In a city where the competition for culinary primacy is practically a blood sport, Danny Meyer's restaurants invariably come out on top. In Zagat's survey of New York's "most popular" restaurants, Meyer has 4 of the top 20. But as proud as he is of his chefs' skill with a risotto, or their sublime touch with yellowfin tuna, Meyer says it's not the food that keeps guests coming back. It's because the staff at his restaurants are so, well, nice. "The power of hospitality," he says, "has been the single greatest contributor to whatever success my restaurants and business have had."
A slim, soft-spoken man who clearly revels in working the tables in his restaurants, Meyer has spent more than 20 years mastering what it takes to deliver a first-class customer experience. The principles he has embraced (and which he spells out in his new book, Setting the Table: The Power of Hospitality in Restaurants, Business, and Life, HarperCollins, 2006) are as applicable to airlines, dry cleaners, and cable operators as they are to restaurateurs. The trick, Meyer says, is to hire "hospitalitarians."
The idea is vital: Surround yourself with people whose emotional quotient is as high as, or higher than, their IQ. That's not really a novel insight, of course. But in Meyer's world, the ability to make a customer feel good trumps most other qualifications. "Virtually nothing else is as important as how one is made to feel in any transaction," he says. "Hospitality exists when you believe the other person is on your side." Tell that to the cable guys!
We talked to Meyer about delivering both service and hospitality, and why businesses need to know the difference.
Fast Company: Given the reps of Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern, you must get resumes from every great chef and waiter in the city. How do you tell the foie gras from the chopped liver?
Meyer: The most important thing we do is teach our managers how to hire for a certain emotional skill set that yields what we call a hospitalitarian. We want people who have the technical skills we need—how to clear a table beautifully, how to distinguish between wines, how to chop a perfect brunoise. That's 49% of the equation. The other 51% is emotional skills. You can't teach those skills, but you can teach how to spot them.
FC: What emotional qualities are you looking for?
Meyer: The first is a natural warmth and optimism. I either feel that from a person, or not. The second is intelligence and curiosity, and it doesn't have to be about the restaurant business. I love when I can converse with people about theater, art, books, or sports. The third is work ethic. You'd be surprised at how many people show up late for an interview, or don't shave. The fourth is empathy. I like to ask how their previous employer felt when they gave notice, and gauge their response. And the fifth is a combination of integrity and self-awareness. I want somebody who's thoughtful about who they are and where things fit into their lives. If they're not accountable to themselves, it's unlikely they'll be accountable to the people they're working with.
FC: That's a pretty daunting list, particularly for jobs most people would consider to be on a lower rung of the industry food chain.
Meyer: For us, it's vitally important because we're in the business of delivering an experience that's supposed to make you feel good, not in the business of crunching numbers. Although I would say that a company in the business of crunching numbers should also hire hospitalitarians.
FC: Do banks really need hospitalitarians? I'd be grateful just to get a real, human customer-service rep to pick up the phone.
Meyer: Of course they do! One of the real keys to the success of our restaurants is understanding the difference between service and hospitality. Service is how well something is done technically; hospitality is how good something feels emotionally. I think we're at the dawn of the hospitality economy, and the companies that prevail are the ones that realize it's the quality of the emotional experience that sets them apart.
FC: So do you impress on your staff that the customer is always right?
Meyer: The customer isn't always right. Sometimes the staff is.
FC: Yikes! So if I complain, your waiters might just tell me, "Tough luck."
Meyer: No. But the biggest thing we do well—and the biggest thing we fail at—is making sure people feel heard. People don't need to feel agreed with, so long as they know you took it in, looked them in the eye, and were thoughtful in your response.
FC: With nearly a dozen businesses in the Union Square Hospitality Group now, there's the potential for a million things to go wrong every day. You must be getting to be a pretty good listener.
Meyer: No kidding. Some of our most loyal fans are people who attached themselves to us based on how well we dealt with their problem. To learn to embrace mistakes and find a way to distinguish yourself based on how you handle them is a huge opportunity. But those mistakes never feel good at the time. And there have been a lot of them this week. In fact, I just heard a beep on my computer. It's probably another one.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.