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From hot dog cart to hospitality empire

How Danny Meyer, founder of Union Square Hospitality Group, became the greatest restaurateur NYC has ever seen

Listen on Apple Podcasts


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’s restaurants and team have won an unprecedented 28 James Beard Awards – the food industry’s highest honor.

But it’s not just great food that sets Danny’s restaurants apart from the rest. It’s what people experience and feel when they’re eating there. In fact, Danny Meyer’s story is a remarkable testament to the sheer power 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 – an unconventional wisdom considering the “put the client first” mentality that most businesses, understandably, adopt.

In this episode, we explore the unique and celebrated culture of hospitality that Danny has created. He shares with Tony how he’s managed to scale that culture across Union Square Hospitality Group – as well as 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, over 200 locations, and 6,000 employees.

Danny also shares the six qualities he looks for when hiring employees – from bussers to executive chefs – and what he thinks it takes for entrepreneurs across all industries to succeed in business.

Danny Meyer Podcast

Danny Meyer Podcast 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:
[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


“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 Meyer 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 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.

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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