How creative tension drives business success 

1: This week we’ve been exploring acclaimed restaurateur Danny Meyer‘s near obsession with hospitality.  He also is an entrepreneur “addicted to volume,” he writes in his excellent book Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business.  

These opposing desires create healthy tension and serve as a wonderful example of the power of a “both / and” as opposed to an “either / or” philosophy on business and life.  

“I was always trying to see how many covers—customers, in restaurant parlance—we could serve on a given day,” writes Danny.  “This was also important, since a higher volume meant more tips for the servers. I could not afford to lose the few good servers we had, but I would lose them if they weren’t able to make a living wage.” 

Danny’s first restaurant was the Union Square Cafe and it had 135 seats.  Each night he set a goal to achieve a new “personal best” for covers.  “We were consistently hovering around the one-turn mark—seating each table just once per night—and we had plateaued at around 140 for several weeks.  Then, I almost brought the kitchen and restaurant down one night when we shattered our record and served 171 guests,” he writes. 

Each new record led to another.

“I charted out a manual reservation system, assigning two hours for each deuce, an additional thirty minutes for each four-top, and three hours for a party of five or more. This was clearly maximizing covers, but I did not yet understand the art of pacing tables,” he remembers.  “The problem was that with a kitchen as undersized as ours, seating more than twenty or so guests every fifteen minutes would invariably clog it up; it was like shoving too much mass down the tube part of a funnel, stopping the flow of food altogether.”

In his obsession for big numbers, he created “hideous logjams,” Danny recalls.  “But it was oddly exciting to manufacture challenges and then surmount them.  In fact, that was and continues to be a pattern in the way I work.”

Danny’s goal was to maximize volume without compromising the ability to deliver excellence.  Danny viewed the challenge as a big puzzle, both an art and a science, with each evening presenting “new opportunities to make adjustments in pace, flow, and progress.”

2: Danny and his team were constantly on the look-out for creative solutions to please their guests: “For those who had to wait too long, there was often a reward—a generous supply of dessert wines on the house.”  In the back bar was an old refrigerator they named the “Medicine Cabinet” – which held an ample collection of dessert wines, which were “dispensed liberally by the glass as an apology to guests.  Except for the most hostile, the medicine generally worked.”

In time, dessert wines became another profit center.  “One rarely saw dessert wines by the glass on a menu in New York—this was still much more of a European custom—but I began offering an extensive list of dessert wines by the glass,” Danny recalls.  In time, “guests began coming back and asking for dessert wine.  And they paid for it!”

3: As the restaurant grew in popularity, increasingly his clientele’s anger was around not being able to get a reservation.  “I was good at dealing with that, guided by my instinct to let the callers know I was on their side. ‘I’d love to put your name at the top of our wait list for eight o’clock,'” he would say.  “Or, ‘There are literally no tables at eight.  Is there any way I could do this for you at eight-forty-five?’—which I knew sounded a little earlier than ‘quarter of nine.’  Or, ‘Can you give me a range that would work for you, so that I can root for a cancellation?'”

Danny’s point in saying this?  “To keep the dialogue open while sending the message: I am your agent, not the gatekeeper.”  

More tomorrow.

______________________

Reflection:  Identify an area of “creative tension” within my organization where pursuing two conflicting goals leads to inventive problem-solving.

Action:  Journal about it.

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