“Someone sent me a box of sausages,” said Danny Meyer, walking through Union Square Cafe, his oldest restaurant, holding a large cardboard box. He put the parcel on the bar, removed his mask, and opened an accompanying letter, from the owner of a chain of hotdogs in Utah. The letter thanked Meyer for writing “Setting the Table,” his 2006 bestselling book on the power of risk, eye contact, and pressed tablecloths. Mayer smiled.
The day before, New York City had officially begun reopening, which means restaurants can once again start filling their dining rooms. Last year was the hardest in Mayer’s stunning career. When the pandemic arrived, his company, Union Square Hospitality Group, closed nineteen restaurants as well as its event business, which was providing catering services, stadiums and weddings. This would mean layoffs of about two thousand people. A few days later, Floyd Cardoz, the chef who opened a drum with Meyer, died in 1998, of a cause Coronavirus disease-19. Staff got sick and lost loved ones. Meyer has been publicly criticized for seeking a loan from the Paycheck Protection Program – set up by Congress to save small businesses – for Shake Shack, the international burger chain he founded. (Check Shack returned the $ 10 million loan to the government.) This was followed by stops in summer, fall and winter. Meyer restaurants experimented with retail and delivery, and shipped their chicken pies, lasagna and other items from coast to coast.
Evening dinner service was just starting, and Mayer went into the kitchen to greet Lena Ciardolo, the executive chef, who had recently returned from maternity leave. How do you feel when cooking again? “The back is painful,” she said. “Cooking is good.” They discussed last year. Instead of returning to normal, things seemed to start over. “The big mistake is when people say we’re reopening” restaurants, he said. “We are opening new restaurants.” The final challenge was recruitment. Suddenly every place in the city started hiring at the same time. The former employees had left town, had left the industry, or were worried about giving up unemployment. Before the pandemic, the Union Square Café typically had thirteen people in the kitchen for dinner. Now Ciardullo was content with seven. The person who was preparing the salad was also coating the pastry.
“Our old-fashioned pastry station is where we currently fill the ready-made orders,” Ciardullo said. “But that means I have nowhere to put ice cream.”
“Where’s the ice cream?” Mayer asked.
“We don’t have ice cream at the moment,” said Ciardolo.
Meyer replied, “Jesus.”
Someone started frying soft-shelled crabs. Meyer exited the kitchen, climbed a flight of stairs, and chose a table on the balcony overlooking the dining room. Sit down and listen. “He is very quiet,” he said sadly. “The restaurant sounds are one of the things I miss the most.” He picked up a knife and fork, screamed them together, and scratched them across a plate to show what he meant. “It’s music,” he said.
Ciardullo appeared carrying a plate of sourdough slices stacked with cheese and bright green chopped vegetables. “We have some burrata, some peas, and some pecans,” she said. “Beautiful,” said Mayer. “Very springy.” He ignored his lot while a visitor was in hiding.
Meyer spoke about the business. Even before the pandemic, he was deeply involved in discussions about wages and sustainability in the industry. In 2015, his restaurants ditched tips, in an effort to iron out the wage gap between servers and kitchen staff. In July, he abandoned the experiment, saying that during the pandemic he did not want to deprive any employee of the opportunity to make additional money. Almost every hypothesis appears to have been tested in action. It wasn’t all bad news. Meyer cast a peek at the railing and out of the window, in the covered patio outside. It once had a gutter, parking space. “This could be a savior for the full-service restaurant industry,” he said, of outdoor dining. He seemed amazed at the idea that the now seemingly obvious idea had inspired resistance. The Modern, its restaurant in the Museum of Modern Art, overlooks the museum’s Sculpture Garden, but tables are never set there. Meyer plans to do so this summer, when Modern will reopen. He said, “We used to feel you couldn’t have a community café outside of a two-star Michelin restaurant.” “And now: Hell, yeah, you can.”
In April, he appointed Bill de Blasio Meyer as chairman of the City’s Economic Development Corporation, one of those points in the New York power structure that no one had heard of before but which controls a huge sum of money. “They are always trying to basically think, Where does the disk go, for jobs?” Mayer said. “I have one job for the rest of my time,” said de Blasio, “to restore the city’s economy, return as many jobs and many tourists as possible, and get as many people as possible back to work.” “I thought how I can’t help the city? So I said yes.”
The dining room was filled with diners and the restaurant’s music. Laughter bounced off the walls. Scrape chairs. A hissed cappuccino machine. “You can have a lot of good food in this city,” said Mayer, rising from his seat. “Your favorite restaurant is always the one that loves you the most.” The last thing he gave to the visitor was a handshake. ♦