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Danny Meyer: Setting the Table

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: May 07, 2017
Category: Food and Wine

Two things happened last week.

First, as you know, white men voted to give more expensive health care to people who need more care at lower cost not because these white men have strong views about punishing the poor and middle class — though some of them surely do loathe women, the poor and the non-white — but in order to give bigger tax breaks to people who don’t need them.

At the same time, Pete Wells elevated the Union Square Cafe to three stars in his New York Times review, in part because of its commitment to great service. A few days later, he had some afterthoughts:

Another restaurant might try to impress diners by suggesting an esoteric sweet wine whose “flavor profile” supposedly complements the coffee in the dessert but whose real point is to show you how smart the sommelier is. The servers at Union Square Cafe don’t want you to be impressed. They want you to be happy….No, it [dinner at the Union Square Cafe] didn’t feel like a transaction. But it was one. Believing otherwise would be like believing that David Copperfield had caused the Statue of Liberty to cease to exist. Anybody over the age of 5 knows that the statue was still there. David Copperfield made it invisible, though, just like Union Square Cafe made the machinery of commerce invisible. That’s the trick.

Hospitality. Giving the customer more than she paid for. A credible smile. Kindness. Do these intangibles matter? Well, the health plan that went to the Senate has the support of no more than 20% of the population. In contrast, good luck getting a table at Union Square Cafe. And when it comes to the Zagat rankings, certain names are always near the top, and they’re all owned by Danny Meyer — Gramercy Tavern, Eleven Madison Park, Union Square Café. When it comes to burgers and fries, New Yorkers crave Shake Shack, a Meyer-owned chain.

Most restaurants fail, and quickly; Danny Meyer restaurants become institutions. In 25 years, he’s closed only one — Tabla, a daring Indian restaurant.

How does that happen?

“Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business” is, as the title suggests, not really a memoir about his life in restaurants. There are mouth-watering descriptions of great meals, but this was not a book fated to be devoured by foodies and unknown to the general public. Really, it’s a how-to manual, a common sense guide to smart business practices that should be read — like: today! — by anyone whose livelihood involves face-to-face encounters with customers. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.] 

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. And a man with a mission: not to be his father, who went bankrupt twice.

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.

Let’s examine how that happened. Great food? Sure. But more, a philosophy: “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 Hellman’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; 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 arrived at Tabla having 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 Tabla 100 times that value in positive word-of-mouth.”

Tabla is at the center of Roger Sherman’s documentary about Meyer, “The Restaurateur,” which won a James Beard Award.. On the surface, the story here is about a building that was, in 1929, supposed to be the tallest in the world. The Depression chopped 100 floors to 27. In 1998, that building overlooking Madison Square Park had a vast empty space — with windows 30’ high — that Meyer decided to divide into two restaurants, one Indian, one a brasserie. There were delays, glitches, unanticipated personnel changes. In the end, Tabla and Eleven Madison Park opened just four days apart — a nightmare in any business, insanity in the restaurant trade. [To buy the DVD of “The Restaurateur” from Amazon, click here.

Movies about process are tricky. Especially here, for Meyer is the ultimate “good boss” — we see none of the flare-ups that make for easy drama because, apparently, there weren’t any. So “The Restaurateur” is notable for what’s not there. It’s a saga of problem-solving, with lots of strong but relentlessly positive emotion. Eleven years later, the camera returns. Now Eleven Madison Park is getting 4-star reviews and Tabla’s about to close, and Meyer yo-yos between great joy and greater grief.

I never quite realized how people can care so much over a dining experience. Meyer does. And that’s what is dazzling and inspiring about him — he operates on what he believes. Sure, there’s self-interest, 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.” [This was my experience at a lunch for food writers to mark the publication of The Gramercy Tavern Cookbook — the restaurant’s general manager was a bus boy.]

I once heard a guru say: “When you aim for the highest things, only the highest things happen.” 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. Danny Meyer makes you hungry for the better life just in front of you — and fills you with confidence that it’s attainable. Eat his words.