Setting The Table by Danny Meyer


Business, like life, is all about how you make people feel. It’s that simple, and it’s that hard.

Hospitality is the foundation of my business philosophy. Virtually nothing else is as important as how one is made to feel in any business transaction. Hospitality exists when you believe the other person is on your side. The converse is just as true. Hospitality is present when something happens for you. It is absent when something happens to you. Those two simple prepositions—for and to—express it all. 

Learning to manage volunteers—to who, absent a paycheck, ideas and ideals were the only currency—taught me to view all employees essentially as volunteers. Today, even with compensation as a motivator. I know that anyone who works for my company chooses to do so because of what we stand for. I believe that anyone who is qualified for a job in our company is also qualified for many other jobs at the same pay scale. It’s up to us to provide solid reasons for our employees to want to work for us, over and beyond their compensation. 

I had two nonnegotiable needs: I wanted to open in an emerging neighborhood; and I wanted to have the right to assign my lease to someone else if my restaurant should go out of business. 

With regard to the first point, I wanted to be in an area that could provide a strong lunch business. (I had learned from Pesca that a vibrant lunch service could help a restaurant to meet fixed costs, and furthermore that the kind of business clientele attracted by lunch could give the place an added identity.) I also wanted a neighborhood where a modest rent would allow me to offer excellent value to our guests. Part of the adventure of dining out, for many people, is venturing to new surroundings. A dynamic neighborhood would bestow a freshness that could rub off on the restaurant. If my restaurant were to fail, the else itself would be my only tangible asset. (To this day, getting an assignable lease is the first piece of advice I give any new restaurateur.) 

I was determined to go against the grain. I was no expert in New York real estate, but I understood on a gut level that if I handicapped the location correctly, and could successfully play a role in transforming the neighborhood, my restaurant, with its long-term lease locked in at a low rent, could offer excellence and value. This combination would attract smart, adventurous, loyal customers, in turn giving other restaurants and businesses the confidence to move into the neighborhood until a critical mass had been reached and the neighborhood itself changed for the better. Moreover, were I to go belly-up after a few years in such a neighborhood, I was confident that I could find someone else who would be eager to pay my below-market rent on the remaining years of my lease. I sensed a lot of upside and felt protected against the downside. 

Very little makes guests madder than having to wait for their reserved table or their food. 

I did not yet understand the art of pacing tables. The problem was that with a kitchen as undersized as ours, seating more than twenty or so guests every fifteen minutes would invariably close it up; it was like shoving too much mass down the tube part of a funnel, stopping the flow of food altogether. 

For those who had to wait too long, there was often a reward—a generous supply of dessert wines on the house. 

“We have fun taking service seriously,” he said. “And as for perfection, we just hide our mistakes better than anyone else!”

What mattered most to me was trying to provide maximum value in exchange not just for the guests’ money but also for their time. Anything that unnecessarily disrupts a guest’s time with his or her companions or disrupts the enjoyment of the meal undermines hospitality. It’s about soul—and service without soul, no matter how elegant, is quickly forgotten by the guest. 

Understanding the distinction between service and hospitality has been at the foundation of our success. Service is the technical delivery of a product. Hospitality is how the delivery of that product makes its recipient feel. Service is a monologue—we decide how we want to do things and set our own standards for service. Hospitality, on the other hand, is a dialogue. To be on a guest’s side requires listening to that person with every sense, and following up with a thoughtful, gracious, appropriate response. It takes both great service and great hospitality to rise to the top. 

But hospitality, which most distinguishes our restaurant—and ultimately any business—is the sum of all the thoughtful, caring, gracious things our staff does to make you feel we are on your side when you are dining with us. 

Our democratic approach to how we treat guests has become a core value of our business philosophy. 

I had already learned that the trick to delivering superior hospitality was to hire genuine, happy, optimist people. Hospitality cannot flow from a monologue. I instruct my staff members to figure out whatever it takes to make the guests feel and understand that we are in their corner. I don’t tell the staff precisely what to do or say in every scenario, though I do have some pet peeves that I don’t ever want to hear in our dining room. 

To this day, I always want any new restaurant I open to become a “lunch haunt” for some core group of loyal customers. To the degree that a restaurant can serve as an unofficial club for any constituency, it takes on an additional mystique that leads to more and more business. 

Shared ownership develops when guests talk about a restaurant as if it’s theirs. They can’t wait to share it with friends, and what they’re really sharing, beyond the culinary experience, is the experience of feeling important and loved. That sense of affiliation builds trust and a sense of being accepted and appreciated, invariably leading to repeat business, a necessity for any cpomapnf’s long-term survival. 

I’m never out to invent a new cuisine. Instead, I’m interested in creating a fresh “hybrid” dining experience; and then, like a museum curator. I strive to put a complementary frame around it, find the right wall to hang it on, and aim just the proper lighting on it. The care with which we design our restaurants and the thoughtful ay our chefs create the food on our menus are two elements that add significantly to the artistry and the handcrafted feel of a new restaurant. 

I feel the entrepreneurial spark when some instinct tells me that a certain dining “context” doesn’t currently exist bu should exist. I then ask myself a series of questions that force me to  examine and challenge the status quo—and then change it. 

Context is everything. What has guided me most as an entrepreneur is the confluence of passion and opportunity (and sometimes serendipity) that leads to the right context for the right idea at the right time in the right place and for the right value. I have never relied on or been interested in market analysis to create a new business model. I am my own test market. I am for more intuitive than analytical. If ai sense an opportunity to reframe something I’m passionately interested in, I give it my absolute best shot.

Invest in your community, and the rising tide will lift all boats.

Invest in your community. A business that understands how powerful it is to create wealth for the community stands a much higher chance of creating wealth for its own investors. 

Know Thyself: Before you go to market, know what you are selling and to whom. It’s a very rare business that can (or should_ be all things to all people. Be the best you an be within a reasonably tight product focus. That will help you to improve yourself and help your customers to know how and when to buy your product. 

People duck as a natural reflex when something is hurled at them. Similarly, the excellence reflex is a natural reaction to fix something that isn’t right, or to improve something that could be better. The excellence reflex is rooted in instinct and upbringing, and then constantly honed through awareness, caring, and practice. The overarching concern to do the right thing well is something we can’t train for. Either it’s there or it isn’t. So we need to train how to hire for it. 

We are hoping to develop 100 percent employees whose skills are divided 51-49 between emotional hospitality and technical excellence. 

To me, a 51 percent has five core emotional skills. I’ve learned that we need to hire employees with these skills if we’re to be champions at the team sport of hospitality. They are:

  1. Optimistic warmth (genuine kindness, thoughtfulness, and a sense that the glass is always at least half full)
  2. Intelligence (not just “smarts” but rather an insatiable curiosity to learn for the sake of learning)
  3. Work ethic (a natural tendency to do something as well as it can possibly be done)
  4. Empathy (an awareness of, care for, and connection to how others feel and how your actions make others feel)
  5. Self-awareness and integrity (an understanding of what makes you tick and a natural inclination to be accountable for doing the right thing with honesty and superb judgement)

A special type of personality thrives on providing hospitality and it’s crucial to our success that we attract people who posses it. Their source of energy is rarely depleted. In fact, the more opportunities hospitalitarians have to care for other people, the better they feel. 

I also learned how critical it is to manage expectations—and to plan for success, not just for failure. 

“You could all be doing what you do anywhere else,” I say. “But you chose to be with us. You have volunteered to be on our team, and we owe it to you to provide you with much more than just a paycheck in return. We want you to feel certain you have made a wise choice in joining our company.” It’s a chance to work at a company where respect and trust are mutual between management and workers, where you can enjoy working alongside and learning from excellent colleagues, and where you can know that your contributions can make every day truly matter. 

The road to success is paved with mistakes well handled. 

Are you in it for keeps? It’s almost always worth bearing a higher short-term cost if you want to win in the long run. I’m convinced that you get what you give, and you get more by first giving more. Generosity of spirit and gracious approach to problem solving are, with few exceptions, the most effective way I know to earn lasting goodwill for your business.

Prioritizing those people in the following order is the guiding principle for practically every decision we make, and it has made the single greatest contribution to the ongoing success of our company: Our employees; Our guests; Our community; Our suppliers; and Our investors.