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Straight Talk With Wine Spectator: Danny Meyer On The Restaurant Recovery

June 10, 2021

Few people are better positioned to weigh in on the state of the restaurant industry’s recovery efforts than Danny Meyer, CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group, whose portfolio includes celebrated eateries like Gramercy Tavern, The Modern, and Maialino. Meyer recently spoke with Wine Spectator news editor Mitch Frank on Instagram Live series Straight Talk with Wine Spectator, providing a detailed assessment of business conditions, the challenges of resuming operations, and how the hospitality industry can be improved over the long term.

Speaking first on the state of reopening efforts, Meyer expressed relief over the lifting of restrictions but noted some incongruities in the rules that remain frustrating. Namely, though New York City restaurants are once again allowed to operate at 100% capacity, they still must maintain six feet of separation between parties, which ultimately has the same effect of limiting occupancy. “Not many New York City restaurants have six feet between their tables, so if you follow the rules as we do, it’s still not really 100% capacity,” Meyer said.

He was quick to note, though, that compared to the dire prospects the hospitality industry faced as recently as last November, issues of table spacing are relatively minor. He recalled the inherent tension of needing to run a business while watching case counts spike nationwide and effusively praised the creators of the Covid-19 vaccine, saying he cannot express enough gratitude for their achievement and its pivotal role in jump-starting the economy again.

Turning toward remaining challenges, Meyer was frank discussing the massive staff turnover in his restaurants as a result of closures and layoffs. “A lot of restaurant talent, in the kitchen and dining room, took another job in another industry,” he said. “While we did manage to retain almost all our chefs and general managers, there is a case or two where we don’t have a chef that’s been with the restaurant before. So you may go back to a restaurant you love and find that dishes and people you remember have moved on.”

From there, the conversation touched on how the hospitality industry plans to entice workers back to a field synonymous with long hours and low pay. Meyer acknowledged the need for change, saying the industry had problems that needed to be addressed before the pandemic hit, and that many of the best restaurant companies “are working hard to make a career in hospitality a career that actually fits into a life that is more balanced.”

He backed up this point with thoughts on diversity and equality, something he has placed at the forefront of improving Union Square Hospitality moving forward. Covid and its fallout, he said, has provided a golden opportunity to improve in this regard. Union Square Hospitality had set diversity goals for its restaurants’ staff to reflect the make-up of their surrounding neighborhoods and for staff to feel an adequate sense of belonging at work by 2025, but Meyer now expects that, due to turnover, the goals will be met by the end of this year. “It’s all well and good to be diverse, but if you don’t beef up a sense of belonging, and a voice, and a real seat at the table, that’s akin to inviting someone to a party and ignoring them,” he said. “Belonging is the most important thing.”—Danny Sullivan

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