Union Square Cafe is an instantly recognizable name all over the world.
Danny Meyer opened the now-famous eatery in New York City in 1985, and it’s since become the cornerstone of his entire restaurant group (Union Square Hospitality Group), one of the most successful in the U.S.
Meyer was only 27 when he opened Union Square Cafe. He had only a year of restaurant experience behind him. But Meyer knew his chosen spot was in an up-and-coming area of Lower Manhattan, and he had ideas to revolutionize fine dining.
Union Square Cafe became known for its menu under chef Michael Romano and its extensive wine list, but, more so, for its service.
Meyer rewrote the rules for New York City fine dining with laid-back, yet professional and always-attentive service.
It was in stark contrast to the stuffy and overly formal fine dining options that existed at the time, and diners loved it.
Twenty-three years later, Meyer has expanded his restaurant empire to include Blue Smoke and Shake Shack which have grown to icon status.
He’s also the author of “Setting the Table,” - a book that should be required reading for any restaurateur, whether they are aspiring or established.
Meyer’s book will change the way you think about running a restaurant.
Service is only half of the equation
“Hospitality is the foundation of my business philosophy,” Meyer writes. “Virtually nothing else is as important as how one is made to feel in any business transaction. Hospitality exists when you believe the other person is on your side. The converse is just as true. Hospitality is present when something happens for you. It is absent when something happens to you. Those two simple prepositions – for and to – express it all.”
Meyer’s approach to customer service is twofold, and he points to The Container Store, Jet Blue and Timberland as companies that share his particular, two-pronged philosophy.
“Yes, they have an excellent product; yes, they know how to deliver, but that's not what bonds customers to them,” he writes. “It's the experience. Service is a monologue: we decide on standards for service. Hospitality is a dialogue: to listen to a customer's needs and meet them. It takes both great service and hospitality to be at the top.”
In order to achieve this, Meyer looks for innate skills rather than just technical ability in all of his hires.
“I like to call them hospitalitarians. People who are naturally kind, empathetic and curious, along with having a strong work ethic. They get fed through the process of providing hospitality,” he writes.
One of Meyer’s most famous practices is hiring what he calls “51-percenters” — that is, he looks for staff who have 49 percent technical excellence and 51 percent innate, emotional hospitality. 51-percenters have optimism, warmth, intelligence, work ethic, empathy, self-awareness and integrity. The 51 percent can’t be taught; the people who naturally have it are the people Meyer hires, and the people who become stars at his restaurants.
And Meyer provides an environment that’s rare in the restaurant industry, where staff turnover and burnout tend to be very high: He says that taking good care of his employees is the first step toward having employees who take good care of their guests.
“If you are devoted to your staff and can promise them much more than a paycheck, something to believe in," he writes, "you will then get the best service for customers, which will in the long run provide the best return to your investors.”
Setting your own table
Ready to put some of Meyer’s advice into practice in your own restaurant?
“Setting the Table” can be used as a sort of road map to providing Union Square Cafe-level hospitality in your own eatery. There are some takeaways that you can implement today to start better serving your guests.
One of the most important lessons in the book is one that Meyer had to learn himself: You have to play to your own strengths.
“One role I decided not to play myself was chef,” he writes. “Though I had fantasized early on about leading the kitchen (and in fact had seen being a chef as my only legitimate avenue into the business), it increasingly dawned on me that as much as I loved to cook, I was much more suited to becoming a restaurant generalist. My culinary education in Europe had provided the necessary foundation with which to communicate clearly about food with chefs in their own language. Firing myself as chef (or at least abandoning the notion that I might one day become a chef) turned out to be one of the smartest business decisions I have ever made.”
Meyer’s true strength was his general skill in the restaurant industry, rather than his specialized skill as a chef. Realizing that allowed him to step into the role that best suited him and set him up for lifelong success. Reevaluating your place in your restaurant and whether you’re using your strongest skills can only help your establishment thrive.
Another takeaway that restaurant owners can employ right away is Meyer’s system of collecting guest data in order to personalize experiences. Meyer writes about his practice of collecting “dots” about every customer, such as what table they prefer or whether any mistakes have ever been made in serving them. “The more dots you collect, the more chances you have to make meaningful connections that make people feel good and give you a business edge,” he writes.
For when you mess up (because you will mess up)
There’s no such thing as a perfect restaurant. And for correcting mistakes, Meyer recommends what he calls an “athletic” approach to customer complaints, meaning you have to play offense and defense to ensure the wrong is righted and the guest leaves happy.
For example, as Meyer writes, “For those who had to wait too long, there was often a reward – a generous supply of dessert wines on the house. We had resuscitated an old refrigerator from Brownies in the back bar that we named the ‘Medicine Cabinet,’ the medicine being our ample collection of dessert wines, which we dispensed liberally by the glass as an apology to guests. Except for the most hostile, the medicine generally worked.”
Meyer also uses his book to outline “The Five A’s for Effectively Addressing Mistakes”
- Awareness – Many mistakes go unaddressed because no one is even aware they have happened. If you’re not aware, you’re nowhere.
- Acknowledgement – “Our server had an accident, and we are going to prepare a new plate for you as quickly as possible.”
- Apology – “I am so sorry this happened to you.” Alibis are not one of the Five A’s. It is not appropriate or useful to make excuses (“We’re short-staffed.”)
- Action – “Please enjoy this for now. We’ll have your fresh order out in just a few minutes.” Say what you are going to do to make amends then follow through.
- Additional Generosity – Unless the mistake had to do with slow timing, I would instruct my staff to send out something additional (a complimentary dessert or dessert wine) to thank the guests for having been good sports. Some more serious mistakes warrant a complimentary dish or meal.
As Meyer writes, “People will say a lot of great things about your business, and a lot of nasty things as well.
Just remember: you’re never as good as the best things they’ll say, and never as bad as the negative ones. Just keep centered, know what you stand for, strive for new goals, and always be decent.”
If you want to take your restaurant to a new level of service, “Setting the Table” can give you the tools and the inspiration to do so. You can get a copy on Amazon, or at your local bookstore.