NYC restaurateur Danny Meyer says he's finally feeling ‘so much hope’ about a Covid recovery

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New York City restaurateur Danny Meyer told CNBC on Friday he’s finally turned optimistic around a recovery for the food-service industry after a year of coronavirus struggles.

“We feel like what is happening right now provides so much hope that we just haven’t had,” the founder of Union Square Hospitality Group said on “Squawk Box.”

On Thursday, Meyer said, his company opened two of its well-known New York City restaurants — Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern — “for the first time since about two weeks before Thanksgiving.”

“The goosebumps and the good feeling that that generated amongst both our staff members and our guests was palpable,” he said. “That will build on itself, especially as you see sidewalks heaving with people as opposed to looking like a bunch of boarded-up windows with ‘For Rent’ signs.”

Meyer’s comments Friday come as indoor dining in New York City expands to 50% capacity, up from its prior 35% level. Restaurants in the rest of New York state are permitted to have 75% indoor capacity instead of half, according to policies from Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

The relaxing of pandemic rules in New York and other parts of the country is happening as more Americans are vaccinated against Covid. Combined with immunity protection from prior infections, daily coronavirus cases in the U.S. have fallen dramatically from their peak in January. Still, top U.S. health officials have warned about becoming too complacent and forgoing all virus mitigation measures.

The restaurant industry has been under pressure since the start of the pandemic, facing a range of restrictions and health mandates that altered operations, as well as a cautious portion of the population who avoided dining out even when it’s been allowed in their locale.

Many restaurants have pivoted to place a greater emphasis on takeout and delivery, leading to a surge in usage of third-party apps like Uber Eats and DoorDash. Nevertheless, tens of thousands of establishments have closed during the pandemic.

Despite the industry’s past pain, Meyer thinks there are valuable lessons for Union Square Hospitality Group and other operators going forward.

“Over this past year, we either went from no cake at all to, at best, some birthday cake and no icing. Now what we have is the possibility to have it all,” said Meyer, who also founded Shake Shack and serves as chairman of its board.

“Digital ordering with takeout, delivery, pick-up, selling wine out the door, shipping food across the country on Goldbelly — so many of those things that we learned to do during the pandemic our going to stick,” Meyer said.

The opportunity to offer outdoor dining on sidewalks or in repurposed streets has been a key pandemic lifeline and a boon going forward, Meyer said. Democratic New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has said the city’s program will become permanent.

“Most of us never had outdoor dining. When we get to the point where we’re 100% indoor, plus outdoor dining, shipping, takeout, delivery, it’s going to be better than it’s ever been,” Meyer said. “I’m not Pollyanna about our business. I understand how challenged the restaurant industry has been, but I believe this has actually taught us the icing that we’ve always needed on top of the cake.”

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