June 25, 2022

New York restaurateur Danny Meyer told CNBC on Friday that after a year of coronavirus battles, he was finally optimistic about recovering for the food service industry.

“We feel like what is happening offers so much hope that we just didn’t have it,” said the founder of the Union Square Hospitality Group on Squawk Box.

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

“The goosebumps and the good feeling that both our employees and our guests had, were palpable,” he said. “This will build on itself, especially when you see sidewalks full of people instead of looking like a pile of boarded-up windows with ‘For Rent’ signs.”

Meyer’s comments come Friday as indoor dining in New York City expands from 35% to 50%. Restaurants in the rest of New York state are allowed to have 75% capacity instead of half, according to Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo’s guidelines.

The easing of pandemic rules in New York and other parts of the country is happening as more Americans are vaccinated against Covid-19. The vaccinations combined with protecting immunity from previous infections have resulted in daily coronavirus cases in the US falling dramatically from their peak in January. Even so, leading US health authorities have warned against becoming complacent and avoiding all virus mitigation measures.

The food service industry has been under pressure since the beginning of the pandemic, facing a number of restrictions and health mandates that changed operations, as well as a cautious segment of the population who avoided eating out even when their locale allowed it.

Many restaurants have focused on bringing takeaway and delivery to the fore, which has led to an increase in the use of third-party apps like Uber Eats and DoorDash. Even so, tens of thousands of facilities closed during the pandemic.

Despite the past pain in the industry, Meyer believes the Union Square Hospitality Group and other operators will learn valuable lessons going forward.

“In the past year we either went from no cake at all to something birthday cake at best and no icing on the cake. Now we have the opportunity to have everything,” said Meyer, who also founded Shake Shack and is chairman of the board.

“Digital takeaway ordering, delivery, pick-up, door-to-door sales of wine, shipping of groceries across the country on Goldbelly – so many of the things we learned during the pandemic are here to stay,” Meyer said.

The ability to dine outdoors on sidewalks or in converted streets is an important lifeline for the pandemic and a blessing for the future, Meyer said. New York Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city’s program would be permanent.

“Most of us have never had an al fresco meal. When we get to a point where we are 100% indoors, plus al fresco dining, shipping, takeaway, delivery, it’ll be better than ever,” said Meyer. “I’m not Pollyanna in terms of our business. I understand how challenging the restaurant industry has been, but I think this actually taught us that icing that we always needed on top of the cake.”