“Someone sent me a box of hot dogs,” Danny Meyer said as he entered Union Square Café, his oldest restaurant, holding a large cardboard package. He placed the package on the bar, took off his mask, and opened a cover letter, from the owner of a series of hot dog joints in Utah. The letter thanked Meyer for writing “Setting the Table,” his 2006 bestseller about the power of risk-taking, eye contact, and rushed tablecloths. Meyer smiles.
The day before, New York had officially started its reopening, which meant restaurants could once again start filling their dining rooms. The past year has been the most difficult of Meyer’s golden career. When the pandemic hit, his company, Union Square Hospitality Group, closed its nineteen restaurants as well as its event business, which provided catering to airplanes, stadiums, galas and weddings. This meant laying off some two thousand people. A few days later, Floyd Cardoz, the chef who opened Tabla with Meyer, in 1998, died of COVID-19. Employees fell ill and lost loved ones. Meyer has been publicly criticized for applying for and receiving a loan from the Paycheck Protection Program – which Congress created to bail out small businesses – for Shake Shack, the international burger chain he founded. (Shake Shack returned the ten million dollar loan to the government.) An uninterrupted summer, fall and winter followed. Meyer restaurants have experimented with retail and delivery, as well as shipping chicken potpies, lasagna and other items from coast to coast.
Dinner service had only just begun and Meyer walked into the kitchen to say hello to Lena Ciardullo, the executive chef, who had just returned from maternity leave. How did you feel when cooking again? “The back is sore,” she said. “Cooking is good.” They discussed the past year. Rather than going back to normal, things now felt like they were starting over. “A big mistake is when people say we’re ‘reopening’ restaurants,” he says. “We are opening new restaurants.” The last challenge was staffing. Every place in town was suddenly hiring at the same time. The former employees had left town, or left the industry, or were reluctant to give up unemployment. Before the pandemic, Union Square Café typically had thirteen people in the kitchen for dinner. Now Ciardullo was content with seven. The person who prepared the salads also made the pastries.
“Our old bakery is where we currently pack take out orders,” Ciardullo said. “But that means I have nowhere to put ice cream.”
“Where’s the ice cream?” Meyer asked.
“We don’t have ice cream at the moment,” Ciardullo said.
“Jesus,” Meyer replied.
Someone started frying soft-shell crabs. Meyer left the kitchen, climbed a staircase, and chose a table on the balcony overlooking the dining room. He sat down and listened. “It’s very quiet,” he said sadly. “The sounds of a restaurant are one of the things that I missed the most.” He took a knife and fork, clinked them together, and scratched them on a plate to show what he meant. “It’s music,” he says.
Ciardullo appeared, holding a plate of sourdough slices stacked with cheese and chopped bright green vegetables. “We have burrata, snow peas, pecans,” she says. “Gorgeous,” Meyer said. “Very springy.” He ignored his serving as a visitor ate.
Meyer spoke about the business. Even before the pandemic, he had been deeply involved in debates over compensation and sustainability in the industry. In 2015, its restaurants had removed the tip, in an attempt to compensate for the wage disparity between waiters and kitchen staff. In July, he ditched the experiment, saying during the pandemic he didn’t want to deny any employee the opportunity to earn extra money. It seemed that almost every premise of the business had been tested. It wasn’t all bad news. Meyer glanced over the railing and out the window onto the covered terrace outside. It used to be a gutter, parking spaces. “It could be a savior for the full-service restaurant industry,” he said, of alfresco dining. He seemed amazed at how much resistance had once aroused an idea that now seems obvious. Le Modern, his restaurant at the Museum of Modern Art, overlooks the museum’s sculpture garden, but there had never been tables there. Meyer plans to do so this summer, when the Modern reopens. “We used to think that you can’t have a coffee company right outside a two Michelin star restaurant,” he said. “And now: Hell, yes you can.”
In April, Bill de Blasio appointed Meyer chairman of the board of the city’s Economic Development Corporation, one of those nodes in New York’s power structure that no one has ever heard of but controls. a gigantic amount of money. “They’re still trying to think, where’s the puck going, for jobs?” Meyer said. “De Blasio said: ‘I have a job for the rest of my term, and that is to bring the economy back to the city, bring back as many jobs and tourists, and bring in as many people as possible. at work.’ I thought, how can I not help the city? So I said yes.
The dining room was filled with customers and the music of a restaurant. Laughter bounced off the walls. Scratched chairs. A cappuccino maker whistled. “You can find a lot of good food in this city,” said Meyer, rising from his seat. “Your favorite restaurant, invariably, is the one you love the most.” The last thing he gave a visitor was a handshake. ♦