Danny Meyer Is Turning His Restaurants Into Commissary Kitchens
Danny Meyer, chief executive officer of Union Square Hospitality Group, arrives ahead of the Allen & Co. Media and Technology Conference in Sun Valley, Idaho. (Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg)

Danny Meyer Is Turning His Restaurants Into Commissary Kitchens

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First, Eleven Madison Park segued from a Michelin three-star restaurant to a commissary kitchen to feed people in need.

Now Danny Meyer, whose Union Square Hospitality Group owns some of New York City’s most prestigious dining rooms, including Gramercy Tavern, is following suit.

Danny Meyer Is Turning His Restaurants Into Commissary Kitchens

Meyer is turning three of the establishments—Marta, plus Intersect and Union Square Events, which are closed at the moment—into kitchens that are creating meals for people in need in the South Bronx. The announcement coincides with news that he has taken millions in Paycheck Protection Program loans for Marta and several of his other restaurants, according to Gothamist. Data from the Small Business Administration show that although Meyer’s Shake Shack made a high-profile return of $10 million in PPP loans, USHG received at least $11 million in separate loans.

The reactivation of USHG kitchens is part of a $1 million contribution that real estate giant Brookfield Properties Ltd. made to Rethink, a nonprofit that repurposes unused food into meals to feed hungry New Yorkers. Rethink was started in 2017 by former chef Matt Jozwiak. Since the start of the coronavirus it’s supplied more than 786,000 meals to New Yorkers. Recently the nonprofit announced plans to expand the program to cities including Chicago, San Francisco, and Nashville.

“We are in the middle of this citywide food shortage and labor crisis,” Meyer says. “I see it as an opportunity to activate underutilized assets. We have kitchens and talented people who would like to come back to work.”

Danny Meyer Is Turning His Restaurants Into Commissary Kitchens

Meyer has a relationship with Brookfield Place: USHG’s first opening since the start of the coronavirus will be at Manhattan West, a 7.5 million-square-foot, mixed-use space in Hudson Yards. The USHG multiconcept restaurant there is in development for 2021.

“We’ve had to rethink it, no pun intended. It will be our first full-service restaurant in a hopefully post-Covid world,” Meyer says. “It doesn’t have a name, it doesn’t have a chef, there’s a list of things to think about.”

“Danny is a close partner to us,” says Ben Brown, managing director of Brookfield’s real estate group. “We have a few commercial initiatives with his group. This is something we can do together for a cause that’s important and impactful.” Brown notes that this is Brookfield’s first restaurant-related donation. Besides activating the three USHG properties, the $1 million also funds Rethink’s Restaurant Response Program grants, which community restaurants can apply for.

Meyer’s kitchens will start preparing Rethink meals on Monday, July 13; the group is bringing back a total of 15 to 20 staff members to prepare the food. (It’s a fraction of the company’s former workforce; in March, Union Square Hospitality laid off 2,000 employees.) They plan to serve 1,700 meals a day, with the goal of increasing that number as they become more efficient. 

Danny Meyer Is Turning His Restaurants Into Commissary Kitchens

Besides feeding food-insecure families across the South Bronx, Meyer has committed to mentoring the establishments in Rethink’s Restaurant Response Program, such as La Morada, which is also located in the neighborhood. One of the biggest things he’ll focus on is safety protocols, as well as guidance on menu development and operations. 

Danny Meyer Is Turning His Restaurants Into Commissary Kitchens

Safety has been a major concern for Meyer, who was early to close his dining rooms at the onset of New York’s shelter-in-place rules in March. He said publicly he didn’t think he would reopen them until there was a vaccine.

He now says his restaurants might reopen before there’s a vaccine, though it’s dependent on diners wanting to return. “We had a fire drill last week because we thought the city was going to move into Phase 3, which would permit you to serve at 50%,” Meyer says. “It was the act of recruiting the team and going through spring training. When it’s safe enough, we have the proper protocols, but what is going to drive this is consumer demand and people knocking down our doors.”

Danny Meyer Is Turning His Restaurants Into Commissary Kitchens

Currently, four of his Union Square Hospitality restaurants are open for outdoor dining: Marta, the coffee and sandwich spot Daily Provisions, the barbecue place Blue Smoke, and Tacocina in Brooklyn’s Domino Park.

Like chef Daniel Humm, who’s said he’s no longer interested in feeding only the 1 Percent at Eleven Madison Park, Meyer says he’ll continue to work with Rethink and restaurants in the South Bronx in the long term. “The answer is yes, we are committed to this, even after our restaurants reopen,” he says.

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