Union Square Cafe Photographer: Laurel Golio/Bloomberg
In the meantime, Union Square Hospitality Group will start exploring takeout at Daily Provisions and Marta.
On March 13, Danny Meyer shut all of his 19 New York restaurants, including Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Café, because of coronavirus safety concerns. A few days later, the chief executive officer of Union Square Hospitality Group laid off 2,000 employees.
Now, Meyer says his dining rooms will stay closed for the foreseeable future. “We won’t be welcoming guests into our full-service restaurants for a very long time—probably not until there’s a vaccine,” he says. “There is no interest or excitement on my part to having a half-full dining room while everyone is getting their temperature taken and wearing masks, for not much money.”
“It’s very frustrating, but it’s the only safe way to go,” he adds. It’s a caution shared by fellow restaurateur Daniel Humm, who said he may not re-open Eleven Madison Park at all, and by David Chang who just announced the closing of his Chelsea restaurant Nishi and his Washington, DC, Momofuku location.
Meyer, in the meantime, is taking the first steps back into business by opening his café Daily Provisions for take out service as early as next week. The storefront, which is next to Union Square Café on East 19th St., was designed for grab-and-go coffee, breakfast sandwiches, and signature crullers. Initially, it will open for curbside pickup of breakfast items, with an expanded menu expected to follow.
Next, Meyer expects to open his pizza place Marta in the Flatiron District, for takeout, too. “We had been on the cusp of takeout at Daily Provisions, Marta, and Blue Smoke [the company’s barbecue spot] when we closed. It makes sense now,” he says.
The CEO says he is also open to serving people outside his restaurant. “Among the few people left in the company are chefs and [general managers]. Each one is cooking up their own entrepreneurial scheme. Mike Anthony [chef of Gramercy Tavern] has plans to do farmers market meal kits. I’ve just urged all these guys to scare themselves with entrepreneurial skills and take risks.”
There is a plan to start shipping a signature dish from each restaurant across the country via gourmet delivery service Goldbelly. (Meyer sits on the company’s advisory board; recently, Shake Shack Inc., the burger company he founded, began shipping nationwide via Goldbelly.)
The restaurateur is also considering the possibility of outdoor dining, a topic that has gained momentum with the announcement by Polly Trottenberg, New York’s transportation commissioner, that the city is exploring ways for restaurants to increase al fresco seating space.
“I would think about anything that is safe and profitable. If it’s not safe, we won’t do it, we all lose,” says Meyer. “Profitable matters, as well. The only way we can responsibly get back in the business of employing people is to not go out of business. It’s already incredibly hard to survive.”
Meyer hopes, but does not guarantee, that he will reopen all his restaurants, especially with projected restrictions like a 50% reduction in capacity. “It does work for fast-casual and fine-casual. They never depended on you sitting in their restaurant, anyway,” he says. But places that have to worry about maître d’s and bartenders and florists and linens are in trouble. “As soon as you start racking up those fixed costs, you can’t do it at 50% revenue.”
Still, he’s planning for the future. The Union Square Café team envisions a scenario with a chalkboard menu and a small number of dishes for the day as a way to cut costs by sourcing fewer ingredients.
Although without a huge systemic change, he warns, his restaurants are doomed.
“A lot of restaurateurs I’ve been speaking with—our underlying business model has been sorely challenged. The biggest fixed costs are rent and talent: places [are] paying more than they can afford, talent is not making the living they need to make, while the restaurant isn’t making margins they need to make,” says Meyer. “The system needs to change, or this crisis is only accelerating what we were heading for, anyway.”