Shake Shack's Danny Meyer On Leading A Successful Purpose-Driven Business
At the Inc. 5000 Vision Conference, the restaurateur and investor discussed his leadership strategy, the future of the restaurant industry, and what he's learned about scaling company culture.
Few sectors have been hit harder by the pandemic and economic recession than the restaurant industry. For restaurateur Danny Meyer, that's all the more reason to double down on the reason he got into the business in the first place: his company's purpose, which he calls "enlightened hospitality."
Meyer rose to prominence as the founder and CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group, which comprises more than a dozen restaurants and other businesses, including New York City's Union Square Cafe, which he opened when he was just 27. He also launched fast-casual chain Shake Shack, which went public in 2015. Meyer described how enlightened hospitality--which also gives his investment fund its name--informs his company's culture, Friday at the Inc. 5000 Vision Conference, a weeklong virtual event celebrating entrepreneurship.
Putting employees first and investors last might sound strange to many business owners, but according to Meyer, it's common sense. A business, he said, can't serve its customers well unless its leader serves his or her employees well. In the interview with Inc. and Fast Company CEO Eric Schurenberg, Meyer recounted one of his earliest experiences as a manager, when he was leading a team of volunteers and couldn't give out raises or promotions: "The only currency I had, in that case, was the currency of working together for a higher purpose."
Meyer said that in all his businesses today, that dedication to a shared purpose is key to how he hires. He looks for people with six skills: optimistic kindness, intellectual curiosity, work ethic, empathy, self-awareness, and integrity. Those traits are just as important as being skilled at a particular job, he said. "[If] you show me five really, really good pasta cooks, and I'm going to taste their pasta, I actually think I can taste those six emotional skills in the pasta."
Meyer also laid out how he thinks policymakers can better support the restaurant industry amid the pandemic. He said he believes that since it quickly became clear that restaurants couldn't operate safely at normal capacity and would lose huge amounts of revenue, the government should have committed funds to assure entrepreneurs that they wouldn't have to lay off workers, and wouldn't emerge from the crisis owing months of back rent and other bills. That approach, he said, "would probably cost a lot less than some of the measures we're taking right now."