Hospitality Icon Danny Meyer on Travel, Tipping and Elevating Business-Class Meals on Delta

Aug 7, 2019

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Danny Meyer is an award-winning restaurateur with 28 James Beard Awards to his name, a New York Times bestselling author with his indispensable book “Setting the Table,” and the founder of Union Square Hospitality Group and Shake Shack. He joins Brian Kelly on Talking Points to share how travel has informed much of his business and hospitality practices.

Three Key Takeaways

  • Meyer eliminated tipping at his restaurants and wants the rest of the industry to follow suit.
  • Your taste buds are muted in the air — find out what foods you’ll never see served on a plane.
  • Artificial intelligence in the food service industry? Yes, it’s happening.

His restaurants not only dominate the restaurant scene in New York City, but you can find them around the world in cosmopolitan hubs like Tokyo, Beirut, and Istanbul. Travel is in Meyer’s DNA — he flew solo for the first time when he was just six years old. While his father was the president of the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), Meyer had the opportunity to travel all over the world.

Meyer lives by his golden rule of hospitality: do unto others as you believe they want done unto them. In this episode, he shares what he learned from his company’s first foray into Japan and the challenges his team faces when they expand into new markets, as service and hospitality differs country to country.

If you’ve ever found yourself indulging in Shake Shack for breakfast at JFK or LAX, or considered the food choices on-board your Delta flight exceptional, you have Meyer to thank. His USHG partnered with the airline in 2016 to revamp the on-board menus on select routes. Meyer explains the logistics behind food on airplanes and why you’ll probably never be served a burger, spaghetti or beans.

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Full Transcript:

Brian Kelly: Welcome to this episode of Talking Points. I’m your host, Brian Kelly, The Points Guy, and today we’ve got a really interesting guest. You know, we’ve had Tony Award winners and CEOs on this podcast, but today I think it’s our first James Beard Award winner, 28 times over, I believe. Welcome Danny Meyer, CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group.

Danny Meyer: I’m so happy to be here and to meet you.

Brian Kelly: We have come to meet each other because points run deep in your family, from what I hear, and travel.

Danny Meyer: Well points not only run deep, but travel does. So I grew up in St. Louis and my dad was a travel agent.

Brian Kelly: Oh really?

Danny Meyer: He and my mom for the first two years of their marriage lived on the border of Alsace and Germany because he was a counterintelligence officer in the Army.

Brian Kelly: Oh wow.

Danny Meyer: I promise this story is going somewhere. But the reason that he was recruited to do that was because he had a real gift for languages. And at the time, the two years that they were there, were basically spent as a two-year honeymoon because there were no altercations during those two years. And they spent their entire time driving through the French countryside getting to know innkeepers, mostly who would take them in and feed them. So he comes back to St. Louis, starts a travel agency because everyone wanted to know where they should take these driving trips.

Danny Meyer: He ended up becoming the first American agent for a fledgling group of inns, which were then called Relais de Campagne. They later became Relais & Châteaux. So we would always have French people living in our home. We had a little dog named Ratatouille. We were cooking all the time, but we also got to travel all the time. He became the president of ASTA, the American Society of Travel Agents, and then later he changed his entire business from designing custom tours for this person or that person, to designing group tours.

Brian Kelly: Did he stay all with the Europe focus or did he ever expand?

Danny Meyer: Almost all with a European focus. He decided that he was going to segment part of the airline industry, IATA. I know you know exactly what that means. And so anyone who was an airline employee or their family could qualify to take his trips. But anyway, I grew up speaking the language of travel and learning how to work my way through airports. I traveled first time by myself at the age of 6.

Brian Kelly: Oh wow.

Danny Meyer: And I just connect with people who love travel as a way of life.

Brian Kelly: And so throughout your business … so you started Shake Shack and a number of other restaurants that in prepping for this podcast, I was blown away at just how many. You have, what, almost 250 Shake Shacks around the world now.

Danny Meyer: Well let’s get back way before there was Shake Shack, there was Union Square Cafe. That was the one restaurant I had for the first 10 years of my career. And then Gramercy Tavern.

Brian Kelly: Both of which I can see from my office, which has been a very … I do all my breakfast meetings or lunch meetings at Maialino, so I am surrounded by your restaurants.

Danny Meyer: And part of the reason you’re      certain, there’s a couple that we did on … that you would also be surrounded by, 11 Madison Park and Tabla, Blue Smoke up the street, Marta, our Roman pizza grill. In the early days, travel was really the secret weapon I had. I still think it is, in terms of discovering foods, discovering wines, discovering a new design, a new way of expressing, really, hospitality. And then the world did catch up because, before the internet, you could find ideas three or four years before anyone else because you had to know how to read a map. You had to know how to speak the language so you could ask the local winemaker who really runs the best trattoria in that little village that’s barely even on the Michelin map. Today you don’t have to travel to see that dish. You can see photos of it, you can see what people think of it. You can get the recipe.

Brian Kelly: But I would almost argue within the TripAdvisor age, there’s almost too much information, right? Like, how do you synthesize all of that information? And do you still have your network of close friends that you trust or are there certain sites for … in the culinary world of the real good places to go that —

Danny Meyer: Absolutely, you know, you synthesize it in a number of ways. I think that as with any criticism, whether it’s a movie critic or a food critic or travel critic, over time, if that critic’s voice — you may or may not agree with that person all the time. But if the voice is consistent, you start to get a directory in your own mind as to when did our taste agree and disagree, and you can kind of calibrate it. But the other thing — I’m a really good cross-referencer and there’s three or four sites that I like to use, but then there’s friends, and I have so many colleagues and friends in the industry.

Danny Meyer: Usually if you go to a restaurant that you love, that chef is gonna lead you to somewhere local that you may not know about. That sommelier is going to lead you to a winery maybe you’ve never heard about. So, travel historically for me has always been about research and development, but it’s also about satisfying my love for learning about people because I think that when you can find the most local things that people eat, the most local places they go, the most local bakery that supplies the most local coffee shop, then you start to learn about who these people are, and it’s such a transporting feeling.

Brian Kelly: So one of the most unique parts of your restaurants is how you treat your employees and the fact that there’s no tipping. All my European friends always say the tipping culture is out of control. And so you made the decision a long time ago to pay your employees so that they didn’t depend on tips. Was that because of your travels to Europe where tipping isn’t the culture, especially in places in Asia where it’s absolutely offensive to tip? What was your thought process?

Danny Meyer: You bring up a really good point. I think that we had opened up a restaurant 12 years ago called Union Square Tokyo. Take this the right way, but that’s when I say I lost my expansion virginity because that was the first time we ever had any restaurant that was not in New York City. That was before Shake Shack grew out of New York City. And the time that I spent in Tokyo was so eye-opening. As you just said, not only is there no tipping there, but if you do it, you’re really offending somebody because they have a principle called “omotenashi,” which goes even further than what I define hospitality as. Omotenashi is not only anticipation of the needs of someone else, but furthermore, it’s delivering on those needs because seeing the pleasure you’ve created makes you feel better. And finally, it’s delivering on those needs with zero expectation or welcoming of further compensation. So now I’ve had that experience —

Brian Kelly: Hospitality in its ultimate form.

Danny Meyer: I think so. And I see that experience. Then I come back to the States and I realize, you know what? It’s not fair of us to impose our culture on them. It’s not fair for us to expect that they would understand our culture when they come here. Same thing when Brits would come to our restaurant —

Brian Kelly: It creates friction between the waiters and … “Oh, I have a European table that I’m not gonna … ,” you know?

Danny Meyer: Yes, and what a horrible thing to ask someone to do their job, but to understand that their compensation is based on someone’s understanding of our cultural norms. So I really wanted to literally take that off the table and I want to hire people who don’t look at the five tables in their section and try to judge, “Now, who should I be nice to based on who I think is going to give me the biggest tip in two and a half hours?” I want someone to be who they are with everybody all the time.

Brian Kelly: I’m sure people said it’s not going to be possible to do that. I’m sure you got a lot of pushback when you came up with this concept, right? Why do you think you’ve been able to prove them wrong and get that caliber …?

Danny Meyer: I think stubbornness is part of it. I believe in this so much. Also from the standpoint of really trying to professionalize our industry. I really get sad sometimes when I would talk to a terrific server at one of our restaurants and they’d say, “Well, thank you for the compliment, but I’m really just doing this while I’m pursuing a real career as ….” You know, fill in the blank. And increasingly, I came to learn that in most professions in the United States where the primary form of income is tipping, that profession is not seen as a credible professional path by a lot of people.

Danny Meyer: I think that hospitality is incredibly valid and I want people to look at it as a career where they can advance. It’s a painful thing when you see that a tipped employee can make enough money to never have a different job, but it’s a dead-end because they cannot afford to take a 25% pay cut and become a manager, which could then lead to becoming assistant or general manager of the restaurant. And then —

Brian Kelly: Do you have a lot of your waiters moving up the management ranks? Is that —

Danny Meyer: So today, more and more we do. So now we are their boss. When you come to the restaurant, you’re not tipping, they’re getting paid on merit and they’re getting paid obviously, well above minimum wage because they have to be. But the other thing we do, we decided while we wanted to eliminate an incentive to be nice to people, we wanted to retain an incentive to sell. And so all of our formerly tipped employees also receive a share of that night’s revenue, irrespective of what night they work that week. This is a key thing too, Brian, because in the old days, the way you got a raise as a tipped employee is you stay at the restaurant forever. So you finally get the Friday and Saturday night shifts, but God forbid you have to work Monday lunch. So is it —

Brian Kelly: One of my first jobs, I was a waiter at Philly Steak and Crab outside of Philadelphia. I loved it at age 18, but I was filling in the shifts that no one really wanted. I do remember, though, walking out with like $150 cash, but then I’d have to work Monday and it would be like $31. It was like highs and lows, but it was those battle-axes who had been there forever that earn the right to get the good shifts.

Danny Meyer: I just don’t think that’s good for anybody. I think the guest doesn’t necessarily want to feel like they’re getting only rookies on Monday lunch. So now, when you work in any of our places —

Brian Kelly: Are you calling me a rookie?

Danny Meyer: Well, you are a willing rookie.

Brian Kelly: I’m sure I was, actually —

Danny Meyer: But the waiters and waitresses and servers and bartenders at our restaurants can work any day and they’re still going to get a cut of that week’s revenue.

Brian Kelly: Have you noticed other restaurants doing this in the US or do you think we’re … What will be the turning point where this happens? Because I think everyone who eats out would love to have this, right, where you’re not —

Danny Meyer: The tipping point on this is that it’s going to take more time. A lot have tried, a lot have come to me and said thank you for — one person rather graphically said thanks for running through the barbwire first so the rest of us don’t have to. So the tipping point is going to come when restaurants find that charging tips on top of their menu prices is turning off their guests and they’re already paying their team more than enough money.

Brian Kelly: Interesting.

Danny Meyer: That’ll be a while, though.

Brian Kelly: What’s your take today? Just this, we had a debate on Instagram about tipping housekeeping, tipping doormen and everything. What is your take on that? Who do you tip when you travel and where do you draw the line, I guess?

Danny Meyer: See, I think your question itself is part of the reason I just want to eliminate it, because people feel so confused. They feel confused in their own country, never mind when they travel somewhere else. Let’s take a real easy example. You’re going to a, a local coffee shop and there’s a tip jar on the counter and you’ve just paid what felt like a lot of money for a cup of coffee, and now you have a choice of feeling guilty that you didn’t leave enough or feeling bad that you didn’t really feel like that person gave you $2 worth of service. And I just, you know, I think I’m really, really comfortable going to someone’s restaurant that accepts tips, and I’m gonna always be a generous tipper because I understand that’s how that team is being compensated. But I don’t necessarily feel great when I’m buying a cup of coffee and putting an extra buck or two —

Brian Kelly: Another $2 or $3, yeah.

Danny Meyer: I feel bad either way.

Brian Kelly: Uber was so interesting when they first started tipping. It wasn’t even like $1. Uber was like 15, 25 or 35%. I remember being like, “What?” Like especially on a ride to the airport. I’m like, that’s a huge. I mean, I’m all for people making a good living … But yeah, it is kind of, it’s just everywhere now. And yeah, it would be nice to live in a non-tipping world.

Danny Meyer: And what tipping has always been has been an attempt for the business owner to push off on the customer a cost that is, in fact, a cost. But we don’t want to bear it. We want you to feel like, “Well, since I only paid for the ride out of my left pocket, the tip’s coming out of my right pocket, I guess that’s OK.”

Brian Kelly: One of the most ludicrous ways we’re seeing that in hotels is resort fees and hotels charging for attendants and all these things. Like at a resort, you know, some resorts are charging up to $95 a night in this extra fee to pay for the things that should be a part of running a resort, and included in —

Danny Meyer: I think people don’t really enjoy being nickeled and dimed.

Brian Kelly: Yeah. OK. Let’s take a quick pause right now and hear from our sponsors. Getting back to the Union Square Tokyo, like what did you learn? So that was your first expansion and that’s a pretty tough market to enter. What did you learn there?

Danny Meyer: Well, the good news is we have a partner, fantastic partner. In fact, even with Shake Shack, which is now in 14 different countries, we always have a local partner because we know what we don’t know. We don’t know nearly as much about real estate or sourcing and distributing product. And I think what we learned in Tokyo was fascinating. The group that we work with, which is a company called Wondertable, already has a great reputation in the restaurant industry, the real estate industry.

Danny Meyer: What they really wanted more than anything was not just Union Square Cafe. What they wanted was to learn more about hospitality, because even though the Japanese have the expression we mentioned, omotenashi, as he told me when we first got together, our partner. He said, “In general, I think we in our culture are much better at regimentation and following directions in order than you guys are. If you give us a recipe, we can cook it perfectly. Give us a sheet of music, we can play it perfectly.” He said, “But if you’ve ever wondered why the Japanese are so fascinated by American jazz, it’s that jazz is improvisation, and that’s what hospitality is. Hospitality is the opposite of regimentation.” He took me through one of these eight-story malls that you see a lot of, and he said, “I want you to look at that person.”

Danny Meyer: So I looked at the person and the person bowed, and he said, “That person doesn’t know whether or not you wanted to be bowed to. They just do it because that’s their job.” But he said, “I want you to teach us how to treat each person as an individual, because I read your book, “Setting The Table,” where you talk about hospitality is a dialogue, service is a monologue. Hospitality is where one size fits one. Service is where one size fits all.” And so we have learned a lot from each other from doing that.

Brian Kelly: Was it hard training those employees in Japan to get that? Because you were kind of trying to not un-hardwire them, unwire them to think differently.

Danny Meyer: Yeah. Well, it was one of the most gratifying experiences ever. The only hard thing, and I’m sure you’ve had this experience, is every time you say something you have to wait another minute until it gets translated, and then you have to remember where you were. But on more than one occasion, and I’ve also seen this in the Middle East with employees at Shake Shack. I’ve seen this in Dubai and Kuwait. I’ve seen this in Turkey and Russia with Shake Shack employees. Many of the hourly employees are either from Poland or the Philippines in those countries. And same thing I saw in Japan. People cry because for their entire lives they’ve been told not to be themselves in a service interaction, transaction —

Brian Kelly: Crying from like a liberation standpoint?

Danny Meyer: Yes, yes. And what the hospitality transaction is, it’s giving you permission. In fact, it’s a mandate to try to — in addition to the technical thing you’re doing — I am technically trained to put this food down, pour that bottle of wine, or clear that plate in a specific way. But with hospitality, which is very different from service because it’s an emotional transaction, you are asking people to try to understand who is this person, what does this person need? Then call on yourself to ask yourself, “If I were that person, what would I want?” And the cool thing that we would teach, interestingly, the Japanese team that we first trained in Tokyo had never heard of the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”

Danny Meyer: So this was a little tough to teach because that is the Golden Rule, but that’s not the Golden Rule of Hospitality. The Golden Rule of Hospitality is do unto others as you believe they want done unto them, because we’re all different. That’s where the crying starts, because there was this liberation from being told, “Don’t be yourself. Do the thing you’re supposed to do.”

Brian Kelly: Yeah, that’s fascinating.

Danny Meyer: And they could still make people even … I think it took some trust to realize that they can make people even happier when they customize the delivery of the service.

Brian Kelly: So much of your business model is on the human element and hospitality as more and more now, whether it’s mobile ordering, you’re going to a McDonald’s and it’s all touchscreens and it’s … I get my Shake Shack most of the time through Postmates, especially when I have a little bit of a hangover. There’s just nothing like it.

Danny Meyer: What’s your go-to order, just so I know?

Brian Kelly: Well lately I do the Shack Stack, the burger and the —

Danny Meyer: That’s pretty impressive.

Brian Kelly: Then cheese fries. But what is your take on mobile ordering and taking the human element out of it? Obviously, it’s better. I hate waiting in lines. I do like being with people, but do you see that as a risk to your business that you built this brand so much on that human interaction?

Danny Meyer: You know, it reminds me of back in 1998, we were starting to play around with online reservation systems and we finally picked one called Open Table, which I initially was against because I said, “But that means that all these incredibly nice people who answer our phones were going to give up that amazing hospitality moment.” One of my business partners who’s still with me said, “Oh, Mr. Hospitality, last time I checked, you said hospitality is being on the other person’s side, and someone who’s making their reservation online is probably doing it because that’s how they want to make their reservation. They don’t really want to have to worry about your business hours, whichever time zone you’re in.”

Danny Meyer: And I would say the same thing is absolutely true of how people want their food today, which is, if you don’t want to wait in line and there is technology to allow you not to have to wait in line, who the heck am I to stop that? What is our responsibility is to find a way to make that experience feel even more like we’re on your side than not. We’re just scratching the surface. I mean I really want to be at the point where the person, who would have hopefully recognized you and said, “Welcome back. Would you like the usual order?” I would like to be at the point where the machine can do that more consistently.

Brian Kelly: Knows that I’m hung over. My phone can sense my blood alcohol levels: “Brian, you’re going to need your –”

Danny Meyer: Oh, the first time my son Peyton came to the Astor Place Shake Shack, which is where we first tested kiosks, and Peyton said, “Well the cool thing is the machine’s not going to probably ever wake up on the wrong side of the bed.” We’ll probably always get —

Brian Kelly: Software update.

Danny Meyer: Probably always get your order right and then, to the degree that you have human beings in the place, they don’t have to multitask. They can do 100% of the hospitality. They won’t have to worry about hospitality while they’re also trying to do the transaction. That can be a hard thing. So, when we can get the machines to virtually smile at you by remembering you, and we know what your last order was and we know how to say, “Welcome back.” We know how to say, “Hey Brian, was it a hangover last time or are you just on a diet today?”

Brian Kelly: Jet-lagged, yeah. Food on planes is a touchy subject with frequent travelers. I remember being on a Dash 8 regional jet from LaGuardia to Ithaca. It was a 90-degree day. We’re sitting on the tarmac, there’s no air, and someone next to me opens up a tuna wrap and I … the gag. I was just like, “Are you kidding me?”

Danny Meyer: Do you have a thing for tuna in general?

Brian Kelly: I actually like tuna, but —

Danny Meyer: Because for me it’s —

Brian Kelly: Parmesan was on it and I was like, “This is not …”

Danny Meyer: For me when someone on an airplane unwrapped something with garlic, and whatever it smelled like on the ground, it smells 50 times that.

Brian Kelly: Right. So that’s why I’m like, I’m very careful. I’ll bring a bagel but not an everything bagel. So what will you bring on the plane and what will you not bring on an airplane?

Danny Meyer: I’d say the only thing I ever bring on a plane is Shake Shack because I want people to see it, because I’m shameless.

Brian Kelly: You’re a shameless promoter.

Danny Meyer: Shameless promoter.

Brian Kelly: That makes two of us.

Danny Meyer: I think the breakfast sandwiches at Shake Shack are a fine way to start the day. But outside of that, I’m not a big bringer of food. Back in the old days, when you could bring wine on the plane, I would often bring a half bottle of wine with me and open it very carefully.

Brian Kelly: But so someone told me recently that a lot of restaurants have created breakfast menus because airports, in order to be in an airport, you have to serve breakfast or something like that. Was that the genesis behind Shake Shack’s breakfast, like were you —

Danny Meyer: Absolutely. Yeah. We otherwise never would have served breakfast. Just like when we opened Maialino in the Gramercy Park Hotel, the deal was, “You guys have to serve breakfast.” We had never served breakfast in a restaurant. The funny thing is that, if you go to breakfast at Maialino, you’ll notice that there’s not more than 5% of the guests who are travelers staying in the hotel. It’s almost all New Yorkers who have made this their downtown club.

Brian Kelly: How do you envision growth for the brand?

Danny Meyer: So that’s another great question. I want to share that in my industry, historically, the food business would not grow internationally until it had first over-saturated in the United States. That was just the recipe for how this all worked. We did a deal with a company, a fantastic company based in Kuwait called Alshaya for 20 Middle Eastern restaurants, when we only had three and a half Shake Shacks.

Brian Kelly: That’s crazy.

Danny Meyer: I thought it was crazy too. I mean, I had never been there before and I sent a couple of my business partners. They flew Emirates over, they had a great time. They came back and they said, “Danny, this company is the Starbucks licensee in the Middle East. Every Starbucks we went to in the Middle East is packed and cleaner and better run than any of the three that you can walk to from your office on Union Square.” And I said, if we could learn how to grow from an expert copy machine far away from New York, far away from our regular guests, learn about distribution, learn about training, learn about design, because we wanted to keep Shake Shack as small as we could for as long as we could. This gave us a way to grow without anyone knowing that we were growing —

Brian Kelly: And learn from it.

Danny Meyer: We learned so much from it. And so that particular company did such a great job with us in the first four Middle East countries that we worked in. And the other countries that we’re now in all have different international partners.

Brian Kelly: Do you change the menu in all these? Like, will they say, “You got to do this in Russia,” or add an item or something, or do you keep it?

Danny Meyer: We actually try to do that. In fact, if you go into any Shake Shack in the United States, we call it the 80/20 rule — 80% of the menu is something that you would see everywhere, but 20% should be somewhat localized.

Brian Kelly: What’s your favorite random thing from a Shake Shack menu somewhere? Is it —

Danny Meyer: Probably Austin, Texas, where we do the Lockhart Link Burger. So we get a wonderful smoked sausage from Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Texas.

Brian Kelly: I’ve never been hungrier in a podcast before right now.

Danny Meyer: We slice it, put it right on top of the Shack Burger, and it is good.

Brian Kelly: That sounds amazing. So your company’s expanding like crazy. Where do you love to travel? What’s your destination that you take your family when it’s just time to get away?

Danny Meyer: The truth of the matter, is I’m always torn between a place I’ve never been and a place I love. So if it’s a place I’ve been, the ones that we probably return to most frequently would be Rome, London and Paris. Domestically, I’m always happy in California. I’m happy traveling anywhere, because for me it’s truly the only time I’m ever by myself. As a matter of fact, I wrote my book in secret, traveling from New York to San Francisco and back, back when I was on the board of Open Table and there was no Wi-Fi on planes back then.

Brian Kelly: So did you like it better in the days where we didn’t have Wi-Fi on planes? I go both ways with that.

Danny Meyer: I like it better now because I would hate to be without it now that I’ve had it. But I do miss the time when it was you and your book and your magazines or whatever it was you were writing. I’ve never been a big movie guy on planes.

Brian Kelly: I never watch movies on planes. I’ll read, I’ll put Bose headphones on with the sound noise-canceling on, and I’ll sit there and read or do research or something. Yeah.

Danny Meyer: You haven’t asked me this question but I just have to share, because how do you talk to The Points Guy and not at least talk about points for a second.

Brian Kelly: I was going to ask you, are you a points guy?

Danny Meyer: So I am a points guy, and I’m a points guy from way back. I have my frequent flyer number memorized from TWA. Many digits from many years ago. I think that it’s a brilliant concept, and when done well it is golden handcuffs unlike anything else.

Brian Kelly: I call it the elite status hamster wheel. Like, once you’re on, it’s like you can’t get off.

Danny Meyer: So I’ve been Diamond on Delta now because why wouldn’t you fly Delta when you’re serving food in first class. Also we’ve got some food in their terminals as well. But it’s got to the point where I would be at a board meeting in Texas or on the West Coast and one of the other board members would have a private jet and say, “Yeah, I’m going to give you a lift home.” And I’d say to myself, “You got to find a reason to say no thank you, because you can’t give up the miles.” I’m going, “Now wait a second. This is a little insane because I’m earning the miles so I can have a first-class upgrade. I’m getting a guy who’s going to save me going through security at the airport, saving me an hour and a half of my life.”

Brian Kelly: But, it’s all about the miles.

Danny Meyer: Ah, help me understand me.

Brian Kelly: It’s a drug, man. But how is it, so designing food for airplanes, I mean, and putting your name on something that’s going to be cooked by someone else in a tiny, you know, heated up in a galley. What has that experience been like working with Delta on those Delta lines?

Danny Meyer: Well, working with Delta has been great because they care about it and they understand that once you get someone to their destination on time, the real differentiator are two things. What was the inflight experience like in terms of what you consumed, whether it was entertainment or food, and were the people nice to you? Delta, among others …  I think the industry is getting the message finally. Delta really gets the message. I think the experience of doing it is way harder than we ever imagined.

Danny Meyer: We knew that the bar was very low. People kind of put airline food a half a click behind hospital food, in general. And you know, there’s reasons for that. The galleys used to have a lot more space.

Brian Kelly: They’ve gotten really small.

Danny Meyer: One of the things that blows my mind is why in a day and age when every really, really nice hotel room has its own little coffee machine, that you can’t get a good cappuccino or espresso on an airplane.

Brian Kelly: That’s so true.

Danny Meyer: I think that’s changing, but it’s all about inches in the galley. And what we’ve learned is that the less hands on our food, the better. So we’re trying to produce more and more of the food at Union Square Events, which is our big catering kitchen here in New York City, which is why the only food you’ll ever see our name on is food that emanated from New York. You would never get it on a transcon flight from LA [to] here.

Danny Meyer: And I think what we’re learning is that simpler is better. People are not going on an airplane —

Brian Kelly: No one does a good burger in the sky really. Do you guys, you haven’t done …?

Danny Meyer: We’ve done a couple specials with Delta, but you’re right about that, and it all has to do with how the food is reheated. Think about pasta. Think about how much we all love pasta, but the only pasta you ever really, really liked on an airplane was probably lasagna. Something that you could put in an oven and not worry that it was going to dry out. You’ll never see spaghetti on an airplane because it’s gonna either get crispy or it’s going to be complete mush. Yeah. And it’s a hard thing. I think soups can do really, really well. I think so much —

Brian Kelly: Delta does really good soups, I have to say, and who doesn’t love a good soup?

Danny Meyer: Yeah, and the other thing with soup is that it can convey a lot of flavor. Your taste buds are actually muted when you’re in the sky.

Brian Kelly: Yeah. That’s why everything is so salty. Right?

Danny Meyer: That’s why a lot of things are salty. You’d be surprised at the things that the airlines think about though, with respect to food. For example, for some obvious reasons, bean soup is out. They don’t want people having any —

Brian Kelly: Wait, why is that? Beans, beans —

Danny Meyer: Yeah. They don’t want people having stomach issues when they’re on the airplane. No cabbage.

Brian Kelly: They always serve asparagus too on planes, which —

Danny Meyer: That doesn’t tend to interfere with your seatmate.

Brian Kelly: That’s true. So if you’re going to fly on a Delta flight out of JFK and you can be served your food, do you bring your shake? Well obviously you said you already bring the Shake Shack on, but will you also eat in flight as well?

Danny Meyer: Yes. I do that and I walk, I’m the weirdo walking up and down the aisle to see if other people are enjoying what they’re eating as well. I almost always introduce myself to the purser or the flight attendant. I’ve actually once had three different meals on a flight that had three dinner choices. I got all three of them because I really want to road-test these things. Now the first time we ever served food on Delta, it was strictly the JFK-Heathrow flight. This was several years ago. Someone on our team came up with a really fun idea of having your cocktail made seatside, and I was on one of the first flights. Delta sent me over there to experience the whole thing. I had three different entrees, had to do the cocktail. The entire shaker burst open all over my lap and I said, “You actually could not have picked a better person to do this to.”

Brian Kelly: Aisle or window seat, what’s your preference?

Danny Meyer: Aisle.

Brian Kelly: Why is that? Don’t you like looking out? Everyone’s aisle seats these days. I’m like totally team window.

Danny Meyer: I don’t like to be —

Brian Kelly: I’m sure your son Peyton likes the window seat, right?

Peyton Meyer: Fine either way.

Brian Kelly: Either way, OK. He just likes being on a plane.

Danny Meyer: Yeah. No, I don’t like to be landlocked. I’ve got long legs and I like to get up when I want to get up and I don’t want to have to ask somebody else to please move. I don’t like that.

Brian Kelly: Good point. All right, Danny Meyer, it’s been fascinating talking about your business, travel. It’s at the core of who you are as a person. I think I need to fly to Delta and get me some Shake Shack like right now. Christy, when’s my next fight? Thank you so much for joining us and safe travels.

Danny Meyer: Thanks for what you do to help the world travel better.

Brian Kelly: I think everyone just needs to travel a little bit more and this world would be a better place. That’s it for this episode of Talking Points. Huge thanks to our fascinating guest, Danny Meyer, and a big thank you to the best podcast team in the biz. Caroline Schagrin, Margaret Kelley, and my amazing assistant Christy Matsui. Also a huge welcome to TPG offices, Peyton Meyer, who is a points nut and it was good to meet you. That’s it for this episode. Safe travels everyone.

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