous times I had seen the movie something had stuck in my mind subliminally, but I was totally not conscious of it when we named it Shake Shack.”

A portion of the Shake Shack's earnings goes back into the park, combining Meyer's desire to have a positive effect on his community with his penchant for creating something that hadn't previously existed.

“It's a great opportunity to succeed and to set a bar at the highest level that we possibly can and know there don't have to be losers, and in fact it can blaze a trail for other people to win," he says.

Danny Meyer has always had a bug about food. His father was in the travel business, specializing in leading tours through France.

“We had a French poodle named Ratatouille, which was a very strange thing to have to explain to your friends in second grade what ratatouille is," he says.

In the late 70's he went off to Trinity College in Connecticut, studied political science, and still couldn't shake the food bug. But make a living at it? Not at that time.

“If you went home and you told your parents, ÎGee, mom and dad, what I really want to do with my poly-sci degree is to open a restaurant,’ they would have done exactly what my parents did, which was to say, ÎWhat? You’ve got to be crazy,’” he says.

Meyer came to New York, got a job in sales, got to know all of New York's nooks and crannies and more importantly, its ethnic restaurants.

He almost took a more traditional path.

"I knew I didn't want to become a lawyer, and I freaked out the night before my LSAT’s,” he says. “My uncle Richard Polsky, who is an artist here in New York City, said, ÎWhy don't you do what you’ve been dreaming about your whole life?’” he says. “Blankly, I said, ÎWhat are you talking about?’ He said, ÎYou've been talking about restaurants ever since I've known you.’”

That was it. Meyer took the plunge, and after a year managing a seafood restaurant called Pesca, he opened Union Square CafŽ.

"Back in those days, the way a restaurant distinguished itself was by charging high prices, and I thought that was sick," he says. “It just didn't make any sense to me. In other words, the best restaurants were the most expensive. It wasn't necessarily that they were the best. I had just gotten back from living in Rome for almost year and a half, and the dollar was so strong in Rome so that I was buying the best bowl of pasta in the world for a 1,000 lira, which basically translated to .80-cents. And I was aghast to come back in 1984 to see restaurants at that time in New York City charging $18 for a bowl of pasta as a main course."

Union Square CafŽ would go on to win Best Restaurant in the Country from the James Beard Foundation, and Top Restaurant in the City by Zagat. But it would be another decade before Meyer decided to open a second restaurant, Gramercy Tavern.

“I thought I'd made the greatest professional mistake of my life in opening a second restaurant, because I was sure that that was the sure recipe to do-in Union Square CafŽ, and Gramercy wouldn't be any good, and my own personal life was going to be in shambles," he says.

It hasn't quite worked out that way. Meyer is married with four children. He now owns six restaurants and the seasonal Shake Shack in Madison Square Park.

His latest venture? His Union Square Hospitality Group oversees the restaurants at the Museum of Modern Art.

And the hospitality doesn't stop in the restaurants. The Union Square Hospitality Group provides food for City Harvest, and also brings meals to hospice patients and families at Beth Israel Medical Center.

Meyer says he learned the power of bringing people together over food at his family's table growing up in St. Louis, but he also learned some other important lessons. He says his father was a brilliant entrepreneur who managed to go bankrupt in two businesses.

“He had surrounded himself with nice people who made him feel better because they weren’t as good as he was at what he did,” he says. “And early on I learned that I want to have cooks who can cook circles around me, and general managers who can manage restaurants better than me, and financial people who can balance books a lot better than I can."

Whatever the history, whatever the method, whatever the inspiration, it's working for Danny Meyer.

“I don't ever want to grow up, and if being success means I have to act a certain way in public, I don't want to do that,” he says. “I work hard, but I work hard not because I am or am not successful - it's because I love what I do."

- Budd Mishkin

ONE ON 1 EXTRA

 Take a behind-the-scenes look at this week's "One On 1" profile with Budd Mishkin's full, uncut interview in Real Video:

  PART 1

  PART 2

  PART 3

  PART 4

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