Yesterday at the New York Times‘s Cities for Tomorrow conference, restaurateur Danny Meyer discussed the secret to finding a hot new neighborhood on a panel called “The Hungry Metropolis.” Responding to a question from Times food writer and moderator Julia Moskin about how he decided on which “sketchy” neighborhood to place his first restaurant, Union Square Cafe, the Shake Shack guru recounted the familiar story of seeking proximity to the greenmarket.
Then Meyer gave the audience — and fellow panelists Birmingham’s Frank Stitt and Pittsburgh’s Trevett Hooper — some insight into what drives chefs and restaurateurs to seek out new neighborhoods when opening restaurants. He later speculated on how to sniff out emerging locales — all while using his trademark mix of business-school wisdom and schoolboy wit.
“When you’re opening a restaurant,” Meyer said, “the rent is something that’s fixed for the term of your lease, so you’d better get that right. I think it pays for restaurants to be on the edge of where they think tomorrow’s neighborhoods are going to be because we’re fortunate to be in a business where people are willing to go anywhere for a new restaurant experience — unlike opening a jewelry shop, where you’ve gotta be on the right street corner. And by the way, you could buy that piece of jewelry online.”
After he recounted his Union Square Hospitality Group’s early adoption of Madison Square Park and Battery Park, Moskin then jokingly asked if Meyer would open his next restaurant in Bushwick, the once forlorn but now hot restaurant neighborhood. Without missing a beat, Meyer quipped, “I think somebody got there first. It’s called Roberta’s.”
After the laughs subsided, Meyer kept rolling: “Look for where the coffee goes. Coffee is almost always first. The reason for that is in an up-and-coming neighborhood, first of all, everybody drinks coffee. People who don’t even have money spend too much money on coffee. And it doesn’t cost that much money to open a coffee place.”
“If you look where the coffee goes, you can almost bet on the neighborhood,” he said. “It used to be, in the old days, art galleries and before that prostitutes. Now it’s coffee.”
For a take on another neighborhood pioneer from Danny Meyer, watch our video about the design of Porchlight, in Manhattan’s west Chelsea: