Photo: Flickr, Drew XX
Danny Meyer, the founder of Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern, Blue Smoke, and Shake Shack, among others, has greatly influenced the fine-casual dining evolution. The movement is defined by restaurants – think Shake Shack and Chipotle – that use the same high-quality ingredients (such as organic, or locally and responsibly sourced) as fancier establishments, but in a stripped-down setting that helps keep costs low and makes great food accessible to a wider range of people.
Meyer, CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group, sat down with Yahoo Food following his talk at the recent TEDx Manhattan: Changing the Way We Eat conference to fill us in on the future of fine casual and the challenges restaurants and suppliers face in advancing the movement. Here’s an edited version of the interview:
Yahoo Food: Why is fine casual dining such an important trend for customers and the food industry?
Danny Meyer: What’s remarkable is that (restaurants are) taking the things that are so important and have always been so important in the world of fine dining — including taste level and all kinds of business choices and community choices and supplier choices and employee choices — and making them more accessible to more people, especially now. It’s a total paradigm shift because it’s allowing this movement to reach so many more people because they can now afford it.
Photo: Union Square Hospitality Group
The fine casual movement is one of the most exciting Meyer has in the last 10 years.
YF: How will this revolution change the food industry and what people see on the menus of fast casual restaurants?
DM: Whole Foods has been brilliant at changing the way food is produced because they just won’t buy it if it doesn’t meet their standards. I don’t think that big chains have to be the problem. If big chains have their values in the right spot, as Chipotle does and as I believe we do at Shake Shack, you can change the system.
We’re at a really exciting moment. When you hear McDonald’s talking like that [announcing it plans to use chicken without human antibiotics], it’s a big deal. I trust that McDonald’s can find a way to sell all-natural chicken without raising their prices; we did that at Shake Shack. It is more expensive and we took a slight margin hit, but we did it. And if we can do it, I know that much bigger companies can.
YF: What are the challenges you and other restaurateurs face as you try to implement change?
DM: We serve all-natural beef, but there’s a limited amount of all-natural cattle that is growth hormone- and antibiotic-free. In order to encourage the cattle farmers to raise a herd of all-natural cattle, which is a several-year process, they have to know that it’s not just Shake Shack that wants to buy it. They have to have other buyers who are willing to pay more for all natural.
Photo: Facebook, Shake Shack
YF: We hear about restaurateurs and brewers who would like to source more all-natural products regionally but can’t find suppliers who can meet their demands. Is that going to hinder the fine casual movement?
DM: No, because first of all, I’ve always believed where there’s a will, there’s a way. You can’t let challenges argue you out of doing what you know is the right thing. And even if you can’t do the right thing all the time, that’s no reason not to do the right thing whenever you can. Look at Chipotle. When they couldn’t get enough whole-natural pork, they took carnitas off the menu for a small period of time and made a really important statement. That sent a little bit of pain throughout their system but a really, really loud message to producers: If you want to sell us pork, we’re not buying it until there is enough of the kind we need, and that goes for every single product we work with. So you got to just stick to your principles. Look at it as a long gain, not a short gain. Just because it’s a little difficult is not a reason to change your core values.
YF: What’s the next stage of the fine casual movement going to be?
DM: There’s a huge category that is built around healthier foods: lots and lots of salads, vegetables, grains, cage-free chickens, and line-caught tuna. You’re going to find a lot of that. You’re also going to see it increasingly with pizza. People are caring about where did the wheat come from, how about the yeast, what about the toppings. You’re going to see it around foods that we already know but never knew they could be this good. And we never knew that if they could be this good, they could also be accessible. You’ll see it around ethnic foods. In the fine dining world there has already been an exploration of how do you apply sourcing and culinary technique to ethnic cooking. But now we’re gong to see the same exact thing happen more and more in the fine-casual world.