Danny Meyer wasn’t always able to convey a sense of sprezzatura in the restaurants he’s created. That ability to make the difficult look easy—well, that took some time for the Shake Shack founder and restaurateur.
“A new restaurant doesn’t get good until it gets broken in,” Meyer said. “The way you scale it, which is not easy, is to hire people whose greatest joy and pleasure is to make other people feel better.”
Meyer, a native St. Louisan and CEO of New York-based Union Square Hospitality Group, took the WashU Olin stage today for “At the Table: Chef as Artist and Executive,” a standing-room-only event that kicked off the school’s new minor in the business of the arts.
Meyer began the program with a one-on-one conversation with Olin’s Peter Boumgarden, professor of practice, strategy and organizations. Later, Boumgarden moderated the discussion with a quartet of celebrity chefs and restaurateurs—including Meyer—who confessed the learnings they gained in their careers.
They also promoted the need for business and arts to converge in order to promote the vision of chefs, painters, playwrights, singers and other creative souls.
The panel included Meyer and St. Louis-based restaurateurs Gerard Craft, James Beard award winning founder of Niche Food Group; Kevin Nashan, also a Beard award winner and founder of Sydney Street Cafe and Peacemaker; and Zoë Robinson, owner of St. Louis restaurants I Fratellini, Bar Les Frères and Billie-Jean.
The four spoke about the ways they’ve been inspired to create their restaurants and the importance of creating a culture within their companies that prioritizes employees, customers, the community and investors in a “virtuous cycle,” according to Meyer, whose restaurant group includes Gramercy Tavern, The Modern and Maialino.
Thursday’s event drew the restaurateurs into discussions about the global influences they’ve gained that have informed their restaurants and the challenge of tracking the evolving values of restaurant customers while maintaining profitability.
They also spoke plainly about why an artistic vision—even a great vision—dies without the savvy to get it commercialized.
“I really have had to learn how to be an executive second. I’m still learning,” Craft said. “Artists don’t want to talk about money, they don’t want to think about money, but at the end of the day, if you want to go on, you have to make money.”
The minor in the business of the arts launched this semester with six students—five of whom are students in the Sam Fox School. Rich Ritholz, BSBA ’84, and his wife, Linda, made the program possible with a $1 million donation announced in April 2018. At the time, he said his daughter’s experience inspired the program. She started as a Sam Fox fashion design student who quickly realized she needed business skills to make her vision come to life.
“This was really incredible. Just incredible. I couldn’t be more pleased,” Ritholz said after the morning’s event. “Now we just have to keep the momentum going. We want this minor to be all it can be, and that just means getting the word out.”
Meyer said a key ingredient for any new restaurant is the answer to one series of questions.
“What problem does this solve? Why does the world need it? What do we have to add to the dialogue around this topic?” he asked. A new restaurant might serve familiar food—but better than customers knew it could be prepared. “People are not willing to park quality or taste in the back lot,” but they still want fast, affordable food.
Pictured above: Moderator Peter Boumgarden with Gerard Craft, Kevin Nashan, Zoë Robinson and Danny Meyer.