NEW YORK - Danny Meyer, CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group, has built one of the most successful restaurant groups in New York City, all of which showcase his unique brand of flawless hospitality. His restaurants, which include Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, Blue Smoke, The Modern, Maialino and the new North End Grill, have won countless awards, Michelin stars and in 2011 occupied three of the five "most popular' restaurants in the Zagat guide. In 2004 Danny developed his first Shake Shack, a modern day "roadside" burger stand, which has been an extraordinary success and already has 20 locations in three countries and five states. His New York Times bestseller Setting the Table explains his philosophy about how the power of hospitality can affect both your business and your life, as illustrated every day through his own hospitality group. Read below and you will see how this shines through everything that Danny does - but, always with great thought and without any pretense.
Where were you born?
St. Louis, Missouri.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
First, a policeman, next a pilot, then a baseball player, and following college, a lawyer. Grateful for where I ended up!
Where/what did you study?
I studied Political Science and English at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. Fortunately for me, Trinity has a campus in Rome - where I spent a semester studying International Politics, with a double minor in trattorias and coffee bars.
Any formal wine training?
No formal wine training, but during a cooking stage in Pessac (Bordeaux) the maitre d'hotel would take me each Sunday to a different chateau. It was quite an education. The day we visited Chateau Mouton-Rothschild (Autumn of 1984) was the day that the groundbreaking collaborative wine project with Robert Mondavi, Opus One, was first being released.
Who was your mentor?
My two mentors were my father and my maternal grandfather. My dad exposed me to travel, cooking, good food and wine; my grandfather provided a model for how to combine doing well in business with doing good in life.
What are your views on agriculture: Sustainable? Organic? Biodynamic?
We select producers of our foods and wines as responsibly as possible - favoring producers who share a commitment to sustainable growing and production values as well as to hospitality. That is what matters to us more than anything else.
What was the best advice you ever received?
"The road to success is paved with mistakes well handled." I learned that important lesson from the late retailing giant, Stanley Marcus, who loved dining at Union Square Cafe when he'd visit New York. I put it to use every single day of my life.
What instantly brings a smile to your face?
Watching guests in any of our restaurants tucking into their food and wine with gusto - and thoroughly enjoying one another's company.
What instantly makes you frown?
Learning that an otherwise great bottle of wine is corked.
Outside wine, what is your passion?
I adore baseball. The St. Louis Cardinals remain my favorite team, and I follow them all season long.
What was the last music you downloaded?
Mumford & Sons new album, "Babel."
What is the last movie you saw?
Trading Places. It's unbelievable, but I hadn't seen it since it first came out almost 30 years ago. It holds up well.
What's your guilty secret?
My favorite food is a good sausage and mushroom pizza. I'll try a version from almost any good pizzeria.
What "addiction" would you most like to give up?
Playing Lexulous (an online version of Scrabble). At any given time, I have up to four games going on with my brother, two cousins, and my brother-in-law.
What are you craving right now?
Shake Shack Frozen Custard. Or Graeter's ice cream. Really any flavor with chocolate chips in it.
Are you superstitious?
Not especially. But I am a cockeyed optimist.
Sunday: Brunch or Lunch?
If I get up and going early enough to run, then brunch. Otherwise lunch. Key is that I get to run before having that big meal, because invariably I consumed more than enough the night before.
Who was the first person you spoke to today?
My son, Peyton. We watch CBS Sunday Morning together every Sunday while others are still debating whether to wake up.
Early to rise, late to bed; burn the candle at both ends?
Definitely a candle burner. Life is way too short to spend it asleep.
How do you keep in shape?
I work out at the gym (Madison Square Club) 3 days each week and jog on Saturdays and Sundays.
Diet or eat everything?
I gauge my exercise regime to allow me to eat practically whatever I want without gaining weight. And I have a very healthy appetite.
What are you reading now?
The Art of the Restaurateur by Nicholas Lander (Phaidon). Except for his questionable taste in selecting the subject matter for chapter 10, Mr. Lander has written exceptionally good book - mandatory reading, I would say, for professional restaurateurs and amateur restaurant-lovers.
My wife is Audrey Heffernan Meyer. We met working together at the seafood restaurant, Pesca in 1984. We've been married for 24 years. Audrey has recently returned to acting and is performing with the Blue Hill Troupe in Grand Hotel.
Four children, ages 13-19. Two girls and two boys.
Favorite place to vacation?
Favorite local hotel?
I've never stayed in a hotel in New York, so I have no local favorites. That said, I'm in the Gramercy Park Hotel practically every day of my life thanks to Maialino and Gramercy Terrace.
Favorite local restaurant?
Any restaurant operated by one of my colleagues - current or past. Lately I've found myself dining in Brooklyn at least once every week.
Favorite restaurant in the world?
Such a hard question - as half the fun of dining out while traveling is the discovery of somewhere new. But these stand out: Taillevent in Paris. Zuni in San Francisco. Al Moro in Rome. Sally's Apizza in New Haven.
Favorite city to visit?
San Francisco, Paris, Rome.
Delta. They have made enormous strides, and I am impressed with their wine selections when fortunate enough to fly business class.
Favorite wine/vintage from your winery?
Evening Land Vineyards 2009 Seven Springs "Summum" Chardonnay, Eola-Amity Hills, Oregon (not mine, but I have a rooting interest in Evening Land Vineyards).
Favorite wine/vintage, that is not yours?
Guiseppe Quintarelli Valpolicella Classico from almost any vintage. Current favorite vintage is 2000, which I could drink every night for the rest of my life if told I had to select just one wine.
Favorite shop to buy clothes?
Arriving at the conclusion that we'd need to close Tabla, our 12-year old Indian restaurant. I loved it and believed it would go on forever.
I'm so proud that our restaurants, chefs, and managers have earned an unprecedented 25 James Beard Awards. Unlike stars from restaurant guides, those awards represent enormous respect from professional colleagues - and they cannot be lost over time.
If you can choose your perfect last supper before leaving this world, what would it be, who would it be with and what would you drink with it?
I'd go to the town of Panzano in Chianti with my wife - with my kids, my brother and sister and their families, my mom, and a small handful of close friends. We'd grill gorgeous, thick Chianina steaks from the butcher, Dario Cecchini. The meal would begin with platters of salumi, roasted vegetables, pappardelle, accompanied by fagioli drowned in local olive oil, and washed back with at least 5 of my favorite wines from the region. A vertical of Fontodi's Flaccianello would do the trick.