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Oh, Danny Boy

For uber-restaurateur Danny Meyer, whose Union Square Hospitality Group (Blue Smoke, Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern, Shake Shack) turned downtown dining on its epicurean head, the dining biz is about more than just serving food—it’s about serving the people and city he loves. 

A jovial Danny Meyer at his Madison Square Park Shake Shack

Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group owns 12 restaurants in NYC, including (clockwise from top) barbeque joint Blue Smoke; Gramercy Tavern; and the first restaurant in his empire, Union Square Café.

The last time I profiled Danny Meyer, who wrote the words above in his book, Setting the Table, he was running four restaurants all in roughly the same neighborhood (Union Square and environs), and had a wife of 10 years (Audrey), three children (Hallie, Charles and Gretchen) and not a gray hair on his head. That was 15 years ago. Back then he was considered a rising star in the restaurant firmament and the architect of an entirely new kind of dining experience: one that featured excellent food, top-notch service and a casual and contemporary setting that wasn’t—surprise!—in midtown.

Meyer wasn’t the only member of this brave new breed of New York restaurateurs. He was in the estimable company of Bobby Flay, Drew Nieporent, Alfred Portale and other pioneers. But, no question about it, Meyer was at the forefront.

His first unveiling, in 1985, was Union Square Café on East 16th Street just off Union Square. Meyer was only 27. In what was formerly a vegetarian restaurant called Brownie’s, USC became an instant hit, particularly among locals, people who worked in the book publishing and advertising worlds and foodies from all over. It may have been the first restaurant of its kind to stay No. 1 on Zagat’s list for an unprecedented six consecutive years.

Gramercy Tavern—a step up in the fine-dining chain and a modern iteration of the American tavern—was next in 1994, and with it came more critical acclaim, including two three-star reviews in The New York Times.

It really does seem like yesterday.

Fast-forward to 2013, and Danny Meyer’s enterprise (now known as the Union Square Hospitality Group, or USHG) has grown exponentially. He’s been married for a quarter of a century, has four kids (along came Peyton in 1999) and could compete with President Obama in the gray-hair department.

To me, however, he’s the same adorable guy I first met on the side of a mountain in Aspen during the Food & Wine Classic in the late ’80s. He was about to take a hike, literally. Off he went into the clouds; when he returned some hours later, he’d strained every muscle in his body but was grinning as if he’d won an Olympic medal. And he’s been grinning almost ever since.

Danny Meyer, born in St. Louis, Mo., and a die-hard Cardinals fan, has long loved food, wine and adventure (his father was a travel agent). While a student at Trinity College, he went to Rome and worked as a tour guide. After graduation, he ran a presidential political campaign for an independent candidate in Chicago. Finally he relocated to Manhattan, but with no grand plan—all he knew was, whatever he did, it would have something to do with restaurants.

“Everything that has happened has been completely organic and opportunistic,” Meyer says. “I have a cousin who had a jazz club downstairs on East 27th Street, and a restaurant on the ground floor that wasn’t doing well. I wanted to help him out. Rocco Landesman, the Broadway producer, told me that what we needed in New York was authentic barbecue.” Voilà: Blue Smoke was born.

The late Paul Gottlieb, head of Harry N. Abrams and a regular at Meyer’s restaurants, opened the doors to the Museum of Modern Art when the museum was looking for a company to handle its on-site food services. Meyer had to prove to MoMA that his team was capable of running two cafes, a cafeteria, a staff commissary, a free-standing restaurant (The Modern) and a preferred catering service.

Meyer’s first four restaurants were in the Union Square area and within walking distance of each other, including two across from Madison Square Park, Eleven Madison Park and Tabla. “I could easily visit all of them during lunchtime,” he says. He’s since sold the former and closed the latter (“That was a difficult time,” he admits), but in 2004 he made yet another foray into the area when he opened a little kiosk in the park called Shake Shack.

“Another opportunity presented itself,” Meyer explains. “Unlike Union Square, where a green market is in use almost every day, Madison Square Park lent itself to an art program. The people behind the program wanted a hot dog cart. I envisioned a kiosk as a way to employ out-of-season coat-checks. Hot dogs expanded to burgers, shakes and frozen custards. I brought in Jeff Flug, a former investment banker, to help launch Shake Shack. We were friends—our wives and kids knew each other.”

Shake Shack was not only a smash, it opened up an entirely new revenue stream (really good fast food) and helped financially during the recession that began in 2008, when, in 2009, a Shake Shack was installed at the new Citi Field. “Sports was one of the only businesses in New York that wasn’t suffering,” he recalls. As of now, there are more than 20 Shake Shacks around the country, and even in Kuwait City and Dubai (and don’t call it Sheik Shack); this month, another will open in London.

So what’s the USHG formula for success? Answer: There is no formula. Meyer simply ascribes to what he calls his “three burning desires”: having a big idea; getting the right people; and putting a project in the place it belongs. “I’m no longer a restaurateur,” Meyer says. “I’m the chairman of the board of a restaurant company, which is like being an executive producer. I still have the chance to shape the vision and the culture, but I don’t personally run any of the businesses. This gives me a reason to be an even stronger executive, and to make sure my company becomes an even greater place to work.”

Meyer describes his philosophy as “enlightened hospitality,” a phrase he coined that became the basis for his 2006 book Setting the Table. The feel-good approach puts his employees (all 2,500 of them) first, followed by, in descending order, guests, community, suppliers and investors.

Meyer realizes that making his staff’s needs a priority engenders loyalty—which explains why his top people have been with him for years. Those in the lower ranks are often promoted, and his chefs—among them Michael Romano, Gabriel Kreuther, Nick Anderer, Floyd Cardoz and Michael Anthony—have risen in stature and in salary. Those who’ve left—Tom Colicchio, Kerry Heffernan, Daniel Humm and several sous chefs—departed fully prepared to focus on their own futures. “One of my greatest joys these days,” admits Meyer, “is going to a restaurant run by alumni.” Call it the Proud Papa Syndrome.

Community concerns play a big part in the USHG enterprise as well. Meyer, and those who work for him, feel they have a personal stake in nurturing their neighborhoods. In keeping with that, they’ve also raised a great deal of money for local and national charities, including Share Our Strength and City Harvest.

As for the accolades—the endless awards and citations (35 as of 2012), the heaped-on praises and pats on the back—Meyer has a tendency to deflect them. “They make me uncomfortable,” he says. “I’m fully aware of what it takes to run this business, and it’s not just one person.” He also dislikes the word “empire” to describe what he’s built.

On the other hand, there’s that old adage about leadership starting at the top. In that regard, Meyer is always trying to beat his own personal best.

“Show me a wave and I’ll ride it,” he’s been known to say. Odds are he’ll ride the next wave, and the one after that, with the same steady determination, boundless charm and customary grace he’s always shown.

How’s that for an accolade?