This Blog is the 8th, in a series of EIGHT, that focuses on the success behind Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group.  

Part One

The benefits of re-visiting a case-study business nearly 6-months after an initial visit is that we witness growth, we’re gifted another layer of information – we even meet ‘the father’ – the progenitor himself.

It’s a cliché I know, but Danny Meyer appears smaller in life. Yet somehow, he also looms larger.

He manages to achieve, what so many other passionate business owners find too difficult, he successfully passes responsibility to others who are well-deserving.

He would never have achieved such phenomenal growth without the humility to focus on providing opportunities for others.

It’s a bit artless to make simple comparisons, and especially with people I don’t know, but The New York Times article on the ‘celebrity restaurateur’ Drew Nieporent caught my attention; Drew Nieporent May be the Last Old-School Restaurateur Standing by Alan Richman September 12, 2017.

I have no idea how accurate the article is on Nieporent, but by way of contemporary peer comparison, it clearly illustrates what I want to claim about Meyer and effective 21st Century leadership.

The article on Nieporent emphasises his “intensely hands-on” approach, and seems to applaud the cult of the man, “If you’re a friend of Drew, you get in the door”.

He is a “commanding figure” who emphasises talent, “ignoring the potential for anxiety”. The article is punctuated with the terms resentment, feud and strong disagreement and fights.

As enormously successful as Nieporent has been, I detect more than a smidgeon of nostalgia for old-school social stratification in the article.

Richman claims:

“Say what you will about his fellow empire builders like Danny Meyer, Keith McNally and Nick Valenti: As influential and successful as they have been as hosts, money assemblers and deal makers, none are still patrolling their restaurants with the same passion as Mr. Nieporent.”              

Richman entirely misses the point and confuses the value of passionate expression of self with an effective passion for others.

Meyer’s philosophy Enlightened Hospitality focuses on the well-being of his team. He is driven to create exciting career paths for those whom he has grown to trust due to their own hard work and ability to lift others professionally. Despite his high-profile, he is the quintessential Maxwell Level 5 leader – the humble maker of leaders. Try as you might, that simply cannot be done if a leader is focused on the cult of personality or who micro-manages themselves towards a heart attack.

Meyer doesn’t have to ‘patrol’ his restaurants – nor does he believe for a moment that he is the arbiter of final judgement. Nevertheless, he remains passionately involved at a grass-roots level. He even went out of his way to say “hello” to this couple of non-celebrities from New Zealand. He remains passionate about the positioning of tables, aesthetics, culinary excellence and hobnobbing – most of all, he’s passionate about the people who work with him; alongside him and beyond him.

If ‘old-school’ is a reference to the article’s identification of Nieporent’s supposed ‘Jesus complex’ – then I suspect most effective 21st Century restaurateurs will immediately recognise the hamartia of it all and seek to identify with a Meyer leadership type – despite the threatened “money assemblers” gripe from an old-school journalist. It’s quite possible that Richman has betrayed his own values rather than Nieporent’s.

Regardless, there’s a lesson here for us all … the cult of personality is as destructive in business as it is in church.

Effective leadership probably means the leader will appear smaller in person.


Part Two

North End Grill is my daughter’s favourite Union Square Hospitality Group restaurant. I mention this not to highlight a team of USHG-like sons Tim, Jairo and Jeff, but to note the growth of Zach.

There is a simple but effective lesson to be learnt here.

Young Zach was our server back in April. He was outstanding. In late-September we noticed he’d been promoted to Floor Manager. I was excited to witness his development, it was well-deserved, but what I loved was his polished business card delivery.

I noted, in an earlier blog, a common industry gripe; that the hospitality industry isn’t taken seriously enough by employees.

My observation was that we don’t routinely take our employees seriously.

Zach’s North End Grill business card illustrates that point well. How many restaurants take their people seriously enough to prioritise something as simple and effective as a business card?

Zach is metaphorically the face of the USHG – he is the one who delivers exceptional hospitality to guests every day. He is the one smiling and sacrificing his feet.

The business card demonstrates to him, and others, that he is important and that his role is pivotal. He’s trusted to connect professionally and personally while working and he is honoured as a representative of the company.

Go, Zach – you might have Tim’s GM job by the time we get back!


Part Three

There’s a spirit of connection created when someone uses your name. It’s the simplest tool of hospitality and incredibly effective.

We had the pleasure of visiting the latest USHG concepts in September, most casual and a lesson in effective branding and concept creation.

One powerful message from these new ‘over-the-counter’ concepts is that even the most casual of commercial encounters is a moment to express hospitality.

Hospitality is there when you blur the commercial nature of the transaction and make the customer feel like a guest.

Our names were learnt and used meaningfully to create instant connection and a gateway to a relationship. Every USHG over-the-counter concept did this beautifully.

The atmosphere changes when a guest’s name is used with a bit of soul; when we aren’t a number or even a name said flatly.

Use names, remember names – use them to connect and create relationships; it’s still one of the most effective forms of ‘doing business’ I’ve ever seen.

Reflections on New York, Alexis O’Connell for The Hospitality Company