Danny Meyer, one of the most influential restaurateurs in modern dining, is stepping down as CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG). It’s a big deal: Meyer founded the New York-based company nearly 40 years ago, and in that time the success of his businesses, such as Gramercy Tavern and Shake Shack, has shaped a lot of the norms in the hospitality industry. His “employees first” and “enlightened hospitality” mantras influenced how a generation of restaurateurs talked to (and about) their staff, while his book, Setting the Table, became a bible for many in the industry. Since then, critics have called into question how much influence he should have had all along—but the fact remains that for years, Meyer and USHG were considered a gold standard for how to run restaurants. By many, they still are.
Current president and chief operating officer Chip Wade will take over on September 6. Before joining USHG in 2019, he was the executive vice president of operations at Red Lobster and the senior vice president at its former parent company, Darden Restaurants. This doesn’t mark the end of Meyer’s influence in the food world though: The restaurateur will remain involved at USHG to help craft new restaurants. He’s also still the board chairman of Shake Shack, which is a separate company, and a partner at Enlightened Hospitality Investments, which backs businesses such as Salt & Straw and Goldbelly.
As the chef steps away from the day to day of running his group of thirteen distinct USHG restaurant concepts, here’s a look back at some of the most notable aspects of Meyer’s career as CEO of USHG, and some predictions for what he may do next.
Union Square Cafe played a notable role in New York restaurants’ use of seasonal ingredients.
In 1985, a then-27-year-old Meyer opened Union Square Cafe in New York City, and the restaurant eventually became a dining institution. Its American- and Italian-influenced menu was shaped by the availability of produce from the nearby Union Square Greenmarket, which has since become foundational to New York’s dining scene. Its service was also congenial, a hallmark of Meyer’s style that’s been copied by restaurateurs across the country.
Union Square Cafe’s popularity paved the way for the whole Meyer empire. In standard New York fashion, the original location closed due to a rent hike. It reopened a few blocks away in 2016, and by then, the company had other favorites like Gramercy Tavern, Marta, Maialino, and The Modern.
Meyer prioritized working conditions at USHG restaurants, and influenced others to follow suit.
Throughout his long career, Meyer strived to make USHG a haven for employees in an industry known for its long hours, low wages, and at times abusive dynamics. He famously operated from the perspective that if you put your employees first, the customers will follow.
In 2015, Meyer introduced a “Hospitality Included” policy, which eliminated tipping from all USHG restaurants. The move was intended to create more wage equity between servers, who received gratuity, and the kitchen staffers, who didn’t. (In New York and Washington DC, where USHG operates, labor laws dictate that tips are limited to workers who spend the majority of their time interacting with customers.) To ensure the policy was viable, Meyer increased menu prices, wages, and introduced employee benefits—like family and parental leave policies, ESL classes, and a 401k matching program. Though he wasn’t the first to nix restaurant tips, the USHG news caused tidal waves in the industry and sparked a national anti-gratuity movement, with David Chang, Tom Colicchio, Andrew Tarlow, and others following suit. The thinking, it seemed, was that if someone with as many employees as Meyer could successfully make the shift, surely anyone could.