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NRA Show Danny Meyer of Union Square Cafe NYC on Enlightened Hospitality

During my time in the New York City area, few things outside the financial services industry affected me more than the restaurants. Of those, few bring back fonder memories than my time in NYC than the Union Square Cafe and the restaurants that followed. These include the Grammercy Tavern, Eleven Madison Park, Blue Smoke & Jazz Standard, Shake Shack, The Modern and Hudson Yards Catering. The newsletter they send, a blog in paper form before there were blogs play a special role in building that bond.

What follows are the raw notes of Danny Meyer’s speech at the National Restaurant Association in Chicago on May 19, 2007. There are amazing insights in his speech and new book, Setting the Table, in regards to separating the concepts of service and hospitality, recruiting and how to life to it’s fullest. All lessons that can be applied to web 2.0 or any business in need of refined and high performance culture. Please note that the notes are raw and from his voice:

He let everyone know that it was his first time speaking at an NRA show. However, he attended the 1985 NRA convention. I wanted to learn about a POS system. We got a big presentation on it. I gathered the courage to ask a question. Is it really feasible to give a rolled thermal check instead of a proper check? If you give them good food at a fair price you can give them a check on toilet paper and they will come back someone chimed in.

Something dawned on me about five years ago. We focus on mistakes more than what is going right. My grandmother was proud of her garden. She taught me to garden at the age of 6. Ignore the weeds water the flowers. It dawned on me many years later that is what we should do in real life. A lot of things were going right.

Opening my restaurant was a passion. The strongest business decision I ever made was to fire myself as chef. In a city that has 22,000 restaurants, we have 6 in the top 42 Zagat Favorite Restaurants. People who are highly institutive make poor analysts. I do things that are intuitive. I employ over 1,500 now.

What does it mean to be my favorite (restaurant)? When you put those words in front of anything it is the highest compliment that can be paid. If I could figure out the secret sauce, Id have something. Location has ceased to be a critical fashion. The other 95% of the people say its’ service and not location, location, location. We needed a service economy. The car rental company didn’t have the convertible you wanted, the bank didn’t do what you wanted, etc. The Internet changed the rules. If you wanted to rise to the level of my favorite, you did if via performance. Performance used to be the thing that did it for you. I’ve always made a practice of asking why. You guys make the best roast chicken, you seat us on time, etc. We stopped hearing that when people started using the Internet. If you wanted to set yourself apart you could do things to differentiate, but replication happens much sooner now. Performance is a lot like air conditioning. Nobody has ever walked into the Grammercy Tavern and said this is great air conditioning, but if it doesn’t work, they don’t come back. Performance is now a lose proposition, it is not a win proposition. Nobody defined how hospitality is different than service. Did the waiter clear the table timely? Hospitality defines how you make someone feel. You have made them feel like you are on your side. Hospitality only occurs as we see it. Service is the technical delivery of product. You can write a manual to define the service and we have a different manual for hospitality. If you do something, do it consistently. Hospitality is not a monologue it’s a dialogue. The preposition for is involved in hospitality and the preposition to is there when you do something to somebody. It takes certain technical skills to open up a bottle of wine. We had been focusing 49% of skills training for technical skills. We spent the other 51% hiring for hospitality.

Hospitality IQ is the companies which are successful are the most successful in hiring the right hospitality. We need to hire people who derive pleasure from giving pleasure. What occurred to me is that you can’t teach it.

Kind, Intelligent and Curious, a high work ethic and integrity. These people were people with a high degree of empathy. Integrity is more than honesty. It is the judgment to do the right thing. More often than not they are life choices. Talked about leadership and the relationship to being a captain on a team. You get to be in a business of setting rules. Every single organization in the world have the exact same five stakeholders – customers, investors, community, employees and suppliers. We created a virtuous cycle of events. But if you believe in virtuous cycles, you can make more money by putting ourselves first, employees trust and put investors last. If I could raise my Hospitality IQ when hiring we’d be better. We put our community and suppliers ahead of investors to. Why would we have a community investment department? Why not help fix the park across the street. A rising tide lifts all boats. You might succeed at that. You can invest in the tide. Do your competitors go up with you? The niche of BBQ goes with the tide. Table is another example. We needed to create a new tide. We have been working to build community. In the same way that a championship horse is born with the DNA, it still needs to be trained. Make sure your staff needs to have the heart muscle worked hard. Birds of a feather flock together. The staff wants other people to work with that have a high hospitality quotient. People who have the same emotional need to learn pleasure. If you teach me more than the next guy, I’ll stay here. The biggest thing, please listen to my aspirations. We always want people to be part of a new opening of a new restaurant.

49% of a swans body mass is below water, 51% of the swan is above water doing the graceful stuff. My favorite chapter is the road to success is paved with mistakes well traveled. Waves are like mistakes, there is another one just behind it. My biggest mistake was back in 2002 and I found it hard to find the type of people. It took 35 minutes to get a drink on opening night at Blue Smoke. When I learned the swan theory, I never knew. Eye contact, a mile a hug and some pretty darn good food.

Question: Questions about putting staff ahead of customer.

What I’m saying is exactly that. If you have the best recipe, it’s not good if you don’t have good ingredients. Our hospitality will never rise to a higher level. The two things I look for in any business are focused on their work and enjoying each others company, I know it will work.

Question: When you were hiring for HQ, how do you train your managers.

Since you derive pleasure for making people for feeling comfortable, you can be blind to it. Have others help you. The prospect drops out that can be frustrating. I’ll ask someone, “Tell me how you used heart in your last job.” We tell people there are the skills that matter for you.

Question: Can you talk about the importance of the quarterly newsletter?

Listening is as important as expression. The fact that you think it’s quarterly when it’s twice a year is a testament to its’ effectiveness.


It was a pleasure to listen to Danny speak. I’m glad I took the time to listen and learn from his wisdom about life and hospitality.

UPDATE: He had a book signing to go to at 2PM. At 4:45PM, I still saw him standing there with a line of people with books. Nothing short of amazing!

5 thoughts on “NRA Show Danny Meyer of Union Square Cafe NYC on Enlightened Hospitality

  1. […] NRA Show Danny Meyer of Union Square Cafe NYC on Enlightened … These include the Grammercy Tavern, Eleven Madison Park, Tabla (my second favorite after Union Square Cafe), Blue Smoke & Jazz Standard, Shake Shack, The Modern, Cafe 2, Terrace 5 and Hudson Yards Catering. The newsletter they send, … […]

  2. […] listening to Danny Meyer yesterday (see post below) I can help but noticing this wasn’t about a store, it was about […]

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