Notes & Quotes: Setting the Table by Danny Meyer

The following are my favorite notes from Danny Meyer's Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business.

  1. Within moments of being born, most babies find themselves receiving the first four gifts of life: eye contact, a smile, a hug, and some food. We receive many other gifts in a lifetime, but few can ever surpass those first four.
  2. I've learned how crucially important it is to put hospitality to work, first for the people who work for me and subsequently for all the other people and stakeholders who are in any way affected by our business--in descending order, our guests, community, suppliers, and investors. I call this way of setting priorities "enlightened hospitality."
  3. You may think, as I once did, that I'm primarily in the business of serving good food. Actually, though, food is secondary to something that matters even more. In the end, what's most meaningful is creating positive, uplifting outcomes for human experiences and human relationships. Business, like life, is all about how you make people feel. It's that simple, and it's that hard.
  4. My discoveries have also convinced me that there's always someone out there who has figured out how to make something taste just a little bit better. And I am inspired by both the search and the discovery.
  5. 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.
  6. I was judged not just for the food, but by how well I cleaned the pans and plates, put out the fire, refilled the pit, and--most important--by whether I would be able to "leave the campsite neater than I had found it." (That concept remains, for me, one of the most significant measures of success in business, and in life.)
  7. Learning to manage volunteers--to whom, 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.
  8. The beautiful choreography of service is, at its best, an art form, a ballet. I appreciate the grace with which a table can be properly cleared. I admire the elegance with which a bottle of wine can be appropriately opened, decanted, and poured. There's aesthetic value in doing things the right way. But I respond best when the person doing those things realizes that the purpose of all this beauty at the table is to create pleasure for me. To go through the motions in a perfunctory or self-absorbed manner, no matter how expertly rendered, diminishes the beauty. It's about soul--and service without soul, no matter how elegant, is quickly forgotten by the guest.
  9. To this day, Union Square Cafe remains the purest expression of me and most clearly represents the mission of all my restaurants: to express excellence in the most inclusive, accessible, genuine, and hospitable way possible.
  10. It's human nature for people to take precisely as much interest in you as they believe you're taking in them. There is no stronger way to build relationships than taking a genuine interest in other human beings and allowing them to share their stories. When we take an active interest in the guests at our restaurants, we create a sense of community and a feeling of "shared ownership."
  11. I urge our managers to ABCD--always be collecting dots. Dots are information. The more information you collect, the more frequently you can make meaningful connections that can make other people feel good and give you an edge in business.
  12. I realize that I don't have to do this kind of thing, but there is simply no point for me--or anyone on my staff--to work hard every day for the purpose of offering guests an average experience.
  13. Our job is not to impose our own needs on our guests: it's to be aware of their needs and to deliver the goods accordingly. In hospitality, one size fits one!
  14. I will throw myself into a new venture only when certain criteria are met: I am passionate about the subject matter (i.e., early American folk antiques, modern art, jazz, barbecue). I know I will derive some combination of challenge, satisfaction, and pleasure from the venture. It presents meaningful opportunities for professional growth for my colleagues and me. The new business will add something to the dialogue in a specific context, such a luxury dining (Gramercy Tavern), museum dining (The Modern, Cafe 2, and Terrace 5 at the Museum of Modern Art), Indian dining (Tabla), barbecue (Blue Smoke), or burgers and frozen custard (Shake Shack). Financial projections indicate the possibility of sufficient profit and returns on our investment to warrant the risk we're undertaking.
  15. 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 can 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.
  16. The company learned to superimpose its blueprint onto thousands of locations north, south, east, and west, while also conveying the sense that each Starbucks belonged to its particular community. It was brilliant entrepreneurship to grasp that selling excellent coffee is secondary to creating a sense of community. Coffee sells (and is habit-forming), but performing a daily ritual with a self-selected group of life-minded human beings also sells. A business that doesn't understand it's raison d'etre as fostering community will inevitably underperform.
  17. The only way a company can grow, stay true to its soul, and remain consistently successful is to attract, hire, and keep great people. It's that simple, and it's that hard.
  18. We searched high and low for the rare employees who love teaching, know how to set priorities, work with a sense of urgency, and--most important--are comfortable with holding people accountable to high standards while letting them hold onto their own dignity.
  19. We don't believe in pursuing the so-called 110 percent employee. That's about as realistic as working achieve the twenty-six-hour day. We are hoping to develop 100 percent employees whose skills are divided 51-49 between emotional hospitality and technical excellence. We refer to these employees as 51 percenters.
  20. To me, a 51 percenter 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: Optimistic warmth (genuine kindness, thoughtfulness, and a sense that the glass is always at least half full). Intelligence (not just "smarts" but rather an insatiable curiosity to learn for the sake of learning). Work ethic (a natural tendency to do something as well as it can possibly be done). Empathy (an awareness of, care for, and connection to how others feel and how your actions make others feel). 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 judgment).
  21. When an employee does not work out, the problem more often stems from an attitude of "I won't" rather than "I can't".
  22. It's pretty easy to spot an overwhelmingly strong candidate or even an underwhelmingly weak candidate. It's the "whelming" candidate you must avoid at all costs, because that's the one who can and will do your organization the most long-lasting harm. Overwhelmers earn you raves. Underwhelmers either leave on their own or are terminated. Whelmers, sadly, are like a stubborn stain you can't get out of the carpet. They infuse an organization and its staff with mediocrity; they're comortable, and so they never leave; and, frustratingly, they never do anything that rises to the level of getting them promoted or sinks to the level of getting them fired. And because you either can't or don't fire them, you and they conspire to send a dangerous message to your staff and guests that "average" is acceptable.
  23. It's critical to be a champion at retaining top staff members. A business owner can too easily squander the winning edge that comes from fielding a great team by not treating its members with respect and trust, teaching them new skills, and offering clear challenges.
  24. I learned how critical it is to manage expectations--and to plan for success, not just for failure. Too often, we've made mistakes by not anticipating what the consequences would be if we were to win.
  25. Previous success in any field invites high expectations and scrutiny the next time around. People are less forgiving when a winner falters than they are when an up-and-comer stumbles. But a mark of a champion is to welcome scrutiny, persevere, perform beyond expectations, and provide an exceptional product--for which forgiveness is not necessary.
  26. I ended the memo by quoting something my late grandfather, Irving Harris, always used to remind me. "People will say a lot of great things about your business, and a lot of nasty things as well. Just remember: you're never as good as the best things they'll say, and never as bad as the negative ones. Just keep centered, know what you stand for, strive for new goals, and always be decent."
  27. Three hallmarks of effective leadership are to provide a clear vision for your business so that your employees know where you're taking them; to hold people accountable for consistent standards of excellence; and to communicate a well-defined set of cultural priorities and nonnegotiable values. Perhaps most important, true leaders hold themselves accountable for conducting business in the same manner in which they've asked their team to perform.
  28. Wherever your center lies, know it, name it, stick to it, and believe in it. Everyone who works with you will know what matters to you and will respect and appreciate your unwavering values. Your inner beliefs about business will guide you through the tough times. It's good to be open to fresh approaches to solving problems. But, when you cede your core values to someone else, it's time to quit.
  29. Ultimately, the most successful business is not the one that eliminates the most problems. It's the one that becomes most expert at finding imaginative solutions to address those problems.
  30. Poor communication is generally not a matter of miscommunication. More often, it involves taking away people's feeling of control. Change works only when people believe it is happening for them, not to them. And there's not much in between. Good communication is always a factor of good hospitality.
  31. The biggest mistake managers can make is neglecting to set high standards and hold others accountable. This denies employees the chance to learn and excel. Employees do not want to be told, "Let me make your life easier by enabling you not to learn and not to achieve anything new."
  32. You can get the best productivity from your employees when they believe that their leadership is open-minded, is accessible, and welcomes input.
  33. You cannot be a great leader unless a critical mass of people are attracted to following your lead.
  34. A great leader must repeatedly ask himself or herself this tough question: "Why would anyone want to be led by me?" And there had better be a good number of compelling reasons.
  35. For some reason, when certain people gain more authority and power, they tend to demand respect from those who work for them. But what got them their promotion in the first place was their natural ability to command respect. Demanding respect creates tension that can make it very tough to lead, and very uncomfortable to follow. 
  36. Stanley [Marcus] set his martini down, looked me in the eye, and said, "So you made a mistake. You need to understand something important. And listen to me carefully: The road to success is paved with mistakes well handled."
  37. The best companies are those that distinguish themselves by solving problems most effectively.
  38. I like to think of our staff members not at servers, but surfers. Surfing is an arduous sport, and no one pursues it involuntarily. No one forces you to become a surfer, but if you choose to do it, there's no point in wasting energy trying to tame the ocean of its waves. Waves are like mistakes. You can count on the fact that there will always be another wave, so your choice is to get back on the surfboard and anticipate it. The degree to which you ride it with better form than the next guy is how you improve and distinguish yourself.
  39. The Five A's for Effectively Addressing Mistakes:
    1. Awareness
    2. Acknowledgement
    3. Apology
    4. Action
    5. Additional generosity
  40. There are five primary stakeholders to whom we express our most caring hospitality, and in whom we take the greatest interest. 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. Our investors.
  41. Mutual respect and trust are the most powerful tools for building an energetic, motivated, winning team in any field.
  42. Hospitality starts with the genuine enjoyment of doing something well for the purpose of bringing pleasure to other people.
  43. I have always believed that you can tell as much about a company by the deals it does not make as by those it does. Much of the success we have had has resulted from saying "no, thank you" to opportunities that, while initially compelling, would not have been wise to pursue.
  44. The "Yes" Criteria for New Ventures:
    1. The opportunity fits and enhances our company's overall strategic goals and objectives.
    2. The opportunity represents a chance to create a business venture that is perceived as groundbreaking, trailblazing, and fresh.
    3. The timing is right for our company's capacity to grow with excellence, especially in terms of our having enough key employees who are themselves interested and ready to grow.
    4. We believe we have the capacity to be category leaders within whatever niche we are pursuing.
    5. We believe our existing businesses will benefit and improve by virtue of or notwithstanding our pursuing this new opportunity.
    6. We feel excited and passionate about this idea. Pursuing it will be an opportunity to learn, grow, and have fun!
    7. We are excited about doing business in this community.
    8. The context is the right fit. Our restaurant and our style of doing business will be in harmony with its location.
    9. An in-depth pro forma analysis convinces us that it a wise and safe investment.
  45. As my company's leader, I have certainly learned to be decisive with an appropriate sense of urgency, but I always prefer to make my decisions after first building consensus among various colleagues, whose unique vantage points give me further confidence to move forward. This process can be lengthy, but so long as the spirit of any decision is consistent with what I'd want, bringing others' views to the table allows us to move forward with a more fully realized plan supported by those who are responsible for its execution. Our decision-making about whether or not to pursue new deals is always sharpest when I call on members of my advisory board to advocate on behalf of their primary role in our company.
  46. At about this time, my assistant, Jenny Dirksen (now our director of community investment), shared a priceless expression her grandmother had taught her: One tuchas can't dance at two weddings. It's nice to be invited to a lot of parties. But as much as you may want to attend them all, it's important to acknowledge that you can be in only one place at a time, and do one thing well. My grandfather used to express similar wisdom: Doing two things like a half-wit never equals one thing like a whole wit.