Anyone who witnessed the rise of fine dining in New York City during the 1980s and ’90s would hardly have bet that Danny Meyer — whose personal touch, food sensibility and laser focus on hospitality has influenced a generation of American restaurants — would pick a Red Lobster executive to replace him as the head of his restaurant group.
Chip Wade, 59, formerly in charge of 704 Red Lobster restaurants in North America, is the new chief executive officer of the Union Square Hospitality Group, which started 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 someone else in charge was no small move for Mr. Meyer, who has a hand in every part of his company, down to how bacon should look on a sandwich.
Mr. Meyer, now 64, will continue to collaborate on menus, new restaurants and expansion strategies, and remains 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 the side of the business frees him to do what he loves: providing the company vision, mentoring its chefs and appearing at more conferences and retreats.
“I’m overrated as a restaurateur,” he said. “I’ll be the first to say that. But I know the things I can do really 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 teenager. At 15, he was sweeping the parking lot and washing dishes at a Dunkin’ Donuts. By the time he graduated from high school, he was making both 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 Providence, R.I., when he was 17, away from home the first time. For a kid who had seen a cow only on television, learning to break down half an animal was exhilarating, he said. His family couldn’t carry all the costs, 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, at 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 worried some customers and staff members of the Union Square group. “I was cognizant that was a fear or concern — that Chip is going to turn us into a chain,” Mr. Wade said in an interview.
Not that Mr. Meyer is a stranger to chain restaurants. The little hot-dog stand he opened to help revitalize Madison Square Park in 2001 is now Shake Shack, a publicly traded company with more 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 in the restaurant universe has shrunk. For decades, 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 how 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 includes consolidating purchasing practices in an organization that has let its restaurants operate almost as independent entities.
“Look, we don’t all have to be ordering kosher salt individually,” said Ms. Sterling, who had 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 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 really an important thing, and he gets that.”
Michael Anthony, who has been the executive chef of Gramercy Tavern since 2006, described Mr. Wade as “very vulnerable and very authentic.”
Mr. Wade was at a personal and professional crossroads when Mr. Meyer approached him. The two sons he and his wife, Pam Hoyt-Wade, had raised were in their 20s and starting their own lives, which for the younger son includes working in the hospitality industry. Mr. Wade considered a more lucrative job with a larger restaurant corporation, but instead he chose 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 so much he bought 115 copies and handed it out to the people who worked for him at Red Lobster, along with a dozen questions they had to answer and send back to him to prove they read it.
Mr. Wade and Mr. Meyer cemented their relationship during the company’s darkest year, 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 reputation after it took $10 million in federal Paycheck Protection loans aimed at helping small businesses, at a time when mom-and-pop restaurants were struggling to get any of that relief. After a public outcry, the company returned the money.
The two men have become so synchronized that they finish each other’s sentences and even show up at the office wearing the same 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 in 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 New York. His wife travels to the city regularly.
Because he uses the city’s restaurants, parks and cultural institutions so often, he feels very much a part of New York. That feeling, he said, was cemented when he marched in the streets with fellow New 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 both female representation and representation of people of color.”
It’s one of the reasons Mr. Meyer made the move. “We came along when Chip needed us and we needed him,” he said.