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Becoming the greatest restaurateur

How Danny Meyer transformed the hospitality industry


If you’ve eaten out in New York City the past couple of decades, chances are a restaurateur named Danny Meyer has had an impact on how your meal went.

As founder and CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group, Danny Meyer has grown his empire to include some of New York’s most beloved and acclaimed restaurants and cafes, including Gramercy Tavern, The Modern and Blue Smoke. Together, Danny Meyer’s restaurants and team have won an unprecedented 28 James Beard Awards – the food industry’s highest honor.

Becoming the greatest restaurateur

It’s notoriously difficult to succeed in the restaurant business – yet Danny has done it again and again. In this episode, he shares with Tony how he’s managed to scale his business, which includes Shake Shack, the fast-casual restaurant he founded in 2001. With Danny at the helm, what started as a single hot dog cart in Madison Square Garden is now a publicly traded company with half a billion dollars in annual revenue, approaching 300 locations and 6,000 employees.

But it’s not just great food that makes Danny the greatest restaurateur. It’s what people experience and feel when they’re eating at his restaurants. In fact, Danny Meyer’s story is a remarkable testament to the sheer power of hospitality.

Building a culture of hospitality

Hospitality is something that can make or break any business, regardless of industry – and it’s not just how you treat your customers or clients. According to Danny, hospitality begins with how you treat your employees – unconventional wisdom considering the “put the client first” mentality that most businesses, understandably, adopt. Yet it makes sense: Employees who look forward to coming to work are going to be happier, friendlier and provide better service, which will help your business create the raving fan customers it needs to thrive.

How do you create that culture? First, you must know your company’s values and exemplify them. Only then can you hold others accountable to them. Regularly take the temperature of how things are feeling around your business. Take care of your culture, encourage the behaviors you want and clean up those that you don’t want. Most of all, you must be a great leader.

Danny says that “A great leader first and foremost has to express what success looks like.” They shine a light on others’ successes. They make it OK to make mistakes. He says, “I will put up with any mistake that does not lack integrity.” Because he knows that mistakes are often a sign of progress.

Hiring the right team

Your company culture starts with leadership, but hiring the right people is also essential. Danny also shares the six qualities he seeks when hiring employees – from bussers to executive chefs: kindness and optimism, intellectual curiosity, work ethic, empathy, self-awareness and integrity. These are the things that make up a high “HQ” or hospitality quotient. People with these qualities are happier when they are making others happy, and that’s what you want in an employee.

Danny also shares what he thinks it takes for entrepreneurs across all industries to succeed in business, and how they can spot, celebrate and encourage these qualities among their employees. Listen now to hear more of Danny’s valuable insights on leadership, entrepreneurship and innovation – and how it all comes down to hard work.

Danny Meyer Podcast

Danny has made his name providing exceptional dining experiences for his patrons, but that alone isn’t enough to fulfill him. He recognizes the importance of giving back, saying, 

“For those of us who make a living by nourishing and nurturing guests in our restaurants, there’s a logical connection to feeding people in our community who don’t have enough.” – Danny Meyer

Danny is committed to extending caring hospitality beyond the walls of his restaurants and into the communities that they serve – and is committed to making the world a better place. He focuses on giving at Union Square Hospitality Group in the areas of hunger relief, child nutrition, and community development and beautification – and supports important community partners like No Kid Hungry and City Harvest food rescue. To learn more about the difference that Union Square Hospitality Group is making in their community, go here.

Show Notes

[01:00] Episode introduction
[03:25] How Danny’s St. Louis upbringing influenced his approach to hospitality
[04:15] Danny is treated poorly in NYC’s most popular restaurants
[04:48] Working for his dad in the tour business
[06:08] The philosophy of “make me feel important”
[06:50] Danny’s Golden Rule of Hospitality
[07:16] The importance of treating everyone like they want to be treated
[08:30] Danny explains enlightened hospitality
[09:03] Hospitality is how you make people feel, not performance
[09:35] Danny’s untraditional hierarchy of stakeholders
[10:44] Guests are never any happier coming to dine than staff members are coming to work
[11:15] Danny takes on the challenge of scaling feelings
[12:48] There are 6 emotional skills that create a high hospitality quotient
[13:29] The 6 emotional skills, explained
[14:28] Giving bonuses for how you make people feel, not metrics
[15:17] How Danny identifies the 6 emotional skills in the interview
[16:20] Why Danny meets with every new hire within two weeks
[16:50] The airplane metaphor in new hire orientation
[17:34] Zappos’ Tony Hsieh’s unique approach to letting people go
[18:08] The importance of treating other employees well
[18:47] The biggest thing any tribe has is a common language
[19:23] Ensuring that you draft the most talented players on the field and in the dugout
[19:52] Who you are in the dugout is most important
[20:19] Keeping a pulse on company culture
[21:25] The four family values of USHG
[22:42] The “Can, Can’t, Will, Won’t” chart at USHG
[23:58] The idea of constant gentle pressure
[24:46] UCLA’s athletic director’s take on culture
[25:37] What makes a great leader
[26:25] Great leaders make it safe to make mistakes
[26:57] Using your leader “fire”
[28:11] How Danny thinks HE could be a better leader
[29:04] The Tony Robbins Leadership Quiz: www.tonyrobbins.com/leader
[29:40] Why slowing down is the secret to success
[30:13] The art of ‘growing where you’re planted’
[30:36] Shake Shack’s early beginnings as a hot dog cart
[31:03] Testing the idea of hospitality at a hot dog cart
[31:58] Shake Shack’s explosive growth
[32:20] What Danny learned seeing his Dad go bankrupt twice
[33:23] What sets Shake Shack apart from other fast food chains
[34:04] The difference with Shake Shack’s IPO
[35:09] Danny’s role as “executive producer” of restaurants
[35:43] How letting go can make us a better leader
[36:37] Letting other people grow
[37:24] Danny’s top advice to a brand new entrepreneur
[38:05] Good entrepreneurs only see up, not down
[38:51] Why you should take pleasure in what your product does for other people
[39:20] There’s no substitution for hard work
[40:11] The shelf life of innovation has gone from 3 years to 3 minutes

Team Tony

Team Tony cultivates, curates and shares Tony Robbins’ stories and core principles, to help others achieve an extraordinary life.

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