This is the kind of guy that Danny Meyer is. You nervously email him out of the blue to ask if you and Joe can meet up with him in New York to talk about how the hell one grows a restaurant group with dignity and grace, and Danny Meyer himself—not an assistant, not an associate—emails back.

Like an hour later.
And it’s New Year’s Day.

And he acts pleasantly surprised to hear from you, as if you’re an old friend. (Note: I interviewed him for a magazine article in San Francisco 7 years ago, but that’s the extent of our “friendship.”)

Mr. Meyer quickly put me and Joe in touch with Richard Coraine, his right-hand, senior managing partner of business development at Union Square Hospitality Group. Joe was already familiar with RC, as he’s known, who worked back in the day in San Francisco at Hawthorne Lane when Joe was heading the dining room at Lulu.

Thus, a couple weeks ago, on a brisk New York day, Joe and I found ourselves peeling off our heavy coats to sit in the Union Square Hospitality offices. There was a meeting going on in a conference room near the reception area. It was a totally normal discussion about things like wine sales, but it felt big and important—like if I listened hard enough we might hear a magic answer.

In the world of restaurant groups, USHG is one of the most successful. They’re behind some of New York’s most celebrated restaurants including Union Square Café (where Joe actually worked as a young server), Gramercy Tavern, Blue Smoke, Maialino, and Marta. Oh, and that place called Shake Shack which, since 2004, has opened 63 locations, from New York to Coral Gables, Florida to Dubai, and in December filed to sell shares to the public, reporting its most recent revenue at, oh, $83.76 million.

What I didn’t know is that USHG also has an arm called H/Q or Hospitality Quotient. Using the systems and hospitality philosophies that Danny Meyer his group have become famous for over the years, H/Q trains companies from the Beth Israel Medical Center to Delta Airlines to Nespresso. They do things like hold three-day workshops called “Creating Raves.”

After waiting for a moment, we were brought into what’s known as the “truth room,” also known as RC’s office. Danny Meyer popped into to say hello. There was a wall of white board scribbled with inspirational sayings like “Being positive in a negative situation is not naïve, it’s leadership,” and “You can do anything, but not everything,” and “Change is inevitable. Growth is optional.” RC immediately asked me to write one of my own on the wall and I’m embarrassed to say that I couldn’t summon even one. I could only think of what my mother always says when the going gets tough: “This too shall pass.” This inert (Buddhist?) kind of inspiration clearly wasn’t the peppy, proactive kind that USHG was looking for.

Dressed in a camel, wool v-necked sweater, RC had a calm manner about him that reminded me of a therapist. Or Yoda. Or maybe just a kind person. He told us the story of Shake Shack’s initial perceived success: “For the first two weeks we were open, I made every hamburger. It was supposed to be an extension of the hot dog place that we already had in [Madison Square Park]. We figured if someone wanted a burger, we’d make one,” he said. “But the first person who came was an intern at Credit Suisse and his job was to get 30 burgers for his staff. The reason the line started was because I couldn’t keep up!”

Finally, I had something to add to the white board: “Some of the best things in life come from mistakes.” (At Tacolicious, we can definitely relate to that.)

RC also imparted some more wisdom.
• Employees want three things. They want to know what you want them to do; they want you to let them know how they’re doing on a regular basis; they want a level playing field.
• Hire people who are allergic to mediocrity and status quo, people who are wired to do something well.
• Create your company’s culture or it will be created for you.
• You have to have the courage to step out of things. (i.e. Don’t be a control freak.)

After RC had patiently devoted an hour of his time and thoughts to us, I suddenly felt like being behind 70 or so restaurants—all lead by people trained to gently but firmly keep moving the saltshaker back to center, so to speak (see: this great article)—seemed totally doable. No sweat. Before we shook hands and stood to part, RC offered one final thought, “Everybody is looking for the magic answer.” In other words, there is not one. He must have seen me eavesdropping.

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