When making this list, dozens of wonderful restaurateurs were considered; yet these five stuck out for having made significant changes to the American dining industry, or for being in the process of doing that. As the owner or manager of a restaurant, you might even be unknowingly influenced by one of these trend makers!
See our list of 5 of the most influential restaurateurs in the United States below.
For masterminding “enlightened hospitality” and Shake Shack.
While not the most prolific, it can be argued that Danny Meyer is New York City’s most influential restaurateur. Among his restaurants there are Michelin stars and James Beard awards; however, the restaurant that really cemented his reputation is the Union Square Café. It is the heartbeat of the Union Square quarter and the reason for the area’s overall growth. (Although, even a Danny Meyer restaurant is susceptible to the whims of landlords. After being in the same corner for decades, it was forced to relocate a few blocks down due to an obscene rent increase.)
The St. Louis native moved to NYC in 1985 and opened his first restaurant at 27. He later founded the internationally acclaimed restaurant company, the Union Square Hospitality Group. He masterminded Shake Shack. His other city restaurants like Gramercy Tavern and the Modern are legendary for impeccable service and distinct style and made NYC’s dining scene legendary in kind.
Meyers even wrote a New York Times bestseller, Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business, where he explains his method: enlightened hospitality.
If you’re looking for a mentor in the industry or some inspiration, Danny Meyer—and his book—is for you.
Norman E. Brinker
For popularizing casual dining and showing us the possibilities of lettuce.
In the ‘60s, the green lettuce salad, as a food item, was ignored and barely tolerated. Now, the salad is a celebrated food item prepared in myriad ways. It’s usually affordable, healthy, and fresh, and can be tailored to fit the dietary needs of a picky 21st-century eater.
But a few decades ago, it was the ugly duckling of the food industry. Norman E. Brinker invented the salad bar sometime in the 1960s, changing its culinary trajectory into a favored food type.
His legacy as an American restaurateur is rooted in casual dining concepts and today, his presence is felt around the world, with the self-titled restaurant group Brinker International operating over 1,700 restaurants worldwide, including Chili’s, Maggiano’s Little Italy, and On the Border Grill and Cantina.
Brinker entered the industry working for the owner of Jack in the Box, and in two years, grew the business from five shops to a nationwide franchise. Brinker also transformed Chili’s Grill and Bar from a Texas hamburger restaurant into the global chain restaurant that we know today.
His work with Chili’s created a space for the casual dining concept that T.G.I. Friday’s first tapped into. “He was the most influential person in the restaurant industry,” said Ellen Koteff, the editor of Nation’s Restaurant News. “This is not even debatable. He helped create casual dining, and if you counted the people from Brinker who now head up restaurant companies, you would be astounded.”
For conceiving and executing superb restaurant concepts for all tastes.
Steven Starr opened his first restaurant at 21 in Philadelphia so he could impress his ex-girlfriend. What followed was a string of successful concepts that rocketed Starr’s reputation as a virtuoso in world-class dining. His first Buddakan in Philadelphia brought sex appeal to the Old City’s dining scene, and in New York City, Le Coucou was awarded best restaurant by the James Beard Foundation in 2017 and its first Michelin star this year.
The Starr Group now operates 36 restaurants and spans two continents. Each destination is unique from the next, yet all share “Starr power:” theatrical décor, smooth FOH operations, and superb kitchens.
Perhaps the secret to his success is that Starr doesn’t partake in the good times, he just wants you to enjoy them. As he says, “I’m the guy producing the show, watching it offstage with his arms folded.”
For prioritizing nutrition and good quality in fast food.
There were fast-food franchises and casual dining restaurant franchises, but nothing quite in between until Steve Ells founded the burrito company Chipotle. With over 2,500 locations worldwide, Ells’ fast-casual dining concept hit a nerve and has inspired a new generation of restaurateurs over the last decade.
Ells is known for paying attention to details, famously recalling newly purchased stools for making too much noise. He was a professional chef when he came up with the idea of a burrito empire: “When I created Chipotle in 1993, I had a very simple idea: Offer a simple menu of great food prepared fresh each day, using many of the same cooking techniques as gourmet restaurants. Then serve the food quickly.” The formula was revolutionary at the time and sparked a new wave of dining concepts that embraced the fast-casual operating style.
Lavu Pro Tip: See the three biggest takeaways any restaurant can learn from Ells:
- Never lower the food quality at your restaurants.
- Invest in fresh food preparation systems.
- Loyalty programs work, especially to get you through catastrophes.
For changing the US food industry to cook with organic, farm-to-table ingredients.
Alice Waters opened just one restaurant, yet her contribution to American cuisine is deeply significant. In the ‘60s she attended the University of Berkley in California and studied abroad in France. This trip shaped her perspective on how food should be grown, prepared, and eaten, and returning home, she opened Chez Panisse in 1971, the pioneer restaurant of the “slow food” movement and an early incarnation of California cuisine.
The core of Waters’ food philosophy is the ethical, social, and economic responsibility to grow and serve food. Her belief is that there should be no compromise when it comes to ingredient quality.
In the ‘70s and through the ‘90s, the canned and frozen foods options were the food choice du jour, but slowly, things shifted towards appreciating farm-to-table restaurants. Farmer’s markets started opening across the country. American consumers became more conscious of what they ate and educated themselves on good nutrition, and eventually, the country turned to California (and Waters) for guidance.
Chez Panisse stayed open through the years and served as a bastion of the farm-to-table movement, yet Waters was most famous for her food and cooking education. In 1995, she started the Edible Schoolyard, which advocates healthier lunches in school cafeterias in cities across the country. Additionally, she wrote several highly-acclaimed cookbooks and her 2017 memoir, Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook.
In 1992, the James Beard Foundation awarded Waters Outstanding Chef and Chez Panisse Outstanding restaurant, and in 2004, they presented Waters with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Nearly 50 years later since she began her movement and Waters’ practices for sustainable, healthy dining is categorically present throughout the country.