Danny Meyer Misses Bumping Into People

Life during lockdown, and still in the spotlight.

Photo: Karsten Moran/The New York Times/Redux
Photo: Karsten Moran/The New York Times/Redux

Since mid-March, Danny Meyer, the Union Square Hospitality Group CEO and Shake Shack founder, has closed 19 restaurants, laid off 2,000 employees, and felt the wrath of the Twitterverse after the burger chain was granted a $10 million small-business government loan (which, the day after we conducted this interview, it returned). We spoke with him about sheltering in place en famille in Connecticut, structural flaws in the government’s stimulus plan, and senior shopping hour.

You were one of the first to close all your restaurants days before the city lockdown. Can you walk us through that timeline?
In February, we started to see a huge number of private parties canceling. Then, on March 5, we hosted an annual breakfast at the Modern, and the Monday after that, there was a report that said the head of the Port Authority of New York had tested positive for the virus. He had attended the breakfast, and while the Department of Health said he could not have possibly transmitted it before the 6th, we brought in a company to disinfect the kitchen, the dining room, and all the kitchens within the cafés at the museum.

Then, on Tuesday the 10th, I got a call from the GM at Union Square Cafe saying they had sent home a sous-chef on Monday who had expressed flulike symptoms. So we closed Union Square Cafe and Daily Provisions, again out of an abundance of caution, and we threw out all the food. So the sous-chef gets the test results back, and they were negative. But I knew we had done the right thing. I called all our leaders: “You know, guys, this is only going to keep happening. Let’s just close everything.”

That’s when people were trying to make delivery and takeout work, which you might have done through your events kitchen, which was still up and running. Why did you decide against it?
On March 25, I woke up and the first call I got was one that [chef] Floyd Cardoz had died [of COVID-19]. It sent our whole organization into shock. He had been a cherished colleague at two different restaurants: Tabla and North End Grill. We had just been together three weeks before. He was great. I spoke with his wife after he died, and she said he’d been in great shape and had no underlying health issues whatsoever. He had been in India before this, and there had been lots of gatherings because it was the fifth anniversary for one of his restaurants there. They were opening a new sweetshop. She was confident that he had not gotten it in any of those settings because there had been zero reported cases of anyone having the virus. He did wear a mask on the flight home, but she’s pretty convinced that he must have picked it up on the airplane, because it was two days after that that his symptoms began.

At that point, I said, “We’re not doing anything. No more cooking. No more asking people to go anywhere for any reason whatsoever.” It made it so real. And at the same time Floyd was in the hospital, so was a longtime colleague and partner, [former Union Square Cafe chef] Michael Romano, who had also contracted the virus. He came out of it, but it was enough.

With no revenue coming in, how did you handle payroll expenses?
We laid off about 80 percent of our whole company. That was the worst day of my entire life. I shifted my mind-set from trying to be an excellent employer to trying to be as good of an unemployer as possible. I cut my salary to zero and set up a 501(c)(3) called USHG HUGS. We sold gift cards, we held an auction; as of last night, we had granted out $721,000 to our colleagues.

The Paycheck Protection Program of the CARES Act was meant to keep workers employed or to hire them back, but it was touted as a measure for small, independent businesses. You applied on behalf of Union Square Hospitality Group restaurants, but when multiunit, publicly traded Shake Shack received a $10 million loan, many on social media lashed out at the company and at you personally.
There should be frustration, and I understand it. The anger is completely legitimate. But I think it’s misdirected to pit restaurant size against restaurant size, because an employee is an employee. That’s what this program is about. I think that there’s a branding problem calling this a small-business loan. I don’t know too many restaurants that have more than 500 employees.

You’re referring to a provision in the PPP allowing multiunit operators to consider each branch its own business if it employed fewer than 500 people.
To make it seem like the size of the restaurant has anything to do with the value of the employee is completely wrongheaded. Every restaurant, whether a bakery, a bar, a beer hall, a three-star Michelin restaurant, or a fast-food chain has workers, and if those workers were laid off, it would be irresponsible for that business not to apply for a loan to be used for the purpose of bringing people back to work. I wasn’t personally involved with Shake Shack’s decision, but if I had heard that they weren’t applying, I would have objected.

You weren’t involved with the decision because as chairman of the board, you aren’t on the management team?
Yeah, that’s correct.

Do you think the PPP is inherently flawed?
Yeah, you needed 18 user manuals to try to figure it out, and even if you did, it was changing day by day. The amount of confusion and misinformation is breathtaking. I would have made it industry by industry, and I would have funded it adequately. And they put in a stipulation that you must hire back your team by June 30. I don’t know how it’s going to be in Montana, but in New York City I will be shocked if any of us is able to hire back our workers by June. So what the plan should have said is that the loan is forgivable if you hire back your team three months after you’re back in full swing.

What’s a typical day like working remotely to figure out how and when operations will resume?
I’m up in northwestern Connecticut with my family. I get to my computer first thing in the morning, and it’s just an intense ten hours every day. The thing that I really miss is bumping into people, literally, either at the restaurants or at the office. Generally, a good idea gets sparked that way. Right now, every meeting is planned.

How is the sheltering in place going?
I’ve never had five consecutive weeks of family dinner in my life. There’s seven of us here, including my daughter Hallie’s boyfriend, who’s finishing his senior year at Yale Law School. So just doing all the cooking and cleaning and being with each other and learning to live with the same people under the same roof, that’s … that’s a job. But I enjoy it. We had a family talent show last night.

What was your contribution?
I played piano and harmonica at the same time to “American Pie”; one of our daughters sang along and turned the pages of the music.

Really? The whole meandering Don McLean song and not the abbreviated Madonna version? Was there a winner?
No, no, no. Not a competition. But there were some pretty cool things.

Who’s in charge of the kitchen?
Hallie’s doing most of the cooking. She started making a pasta every day — pasta is like the national dish of the Meyer family — and she’s always baking cookies and coffee cakes. Our youngest son is baking bread every day; he also makes pizza dough. Audrey, my wife, makes amazing soup. And one of our sons always makes the salads. My contribution is pasta and meat.

What do you do for groceries?
There’s a couple of stores within a 15-minute drive, and we go basically once a week. Since I’m north of 60, I qualify for senior hour. You stand in line in a tent that’s six feet away from the next tent, and when it’s time, they wave you in. We stock up on basics: lots of lettuce, broccoli, broccoli rabe, Brussels sprouts — things that are going to live through the whole week.

A lot of people say they’re eating more than usual. Are you?
Yes, we are. What I love is that lunch becomes leftovers. One night this week, Hallie made mushroom risotto. We had a fair amount left over. The next night, Audrey made her roast chicken, that then led to making a big chicken soup, that then led to making chicken soup with risotto in it. We don’t waste anything. The refrigerator speaks to you.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

*This article appears in the April 27, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Danny Meyer Misses Bumping Into People