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Café to Café

Setting the Table

The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business

By Danny Meyer

After having this book mentioned to me by three chefs/restaurant owners, I decided I'd better take a look. It's a fascinating read. The basic premise is that the first things we receive when we're born are eye contact, a smile, a hug, and some food. And we never stop looking for them. So the human drive is to give and receive hospitality. Mr. Meyer's book is about his life vs. being a how-to guide. Although his career is in the restaurant business, you can apply what he's saying to any industry.

Throughout the book, he will make the same point again and again. At first I thought 'who edited this book?' as it seemed repetitive. But by the time you're done, you really get what he's saying. And some things certainly go against everything I originally learned in business. For instance, you always hear that the guest comes first and is always right. He runs his businesses by putting his employees first, then guests, community, suppliers, and investors, what he calls "enlightened hospitality." The important thing is to ensure that a customer feels heard even if they're not right.

Why should anyone care what he says? He owns 14 businesses under the umbrella of Union Square Hospitality Group in New York: Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern, Eleven Madison Park, Tabla, Blue Smoke, Jazz Standard, Shake Shack (which now has 63 locations and went public in January 2015 raising nearly $2 billion which seems over-valued but gives you an idea of how much people love it), The Modern, Café 2, Terrace 5, Maialino, North End Grill, Marta, and Union Square Events, their catered events arm. He and his executive chef/partner Michael Romano have published two cookbooks, Union Square Café Cookbook and Second Helpings from Union Square Café. He has received the James Beard Foundation's Restaurateur of the Year and Humanitarian of the Year award. He appears to know what he's doing.

In his forward, he states the obvious, and although we talk about it continually, it doesn't always happen. "Business, like life, is all about how you make people feel. It's that simple, and it's that hard." If someone walks away from you or your business and feels good about the experience, you've done your job. But humans are complex and difficult to read. Unless your staff is trained to keep that in mind constantly and treat people accordingly, it won't happen. Hence his view that employees come first. He also acknowledges that if you find someone you want to hire, they can work elsewhere as well. So you have to give them something more than a paycheck. Creating a team/family and allowing people to grow is what will bring in great talent.

Often when a restaurant is very popular, you can't get in. You may feel as though you're getting cut off when you're trying to give them business. His instinct has always been to be on the guest's side as opposed to being a gatekeeper, and make them feel you're working to help them. Each guest is treated the same way; a regular or a celebrity won't have any better chance of getting in than a first-time customer. And once they're there, the key to great hospitality is having a staff of genuine, happy, optimistic people who figure out how to ensure guests know the staff is on their side so they'll have a great experience. The more interest you show in someone, the more interest they show in you. If guests feel they are important, you've created a sense of community. We all look for that, even if it's subconscious. Where are you the most comfortable dining out? Often where you're known and where you're made to feel important.

Making people feel important requires communication. Gathering information about customers helps you know what's important to them. And communicating information about customers to your staff is critical if you want a visit to be smooth. If a guest has made the effort to let you know why a day is important or if you've invited media in and then handled things poorly, a bad memory is created. But one mention, one acknowledgement, one seamless experience is something people remember forever.

When hiring employees, Mr. Meyer looks for someone who will give 100% (not 110% because that's like trying to 'achieve the twenty-six-hour day'), whose skills are divided 51% on emotional hospitality and 49% on technical excellence. A waiter can be technically excellent, but if unfriendly, too reserved, or just unaware, the experience is marred.

The last issue I'll mention here (because you should just read the book) is that of handling problems. Like many others, Mr. Meyer understands that you can't eliminate problems. It's the art of creative problem solving that turns things around. You can't foresee what problems will arise, so your purpose is to end up in a better place after a mistake is made. He calls it 'writing a great last chapter.' If you can make a great comeback, the guest will focus on the response and not the initial problem. The sequence of handling a mistake is awareness, acknowledgement, apology, action, and additional generosity.

I think you'll enjoy the book and probably learn a little something in the process.

Connie Adams/February 2015

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