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Why presence and unitasking are underrated tools of success

Make It Nice’s co-owner shares his thoughts on why presence trumps efficiency when it comes to hospitality.

Why presence and unitasking are underrated tools of success
[Photo: Henrique Félix/Unsplash]

I was 18 years old when I waited tables at one of the best restaurants in America. Tribeca Grill–located in downtown Manhattan–had brought me on as a management intern. I was supposed to fill out Excel spreadsheets and fetch coffee for my supervisors. But when a few servers quit unexpectedly, the restaurant needed all hands on deck, so they reassigned me to the dining room.

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When I find myself in a situation like that, my approach is usually to pick the person who’s the best at it, study them, and try to be like them. At Tribeca Grill, I thought the “best” was the ruthlessly efficient ones–the servers who could turn more tables than their colleagues. They knew where each party was in their meal. They could identify who was ready for another bottle of wine. They knew who was about to ask for the check.

But there was something that didn’t add up, literally. Every night, I’d add up the tip sheet. I noticed that the waiters who were quieter and didn’t draw as much attention to themselves were making more in tips and for the restaurant.

That’s as good a measure of the guests’ satisfaction as anything. So I started to study them.

The importance of presence

I quickly realized that the quieter waiters were the A team. They weren’t as consumed with turning tables as the first group, and instead of focusing on moving meals along, they prioritized spending quality time with their guests. Sure, in the process, they probably lost track of how long one party was waiting for their check. But their average check was higher, and they had more tip money in their pocket by the end of their shift.

Those servers became my new role models. They also exemplified the importance and value of being present–whether that’s in business or our personal lives. In the years since that revelation, remembering it has only become more and more critical. Today, smartphones keep us all connected all the time, and many view multitasking as a virtue. But being present requires singular focus, whether it’s listening intently to someone or devoting your attention to what is happening in the present moment.

The importance of quality over quantity

At Make It Nice, we’ve gone increasingly against the multitasking grain. I’ve learned that success isn’t measured–or determined–by the number of interactions but by the quality of them. In our restaurants, we adhere to something we’ve dubbed the One-Inch Rule. The name refers to the deceptively simple act of setting a plate down before a guest.

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You might be wondering, just how many ways can you do that? I can tell you from experience that there’s a world of difference between letting it drop that last inch and ever-so-gently landing it. The point of this rule is to stay entirely focused on whatever you’re doing until you complete the task. When you train yourself to do something simple to a high standard, it becomes your default operating principle. As a result, you’ll find it easier to apply to other aspects of your life.

On applying the one inch-rule elsewhere

The applications for this mindset are almost limitless. For example, my schedule tends to be packed, with meetings, phone calls, media obligations, and travel. I’m someone who values punctuality, but it’s also essential for me to show respect for people.

This creates a personal conflict. When I focus on being on time, I tend to lose concentration during the final minutes of a meeting because I’m thinking about getting to the next one. That can seem disrespectful to the other person. At some point, I realized that I needed to stop being a stickler for time if I wanted to be fully present. Yes, that meant accepting that I might be late from time to time but with the understanding that I’d make it up to the people I’d kept waiting. Because when I finally do meet them, they’ll get my full attention.

This realization led me to apply this principle to every part of my business. For example, annual employee reviews are among the most critical interactions I have with the people on my team. It’s a time that’s all about them, a chance for us to connect and for me to invest in their future and give them the feedback they need. That’s why I’ve stopped sticking to rigid schedules when I conduct them. I’d rather wait for an unhurried, stress-free moment when I can be fully dialed in on these critical conversations. I’d rather them be late and great than on time and mediocre. Because we award raises retroactive to an employee’s anniversary date, it doesn’t matter when the review happens. What matters is that both the employee and I derive a lot of value from them.

The Digital Age has created a false sense that doing more means achieving more. If we do 10 things superficially, is that better than doing fewer things to the best of our ability and fulfillment? I recently ran an experiment at one of our Welcome Conferences where we invited attendees to put their phones in a bag for the day. We’d given attendees advance notice a week prior to the event. Our public relations team wasn’t too happy about the lack of Instagram hits, but it was worth it. The conference felt different with everybody’s full attention devoted to each speaker.

So we tried it out in our restaurants. We started offering guests at Eleven Madison Park the option of placing their phones into specially crafted boxes for safekeeping during their meals. The purpose, we’d tell them, is to allow them to be more present with each other. Everybody on our team was uncomfortable with the idea until they did it. It’s comical that we ever doubted ourselves because so many guests thanked us afterward.

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I believe that restaurants–at their best–are places for people to connect with one another. Without their phones they were genuinely connecting in a way that they haven’t experienced in years. To me, that’s the definition of making it nice.


Will Guidara is the co-owner of Make It Nice, a hospitality group that currently includes Eleven Madison Park, the NoMad restaurants, and Made Nice.

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