BUSINESS

WANT SOME LOVING WITH THAT?

Service is the secret to success in the world’s toughest business

ANNE KINGSTON December 11 2006
BUSINESS

WANT SOME LOVING WITH THAT?

Service is the secret to success in the world’s toughest business

ANNE KINGSTON December 11 2006

WANT SOME LOVING WITH THAT?

BUSINESS

Service is the secret to success in the world’s toughest business

ANNE KINGSTON

In a city where 4,000 restaurants open and close within a year and 70 per cent shutter within five, Danny Meyer is regarded less a canny businessman than miracle worker. The 48-year-old Manhattan restaurateur owns 11 thriving enterprises, among them the perennial Zagat Survey “favourite” Union Square Cafe, Grammercy Tavern and, his latest hit, The Modern in the Museum of Modern Art.

Known for civic involvement, his name is synonymous with the revitalization of the midtown Union Square area where almost all of his establishments are located. In an industry depicted in popular culture as a place of coked-out bad boys, Meyer is a Boy Scout, home early enough most nights to read to the youngest of his four children.

With the publication of Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business, Meyer can add “Rousseau of the service economy” to his credits. His success, he writes, stems from selling “enlightened hospitality” rather than ahi tuna burgers and pomegranate margaritas. Speaking by telephone from his office above Union Square, Meyer elaborates: “We truly live in an age in which the excellence of a product and the excellence of how you serve a product only gets you to the 49-yard line. It’s how you make people feel that makes people come back and come back and come back. That’s what it means when someone says you’re their favourite restaurant or dry cleaner or airline.” Of course, such platitudes run rampant in a “service” economy defined by smiling hostility and “your call is important to us” lies. It assumes more credibility coming from a guy who, after his first date with the woman who became his wife, went home, wrote a

thank-you note and slipped it under her door so she’d get it when she woke up.

Meyer was destined for hospitality. He describes growing up in an affluent St. Louis family in terms of culinary epiphanies: stone crab at age 4 in Miami, “baguette with saucisson and pungent moutarde” in Paris’s Jardin des Tuileries, his first quiche lorraine. When he traded his braunschweiger on rye for a classmate’s baloney sandwich (“one slice of Oscar Meyer and Miracle Whip on Tastee white bread,” he writes with a shudder), his world severed in that great class divide between Heilman’s families and those who bought the mayonnaise substitute. Later, he would ask prospective employees which they grew up with during his careful screening process.

Meyer arrived in New York in the early ’80s and made a lot of money as a salesman. When he decided to open a restaurant, he

THE ROAD TO SUCCESS IS PAVED WITH MISTAKES WELL HANDLED, HE SAYS

was methodical, gaining experience and travelling to Europe for cooking classes though he never intended to be a chef. He chose the gritty, undiscovered Union Square area for his first location, drawn to its architecture and relatively low rents. When the Union Square Cafe—a Californian/Parisian café/Roman trattoria hybrid—opened in 1985, it was at the forefront of a new wave of casual-upscale dining. Meyer treated solo diners with respect, opened on Sunday, and banned smoking long before it was mandatory.

Meyer’s research didn’t prepare him for the many perils of feeding humans for money. His early learning curve is amusingly recounted, including the night he responded to a drunken diner’s punch with a strategically placed, decidedly inhospitable kick. At that moment, Meyer, who can seem too gollygosh good to be true, became the hero of his own story, a tale that, like so many business memoirs, illustrates that success is never culled from books. Meyer waited a decade before opening Grammercy Tavern, also a success. The next ll years saw a flurry of new ventures in the neighbourhood, among them Blue Smoke (barbecue), Shake Shack (a stylish burger stand in Madison Square Park), two cookbooks and a catering company. His most valuable lesson, he writes, came from the legendary retailer Stanley Marcus, co-founder of Neiman Marcus, who told him “the road

to success is paved with mistakes well handled.” Meyer became a master of the maxim—finding creative ways to placate aggrieved diners, recover from bad press and rewrite his own endings to disasters.

Over time, Meyer’s “enlightened hospitality” philosophy emerged. Reservationists were taught to be “agents,” not “gatekeepers.” Eager for favourable coverage, he admits comping a big-name reviewer. Recognizing “service is monologue; hospitality is dialogue,” Meyer adopted a “51 per cent solution” when hiring (49 per cent weighted to technical skill, 51 per cent to “emotional” adroitness). In illustrating how employees are urged to go beyond the call of duty, Meyer tells of staff tracking down a customer’s wallet in a taxi or travelling to the home of patrons celebrating their anniversary to remove a champagne bottle in danger of exploding from a freezer. “Hospitality is present when something happens for you,” he writes. “It is absent when something happens to you.”

Meyer’s “virtuous cycle of enlightened hospitality”—first employees, then customers, suppliers, community, investors—runs contrary to the current short-term quarterly profit thinking of many corporations, yet its logic is unassailable: if you have employees who are good at what they do and happy doing it, customers will want to return. If you give to your community, you beautify the world in which you do business, and people associate you not with money-grubbing tax deductions but civic pride. And by putting investors last, they are the ones first in line to scoop up the profit.

Other Meyer lessons similarly extol enlightened self-interest. Always err on the side of generosity, he writes, noting that after Sept. 11 his Indian-themed Tabla suffered when all restaurants with cumin on their menus were suddenly viewed as threats to homeland security. By donating dinners to charitable causes, he brought the crowds back. Yet he also maintains knowing when to say “no” is also key to preserving core values. That’s what he told Donald Trump when the mogul asked Meyer to appear on The Apprentice. He has also turned down many lucrative offers in Las Vegas. He doesn’t count it out, but says that he’s driven by “planning a restaurant in a community so it can actually impact its community and not just mint cash.” Of course, as Meyer’s nice-guys-can-finish-first morality tale makes abundantly clear, the two can be synonymous. As the Zagat Survey’s patron saint explains why he rarely works evenings: “If you don’t have at least one smile left when you get home, chances are you’re not going to start your next day with a smile,” he says. “And your customers are going to taste that.” M