How to have fun taking service seriously

1: “Location, location, location.”  

That was the advice then aspiring restaurateur Danny Meyer was given when selecting a space for his restaurant in New York City.  “This is the idea that you somehow need an upscale address to be considered a great restaurant,” Danny writes in Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business.  “Back then, an excellent restaurant was too often confused with an expensive restaurant.”

The year was 1985.  It was “the first blast of the ‘masters of the universe‘ culture.  There was a combination of abundant money floating around and a lingering effect of the velvet rope at Studio 54: the more expensive or exclusive something was, the more coveted it became,” Danny remembers.

Danny had a different vision for his restaurant.  He chose a location, Union Square, which at the time was rundown. “There was a seedy-by-day, dangerous-by-night feel to the area,” he remembers.

Danny put less value on a fancy location.  Instead his strategy was to focus on hospitality.

“Hospitality is the foundation of my business philosophy,” writes Danny.  “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.” 

2: His idea was to offer first-class dining in a setting of “down-to-earth comfort,” Danny explains.  “To combine the best elements of fine dining with accessibility—in other words, with open arms.  This was once a radical concept in my business, where excellent cuisine was almost always paired with stiff arm’s-length service.”

“There’s aesthetic value in doing things the right way,” Danny reflects.  “But I respond best when the person doing those things realizes that the purpose of all this beauty at the table is to create pleasure for me…  It’s about soul—and service without soul, no matter how elegant, is quickly forgotten by the guest.”

3: Today, Danny is the Founder and CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group, Danny and his team have created some of New York’s most beloved restaurants, cafes, and bars (currently 18 venues).  

His approach to business was impacted by visits to France as a child and young adult.  “Those trips left a lasting impression.  The hug that came with the food made it taste even better!  That realization would gradually evolve into my own well-defined business strategy—the core of which is hospitality, or being on the guests’ side.”

Everywhere he went, Danny kept a diary about food and restaurants: “Beyond describing dishes I had loved, the journal entries included notes and sketches for lighting fixtures, menus, architecture, flooring, and seating plans, and—tellingly—notes about how I felt treated wherever I slept or dined.”  

Danny had an epiphany when he and his wife made their first visit to Taillevent, a Michelin three-star restaurant located in Paris.  “The seamless service and exquisite hospitality were superior to anything I had ever experienced, and the polished staff members also possessed a confident sense of humor about themselves while providing pleasure for the guest.”

What stood out in addition to the “ethereally good food”?  It was a fun experience, Danny explains.

“It is no coincidence that Taillevent has maintained its three-star rating for more than three decades,” he writes.  “If there’s a better restaurateur in the world than Taillevent’s Jean-Claude Vrinat (whose father created the restaurant), I have yet to meet him or her.  Self-deprecating to a fault, Monsieur Vrinat brushed off my gratitude for an evening of perfect service. 

“We have fun taking service seriously,” the chef told Danny.  “And as for perfection, we just hide our mistakes better than anyone else!” 

More tomorrow.

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Reflection: In my industry or occupation, where is there an opportunity to ignore something other competitors value highly? And, highly value something which competitors do not?

Action:  Journal about it.

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