Union Square Hospitality Group founder Danny Meyer has nearly four decades of experience running some of the most iconic restaurants in New York City. He literally wrote the book on hospitality—one that serves as a must-read in the industry.
But he’s also someone who can recognize the magic that forces thousands of people to stand in line for a sandwich called the Fussy Hussy—with a side of fries sprinkled with some slut dust.
The Fussy Hussy, and other sandwiches like the One Night Stand and the Hollywood Hooker, are on the menu at the growing plant-based concept Slutty Vegan, based in Atlanta, which opened its 10th unit this weekend in Dallas. It was founded by Pinky Cole, who shared the stage with Meyer at the National Restaurant Association Show on Sunday in a keynote moderated by National Restaurant Association President and CEO Michelle Korsmo.
Meyer and Cole might appear to be somewhat at odds: He’s a long-respected restaurant operator who moves thoughtfully, with a north star always pointed to hospitality and making guests feel cared for and recognized.
She’s a buzz-generating entrepreneur who founded her brand with no business plan, just “a dollar and a dream,” she said. Cole went in full-throttle with an idea that combined “two of the most pleasurable experiences in life: sex and food.”
Yet the two have become partners and share a mutual respect. Meyer’s investment arm Enlightened Hospitality Investments contributed to a $25 million investment in Slutty Vegan last year.
Meyer calls Cole “the Pied Piper of veganism” because she makes it fun. “The magic you bring to your projects that makes people say ‘I want to be a part of that’ is unbelievable,” Meyer said to Cole, describing her as irrepressible.
Cole, meanwhile, sees Meyer as a role model, saying that she respects his long-burnished reputation for resilience, integrity and honesty—and his unusually calm demeanor. “You’re like a silent killer,” she joked.
The two have a different style of operation. Cole, for example, is building her brand around the Slutty Vegan persona, whom she imagines as a young woman who went to college and is a lawyer but on the weekends likes to party.
Cole might send text messages to guests saying something like, “Hey big head, come and see me.” Such tactics tend to be shared on social media. “They say, ‘Slutty Vegan is crazy, look what she texted me.’ It’s free marketing,” she laughed.
Cole is also a big believer in tapping data, with about 15 of her 400 or so employees devoted to better capitalizing on the guest information they collect. “Data analytics is better than cash money,” she said.
Meyer, on the other hand, who founded the multi-concept group with Union Square Cafe in 1985, only brought in a classic data analyst about two years ago. He’s not always a first adopter, he said, believing that sometimes it’s better to wait and let others experiment through the first iterations of a new technology.
Still, Meyer is a believer in innovations that could potentially help his staff spend more time serving guests, he said. He mentioned several tech companies (some of which he has invested in) that Union Square Hospitality has used, including Olo, which Meyer described as “the plumbing system for digital ordering,” and PreciTaste, an AI-driven kitchen management system that can read the number of guests in the dining room and tell the kitchen what to order.
Perhaps more than anything else, Cole and Meyer share a conviction about keeping workers happy and inspired to pursue excellence, which creates a flywheel that attracts more like-minded workers.
“People who have a heart for hospitality love working with other people who have a heart for hospitality,” said Meyer. “If you get that flywheel going, your staff becomes your greatest recruiter.”
Cole agreed, saying she tries to incentivize employees to make them feel like they’re part of something great.
“This is not a place where you come and flip burgers,” she said. “We want you to be great in that ecosystem. Because if you’re happy, the customer’s happy. And if the customer’s happy, they will keep coming back. And if the customer comes back, guess what? Everybody gets paid and the bills are paid and the light says on, and we can … grow and scale the company.”
The biggest challenge in the industry right now is attracting more people to work in restaurants, said Meyer.
He pointed to the thousands of migrants in cities like New York. “They’re only guilty of wanting to be great citizens of this great country, as far as I’m concerned, and they’re not allowed to work,” he said. “Meanwhile, we need more people.”
Meyer called on the restaurant industry to get involved in solving this problem. “The way forward to that is, in each of these cities where this is happening, to create a job training program, a hospitality training program,” said Meyer. “I think we could train in three to five weeks, with the right screening of the right people.”
Meyer said he wasn’t sure what the right steps might be to get the federal government to help. But the answer, he argued, is fundamentally about hospitality.
“What we should be doing is not only welcoming people into our restaurants, but also into this country,” he said, to robust applause.
Korsmo agreed, saying the association has pressed federal lawmakers for policy that would create work visas for migrants who want to work in the industry, urging restaurant operators to pressure elected officials to bring such policies to fruition. “They’re not feeling enough heat,” she said. “People need to have real pathways to work.”
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