“Never do anything just to make your parents happy,” said Danny Meyer, proud parent of four and CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group, to a crowded room of hungry Penn students (who were later appeased with 107,000 calories worth of Shake Shack) during a talk on Friday.
The advice should hold weight for you, dear reader. Just like your typical finance or consulting-oriented Penn student, Meyer grudgingly studied for the LSAT after college, hoping to go to law school in order to appease his folks. He never ended up applying, opting instead to open Union Square Café in New York City. If you know anything about Meyer, or have heard of Shake Shack, you probably understand his decision ended up being a pretty good call.
Meyer had a passion for food that he never found in law, and he followed it. He animatedly spoke of the Philly and New York food scenes, which were apparently pretty exciting even back in ’82 (though he admits that Philly was more exciting than New York). “Back then, there were only restaurants starting with ‘le’, ‘la’, ‘il,’ and little else.”
Meyer explained that first jobs are a learning experience, including his first days of running Union Square Café. For example, after Meyer caught his chef and sous chef making out in an ice refrigerator, he let the duo take off on Thanksgiving, thinking it would be a slow week.
He was very wrong. The Friday after Thanksgiving is a busy one for restaurants, especially for Manhattanites who have recovered from their food comas and are eager for a good meal. Meyer, dressed in suit and tie, found himself helping in the kitchen to satisfy demanding customers. As if the day couldn’t get any more hectic, Meyer found himself getting punched by a highly intoxicated patron demanding more alcohol and mashed potatoes. Who said your first job couldn’t be exciting?
Meyer advised us to keep “essentiality” in mind. No, you didn’t study that word while preparing for the vocab section of the SATs, because Meyer made it up. Basically, essentiality is what matters. For him, this means his restaurants aren’t just about the food, but rather the way the experience makes guests feel. It means, “you’d be sad and feel something was missing if it didn’t exist. In our business, you think that you’re paying money for food. You’re not. You’re going there because you want to feel better.”
Meyer’s response to a question about his college GPA? “No earthly idea. And you know what? It doesn’t matter.”