On May 15, 2014, Jonathan sat down with renowned New York City restauranteur, Danny Meyer, to discuss his life in and outside of the restaurant business. Jonathan’s introductory remarks are below and video of the event will be available shortly. The conversation lasts 40 minutes, followed by a Q&A session with members of the audience.
In Conversation with Danny Meyer
May 15, 2014
Good evening. I am Jonathan Fanton, Interim Director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute and it is my pleasure to welcome you to a very special evening. Many of you have been here before to enjoy book discussions like Bruce Katz’s Metropolitan Revolution or to hear global leaders like South African Constitutional Court justice Edwin Cameron. Or attend major conferences like “John Lindsay, New York, and the American Dream,” a fresh look at lessons from his time as Mayor.
But tonight is different. For the past few years I have had a series of public conversations at Roosevelt House with the most interesting people I know personally. Ed Koch was my first guest, followed by former MoMa President Agnes Gund, James Lipton of Inside the Actor’s Studio, Vartan Gregorian of the Carnegie Foundation, Judy Collins, and most recently, Joseph Califano and former Columbia President Michael Sovern.
My guest tonight is Danny Meyer, New York’s leading restaurateur. You know the names, Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern, Maialino, Blue Smoke, Untitled at the Whitney and The Modern at MoMA and, of course, Shake Shack. How many in the audience have eaten at one of Danny’s places?
Danny is from St. Louis, majored in Political Science at Trinity College, worked in Italy in his father’s tour business and opened his first restaurant at age 27, The Union Square Café. And that is how we know each other – I was President of the New School and Chair of the Union Square – 14th Street Local Development Corporation at the time and Danny joined our Board. He was one of the pioneers in the transformation of Union Square from “Needle Park” as it was known in the early 80’s, to the safe, clean, vibrant Park it is today.
He was the model of a responsible, engaged businessman taking an interest in the people, institutions and local businesses that called Union Square home. And when I moved to Chicago to head the MacArthur Foundation, Danny was one of the key people who assumed leadership of the LDC. Speaking of Chicago, we have another tie: his grandfather, Irving Harris was a friend of mine in Chicago as we shared so many interests from the Harris Public Policy School at the University of Chicago to the Ounce of Prevention Fund, which provides underserved communities with high quality early childhood care and education. I know Irving was very proud of Danny’s accomplishments.
Danny has written several books: The Union Square Café Cookbook, Second Helpings From Union Square Café, and the one I like the best, Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business . Setting the Table gives us an insight into Danny’s deep caring for humanity, his respect for his employees and the customer experience, his taste for risk, his dedication to quality.
That quality is reflected in numerous awards and prizes. Danny and the Union Square Hospitality Group account for 14 James Beard Awards, and 3 of New York City’s top 10 most popular restaurants according to Zagat’s 2014 Survey, a list that in the past has been topped by Union Square Café and Gramercy Tavern 15 times.
But his recognition goes far beyond his restaurant work. In 2010 Cooper Union recognized him with its Urban Citizenship Award, and NYU followed a year later with the Lewis Rudin Award of Exemplary Service for New York. In addition to the Union Square LDC, Danny has served on the Boards of Share Our Strength, City Harvest and the Madison Square Park Conservancy.
So we have a lot to talk about. Danny and I will chat for about 35-40 minutes and then open to your questions. Our program will finish at 7:15.