Location: You get a lot of credit for sparking the retail renaissance in this neighborhood with opening Union Square Café back in 1985.
Mr. Meyer: I get credit for having been here since 1985—that’s all I get credit for. Survival is a good thing.
In hindsight, that obviously looks like an amazing move. I’m sure people thought you were crazy at the time.
My parents thought I was crazy. First of all, Union Square Park, the only reputation it really had was for drugs.
Nicknamed ‘Needle Park.’
In the early days, when I’d come to Union Square Café early on a Saturday morning, or on a Sunday, invariably there would be the chalk outline of someone who had been shot the night before—right on the sidewalk. The underground nightclub had several shootings. It’s now Petco.
How did you land in this location to begin with? Cheap rent?
There were really three reasons. I had studied at a restaurant called Pesca on 22nd Street. This was back in 1984. And I had gotten a pretty strong sense just from the number of ad firms and publishers that had moved into this neighborhood, escaping some of the uptown high rents on Madison Avenue. And I loved the feel of the place. It was transitioning at that time away from being the men’s garment district. I mean, literally, when I moved in here, you couldn’t walk down 16th Street without bumping into racks of coats that were being pushed up and down the streets. I loved the feeling of that.
I also had cooked in France and Italy before opening Union Square Café. And everything we did in those restaurants was based on going to the market first thing in the morning. I found this incredibly romantic that there was a two-day-a-week greenmarket here. And, thirdly, to your point, the rents were amazing.
Not so much anymore.
I was paying $8 per square foot when we first opened Union Square Café. Right now, eight is a rounding error on some number that’s got three digits before it.
So, in 24 years, you’ve expanded quite a bit: Gramercy Tavern, Tabla, Eleven Madison Park, Blue Smoke, the Modern, Shake Shack in multiple locations—Madison Square Park, the Upper West Side and now Citi Field! How much more culinary real estate do you crave?
I don’t ever crave the real estate at all. One of the words that gets thrown around that kind of makes me sick is ‘empire.’ Because ‘empire’ for me indicates that you can’t eat enough or you can’t grab enough or whatever. And really the thing that motivates me is—and I’m not sure if it’s a vicious cycle or a virtuous cycle—if I don’t grow at a reasonable pace, I will lose talent. And talented human beings are the name of the game.
In the old days, the notion was that if you expanded, you would absolutely undo all the success you had with the first one. Chains expanded but fine dining restaurants didn’t. And I think what we have found through the years is that, if you’re very careful about it, and as long as you don’t expand to the point that you haven’t built soul into your restaurants, which takes time, then it’s actually a way to keep your existing restaurants on the improve, because the only way that restaurants continue to improve is if they continue to attract fresh, ambitious talent. You’ve got to have people who are really good at what they do and, equally important, making people feel good. The only way I can keep those people and get new people is to grow. And if I don’t grow then I think the whole thing could come crumbling down.
The Times has reported that you will also be moving into the former Waikiya space at the Gramercy Park Hotel. What can you say about that project at this point?
As someone who adores parks, and who has worked and lived in the Gramercy Park neighborhood for years—that corner has tempted and beckoned me for some time. Believe it or not, we’ve never done anything within the context of a hotel. We’re excited to create a restaurant that will fulfill its potential as a place neighbors will love, and one that will be a complement to such a beautiful hotel. And I have to admit that I’m intrigued by the possibilities of collaborating with Ian Schrager. I’m not exactly sure where it will end up, but I’m confident that something fresh will certainly come of what we end up doing together.
Does the Citi Field deal mean you are more of a Mets fan than a Yankees fan?
It had to do with the fact that, literally, the year we were opening Blue Smoke, and this was right after 9/11, we were approached by the Yankees, actually, for their minor league stadium …
The one on Staten Island?
Yeah. Asking if we would consider doing barbecue in the stadium, and it sounded like a fun idea; we thought about it for a minute, but we hadn’t even opened our restaurant yet and I kind of said, ‘That’s putting the cart before the horse.’ But we’re all big sports fans and it’s crazy that New York is the culinary capital of the world and yet when it comes to sports it is a disaster. You can’t get any good food because these stadiums were all built when nobody cared about food. Even if you wanted it, there’s nowhere to cook it.
When we opened at MoMA, we had to create a catering company just to handle all the catering work at MoMA. But there was no room to do catering out of MoMA so we had to find a space, which became Hudson Yards Catering. Now we’re in the catering business. We have a facility. We certainly can’t do a whole stadium, but it would be really, really fun to play a role in stadiums. We started talking to sports owners around town. The Wilpons have been eating in our restaurants for years and they really wanted to break the model and have really good stuff there.
I was paying $8 per square foot when we first opened Union Square Café.
The volume is going to be intense there. I mean, obviously, you do tremendous volume in Madison Square Park, already – just from our staff alone.
Thank you. There are three things that have given us a fair amount of confidence. One is Shake Shack, obviously. One is Big Apple Barbecue Block Party, where we serve 100,000 over the course of two days. And then MoMA, where we’re serving, you know, 1,800, almost 2,000 people a day there.
So I think we have a fair bead on how to do high quality and volume. I think the biggest leap for us at Citi Field is that, while the managers are our managers, the staff members work for Aramark. And, furthermore, and we’ll see how this all plays out, but they shift from stand to stand—they shift their own staff members. We could train an entire staff of folks, half of whom may be shifted to somebody else’s booth the next day.
So quality control is an issue.
As long as they don’t shift the cooks, I think we’ll be in good shape. Historically, in a stadium, there’s no cooking being done.
It’s just hot dogs on heated rollers.
Yeah, gimme a bun, pick up a hot dog—that’s the level of cooking! There’s definitely a lot of skill involved in making a Shack burger or making a shake. We’re doing all of our cooking for El Verano taqueria right there at the ballpark.
Do you have any sort of estimate of the number of burgers you expect to sell this summer?
No, but I was meeting with Michael Romano last night. He’s the culinary dean of our whole company at this point. He said he has never seen volumes like this. He’s working on all the sauces for Box Frites, all the dipping sauces. He’s got a bacon sauce, a chipotle tomato sauce, a mayonnaise-based sauce, a green olive and pepperoncini sauce, blue cheese sauce. He said he had cooked something like 400 pounds of bacon just to go into one of the dipping sauces at Box Frites. He said he came home and he had to take a bath and a shower, just to get the bacon smell off of him. So I have no idea what the numbers are going to be.
There are some other big-name restaurant spaces that have come available recently and it seems like every time these places come up, your name comes up.
Which is great! It’s free publicity. Whether or not we’re doing it, people think we are.
I think you have stated that you are not interested in taking over the Rainbow Room.
Because you don’t like ballroom dancing?
That’s a fact! [laughs] Everything that we’ve ever done is something that I actually love doing—art, jazz, barbecue, baseball … If I had a dollar for every time somebody said we’re doing Union Square Park. People have been so certain, first, that I was the anonymous donor to the park—I’m not! So, that I could do [the restaurant]—I’m not! As long as I don’t get written about for doing a ponzi scheme, I guess I’m fine with it.
You have such a foothold here, you probably want to see something happen with the restaurant in Union Square Park.
I definitely want to see something happen. And I want to see something happen that accomplishes three things: I want it to use the greenmarket produce. I think it’s insane to have the Northeast’s top greenmarket and not have a restaurant that’s completely connected and uses the products of those farmers. Number two is, as someone who crosses the park 10 times a day, I don’t care what kind of restaurant is there, it’s dramatically safer when you have people using the park. So, for that reason, I’d love to see something there. And, thirdly, where you used to have two pathetic little playgrounds, one on either end, and then a sunken restaurant in the front, there’s going to be a huge playground and on the other side, it’s going to be a beautiful piazza. I definitely want to see it happen and I hope it happens in a way similar to Madison Square Park where a significant number of the revenues from the concession go back into that park. Shake Shack has paid, since its inception [in 2004], over $800,000.
To the park conservancy?
Into the conservancy. More has gone to the city. But public-private partnerships, fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your politics, they exist; and they exist because, if the city had enough money to put into its own parks, for beauty, for safety, for programming, it would.
Are you interested in running that restaurant?
N-O! We have enough stuff around here.
You have sent people to the Tavern on the Green proposer meetings—are you going to make a bid on that place?
I’m not sure. I think it’s an incredibly complicated project. I think that the key question that anyone has to ask themselves is, ‘How passionate are you about your idea?’ We have an idea that I think would be amazing for the city that I could get passionate about. That’s number one. But number two is, relative to what it takes to turn it into that idea, and now, with respect to how many years there are on the term of the lease, can you, in fact, make it happen?
What do you think of the Reverend Billy Talen’s campaign for mayor on the Green Party ticket? (Mr. Talen is an outspoken critic of the park’s redevelopment.)
I find it fascinating that he’s found me to be a …
Yeah, I’ve never met him before.
Maybe you should debate him?
I don’t have anything to debate. But I would love to know, from people concerned about not having enough space for kids, how the north end development, which is quadrupling the amount of space they have and improving it by eons in terms of its quality—I mean, I don’t get their argument.
I bet there was a point in the 1500s in Rome when they were building Piazza Nevona, with Borromini’s church and Bernini’s fountain, when somebody probably said, ‘We should never have restaurants around this piazza because it will ruin the tranquility of the piazza.’ I don’t think that’s a bad thing but I also don’t think it’s a bad thing that there’s a kind of civilized nightlife that happens when somebody has a glass of wine on the park or a tartufo, or whatever it happens to be. I don’t think food is an entirely bad thing.