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Smart about restaurants, brilliant about life
on October 3, 2006
The 2006 Zagat Survey lists Gramercy Tavern as New York's most popular restaurant. (It was also #1 last year.)
Union Square Café came in second. (As it did last year.)
Eleven Madison Park ranked fourteen. (Down one from 2005.)
Tabla was eighteen. (Up one from 2005.)
Blue Smoke --- unranked in 2005 --- was the 36th most popular restaurant.
These Manhattan restaurants were all conceived by one man: Danny Meyer, who has also created the restaurants at The Museum of Modern Art and an outdoor joint called Shake Shack. Most restaurants fail, and quickly; these restaurants have, most of them, been around long enough to qualify as "institutions." If you have ever had the good fortune to sample Danny Meyer's food, you know they are likely to remain so deep into the future.
Now Danny Meyer has written a book. It is nominally a memoir about his life in restaurants. But although there are mouth-watering descriptions of great meals, it will be a great tragedy if this book becomes "food porn," devoured by foodies and unknown to the general public. This is a bigger book, and a better book, than that. (Not that there's anything wrong with food porn.) For one thing, it is a business book that should be read --- like: today! --- by anyone whose livelihood involves face-to-face encounters with customers. For another, it is a hands-on, real-world book of practical philosophy that could knock a great deal of sense into those who believe that nice guys finish last and the only way to get to the top is to kick others off the ladder as you claw your way up.
This book obeys the form of memoir, especially in the young Meyer's culinary education --- his writing will remind some readers of A.J. Liebling's postgraduate adventures in Between Meals. But almost every story has a psychological twist; this is a man who has learned a lot by eating and a lot more by listening and watching.
What he's concluded is obvious to those who have been to his restaurants: It's not about the food. It's about the people. It's about the way you feel when you're there --- about the way the staff makes you feel. In a word, it's about hospitality. What is hospitality? It starts with a belief: "The other person is on your side." And then the belief becomes behavior: "Hospitality is present when something happens for you."
Meyer came to this business philosophy young. In 1985, when he was 27 and opening his first restaurant, Union Square Café, he had job applicants answer unusual questions: "Has your sense of humor been useful to you in your service career?" and "What was so wrong about your last job?" and "Do you prefer Hellmann's or Miracle Whip?" In this way, he hired "genuine, happy, optimistic" people. They shared their good feelings with customers. And customers felt liked and valued. They became regulars --- and if the secret of a successful long-term enterprise is not Repeat Business, what is it?
Make no mistake: this kind of hospitality requires work. Not just when the customer walks through the door, but before and after. If Meyer knows a couple is coming to celebrate a birthday or anniversary, he's not above picking up a phone and telling them how much he's looking forward to their visit. Then there was the dishwasher who took extra care with dirty dishes; soon, he'd cut knife-and-fork loss by 50%. His manager told Meyer. And Meyer went to the dishwasher to thank him. Or the time a woman left her wallet and cell phone in a taxi. The restaurant manager began calling her phone, reached the cab driver, and --- without saying a word to her --- he sent a staffer in a taxi to pick up her stuff while she was having lunch. Cost: $31. The customer's response: Overwhelmed. Benefit: "I'd be surprised if this woman hasn't already given Table 100 times that value in positive word-of-mouth."
Mistakes? Of course Meyer has made them. But he listened very hard to the advice he got from legendary retailer Stanley Marcus --- "The road to success is paved with mistakes well handled" --- and figured out how to turn a mistake into what he calls "a great last chapter." He learned about power and how best to use it. He grasped that his first customers are his workers. And he appreciated that, as Dylan says, "you gotta serve somebody" --- to his great credit, he serves both local causes and a remarkable anti-hunger charity called Share Our Strength.
None of this is original; these are lessons many people know. What is dazzling and inspiring about Danny Meyer is that he operates on what he believes. Sure, there's self-interest --- the more you give, the more you get --- but more to the point, there's a sense of a life well-lived. Of a business well-run. Of employees who feel trusted and respected. And, finally, of guests who can't wait to come back. This is the very definition of a "virtuous circle."
I once heard a guru say: "When you aim for the highest things, only the highest things happen." Danny Meyer is proof that this is so. Many would scoff. They cut corners and do well in the short run. They have power for the thrill of pushing people around. Their word is not their bond. But we are talking about the span of a life here, and the worth of your work. "Setting the Table" makes you hungry for the better life just in front of you ---and fills you with confidence that it's attainable. Eat this book.