The great Danny Meyer recently spoke in Dublin as part of the Creative Minds series, at the US Ambassador’s residence in Deerfield House.
John McKenna went along to listen, and to get his copy of “The Union Square Café Cookbook” signed.
Techies love to talk about what they call “disruptive innovation”, the way in which their new thing changes the rules of the game, dislodging the old guard, and ushering in the bright new pretender.
In truth, there are few innovators who disrupt things significantly. But one guy who does disrupt things significantly is not a techie at all.
Danny Meyer is, in fact, a restaurateur, the owner of no fewer than 14 restaurants in New York, and founder of Shake Shack, which netted $1.9 billion on the occasion of its i.p.o. last year (Mr Meyer’s cut of that gargantuan sum was, in itself, pretty gargantuan)
Meyer has been disrupting the restaurant industry for quite some time. If you know his name, it’s because he is doing away with tipping in all of his restaurants, a truly radical step in America.
But he was disrupting things 25 years ago, when he stopped allowing people to smoke in his restaurants (New York city followed, and so did we In Ireland, and so have many others, businesses and countries).
When you meet Meyer, he looks like a lawyer, not a restaurateur, and certainly not a disruptor. This is always a good sign – what we call the “David Cronenberg Principle” - by which we mean that if the guy looks like Marilyn Manson, the chances are he cries along to Adele songs.
On the other hand, if he looks like an accountant, the chances are he is precisely the guy who can make the scariest movies imaginable.
Listening to Meyer, and reading his books, it becomes clear that he has the Alice Waters Advantage: he doesn’t think like a restaurateur. Indeed, he wasn’t meant to be one, having followed a non-culinary education path. Being an outsider means he looks at the restaurant business critically, and not in a familial way, and this is the key to his disruptive capacity. If something is stupid, he can see that it is stupid, and he decides to get rid of it – smoking; tipping.
He does this by seeing things upside down. Ask an American CEO what his principal priority is and he will answer, immediately, that it is his “shareholders”, and he will talk about “shareholder value”. (If he doesn’t do this, he will probably get the sack)
Meyer turns this upside down. Here is his list of priorities in running his restaurants:
Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Customers after staff?! The money men at the bottom? What fresh hell is this? asks your inner accountant.
It’s actually a list that is a virtuous circle, which works this way: if the staff are happy they make the customers happy, and happy customers come back which means you make a profit which allows you to take a big picture and take care of your community and because you are making a profit you can pay both your suppliers and your investors.
When Danny Meyer talks about the restaurant game, his language is entirely emotional: it’s like listening to the Dalai Lama explaining how he manages the staff roster. He talks about people “exercising their heart” and his aim is that a visit to any of his restaurants should remain a part of your emotional memory, like the first time you heard Brown-Eyed Girl, or Get Lucky.
Danny Meyer feeds New York by feeding his customer’s emotional hunger. In the process, he disrupts the business every chance he gets.