Anyone who witnessed the rise of superb dining in Recent York City in the course of the Nineteen Eighties and ’90s would hardly have bet that Danny Meyer — whose personal touch, food sensibility and laser deal with hospitality has influenced a generation of American restaurants — would pick a Red Lobster executive to switch him as the top of his restaurant group.
Chip Wade, 59, formerly in control of 704 Red Lobster restaurants in North America, is the brand new chief executive officer of the Union Square Hospitality Group, which began in 1985 when Mr. Meyer, a 27-year-old Midwesterner with a political science degree, opened Union Square Cafe in what was then an unlikely neighborhood for high-end dining.
Putting another person in charge was no small move for Mr. Meyer, who has a hand in every a part of his company, right down to how bacon should look on a sandwich.
Mr. Meyer, now 64, will proceed to collaborate on menus, latest restaurants and expansion strategies, and stays executive chairman of the group’s board, chairman of its acquisition company and a managing partner of its investment arm. He said letting go of the operational side of the business frees him to do what he loves: providing the corporate vision, mentoring its chefs and appearing at more conferences and retreats.
“I’m overrated as a restaurateur,” he said. “I’ll be the primary to say that. But I do know the things I can do rather well.”
Mr. Wade, who was raised by a single mother employed by the Scott Paper plant in Chester, Pa., has been working in restaurants since he was a young person. At 15, he was sweeping the parking zone and washing dishes at a Dunkin’ Donuts. By the point he graduated from highschool, he was making each the schedules and the doughnuts.
Mr. Wade asked the manager what to do next. He suggested culinary school.
“I had no idea what the hell a culinary school was,” Mr. Wade said.
He landed at Johnson & Wales University in Windfall, R.I., when he was 17, away from home the primary time. For a child who had seen a cow only on television, learning to interrupt down half an animal was exhilarating, he said. His family couldn’t carry all the prices, so he worked in restaurants to pay the bills.
He spent 14 years running TGI Fridays, and was chief operating officer for the Boston-based Legal Sea Foods chain. Then he joined the restaurant giant Darden, which owns Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse and, on the time, Red Lobster. (The corporation sold the chain to Golden Gate, a California private equity firm, in 2014 for $2.1 billion.)
Mr. Wade acknowledges that his résumé apprehensive some customers and staff members of the Union Square group. “I used to be cognizant that was a fear or concern — that Chip goes to show us into a sequence,” Mr. Wade said in an interview.
Not that Mr. Meyer is a stranger to chain restaurants. The little hot-dog stand he opened to assist revitalize Madison Square Park in 2001 is now Shake Shack, a publicly traded company with greater than 400 locations. Mr. Meyer is chairman of its board.
Mr. Meyer said Shake Shack and Mr. Wade’s hiring are examples of how the historic gap between two camps within the restaurant universe has shrunk. For a long time, he said, people running independent fine-dining restaurants thought chain operators had no taste in food or décor, while chain owners thought those restaurateurs had no idea easy methods to run an efficient restaurant.
Mr. Wade, whom Mr. Meyer first hired three years ago hoping he would eventually move into the chief executive’s chair, has already made changes. Systems are being improved and streamlined. That features consolidating purchasing practices in a company that has let its restaurants operate almost as independent entities.
It’s a welcome change, said Hillary Sterling, executive chef at Ci Siamo within the Manhattan West complex. It’s the newest star within the Union Square constellation.
“Look, we don’t all need to be ordering kosher salt individually,” said Ms. Sterling, who needed to cook for and interview with Mr. Wade to get the job.
She was skeptical of the Red Lobster connection, especially because she had never been to at least one. But she discovered that Mr. Wade loves food, restaurant culture and an employee-first ethos almost as much as Mr. Meyer.
“This company and this industry are all about emotion,” she said. “It’s all about feeling. Having a welcoming, open kitchen is de facto a vital thing, and he gets that.”
Michael Anthony, who has been the manager chef of Gramercy Tavern since 2006, described Mr. Wade as “very vulnerable and really authentic.”
Mr. Wade was at a private and skilled crossroads when Mr. Meyer approached him. The 2 sons he and his wife, Pam Hoyt-Wade, had raised were of their 20s and starting their very own lives, which for the younger son includes working within the hospitality industry. Mr. Wade considered a more lucrative job with a bigger restaurant corporation, but as an alternative he selected to follow Mr. Meyer.
“It’s getting back to my culinary roots, which was the deciding factor for me,” he said.
“I’ve been a fanatical fan of Danny Meyer since I read his book in 2007 or 2008,” he said. He liked it a lot he bought 115 copies and handed it out to the individuals who worked for him at Red Lobster, together with a dozen questions that they had to reply and send back to him to prove they read it.
Mr. Wade and Mr. Meyer cemented their relationship in the course of the company’s darkest 12 months, when in response to the pandemic, Mr. Meyer shut his restaurants and laid off 90 percent of the staff. Shake Shack suffered a blow to its popularity after it took $10 million in federal Paycheck Protection loans aimed toward helping small businesses, at a time when mom-and-pop restaurants were struggling to get any of that relief. After a public outcry, the corporate returned the cash.
The 2 men have turn into so synchronized that they finish one another’s sentences and even show up on the office wearing the identical clothes, Mr. Meyer said.
Mr. Wade is a voracious reader who collects rare and antiquarian books. His preferred topics include slavery, the civil rights movement within the era of the Black Panthers, business history and Harry S. Truman. His prize acquisition is an 1893 book by Frederick Douglass.
Mr. Wade and his wife recently moved the family home to Charlotte, N.C., from Orlando, Fla., although he estimates he spends 95 percent of his time in Recent York. His wife travels to the town usually.
Because he uses the town’s restaurants, parks and cultural institutions so often, he feels very much an element of Recent York. That feeling, he said, was cemented when he marched within the streets with fellow Recent Yorkers protesting police brutality in wake of George Floyd’s death.
Mr. Wade is a founding board member of the Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance, and has made battling discrimination a priority in an industry that he says “sadly has significant room to go on each female representation and representation of individuals of color.”
It’s one in all the explanations Mr. Meyer made the move. “We got here along when Chip needed us and we would have liked him,” he said.