SETTING THE TABLE

Chapter 4: Turning Over the Rocks

In his new book, 'Setting the Table,' restaurateur Danny Meyer talks about the role hospitality plays in his business. Here's an excerpt.

Chapter 4: Turning Over the Rocks

I have been fly-fishing only once in my life. It was in Woody Creek, Colorado, outside Aspen, and I went with a young guide who had come highly recommended by the original chef at Eleven Madison Park, Kerry Heffernan (no relation to my wife, Audrey), an expert fly-fisherman. My guide, displaying wisdom that belied his age, called me over as he waded into a clear, rushing stream, and picked up a small rock. He turned it over and smiled. From a distance, I noticed nothing unusual on its slick underside. I had no idea what he was looking for, or at.

"Here, come look," he said. He pointed out dozens of tiny aquatic insects hatching on the rock. This told him precisely which fly to tie because, as he explained, the trout would only bite on an artificial fly that resembled what was actually hatching. The guide then put the stone back exactly where he had found it. I was intrigued. There was a world of information under that rock, if only one knew or cared enough to look for it.

I took a valuable business lesson back home to New York. There's always a story behind a story if you look for it; and you can augment your success at "hooking" customers by taking the care, time, and interest to look. On my rounds in our dining rooms, I'm constantly turning over rocks, hunting for those details--a guest's impatient look or a glance at a watch, an untouched dish, a curious gaze at our art work. These details could indicate that someone is bored, impatient, in need of affection, puzzled, interested, or just daydreaming. But each gesture is a potential opportunity for me to visit the table and provide some hospitality.

It's human nature for people to take precisely as much interest in you as they believe you're taking in them. There is no stronger way to build relationships than taking a genuine interest in other human beings and allowing them to share their stories. When we take an active interest in the guests at our restaurants, we create a sense of community and a feeling of "shared ownership."

Shared ownership develops when guests talk about a restaurant as if it's theirs. They can't wait to share it with friends, and what they're really sharing, beyond the culinary experience, is the experience of feeling important and loved. That sense of affiliation builds trust and a sense of being accepted and appreciated, invariably leading to repeat business, a necessity for any company's long-term survival.

And it all starts by turning over the rocks.

I'm constantly reminding our staff members to initiate a relationship with our guests whenever it's appropriate. For example, it's amazing how powerful it can be simply to ask guests where they are from. Often, that leads to making a connection because we know someone in common, or we've enjoyed the same restaurant, or we can share a sports story. The old game of "Do you know So-and-so?" is a classic example of turning over rocks to further human connection. And it works. When you are considering several restaurants for dinner, other things being equal, you'll choose the one whose maitre d' went to the same school as you, or roots for your sports team, or has the same birthday as you, or knows your second cousin. You'll also tend to choose a restaurant whose chef came out to greet you on your last visit, or who saved you the last soft-shell crab special, knowing it was a favorite of yours. The information is always there if it matters enough to the staff to look for it.

Making my rounds in the dining rooms involves, more than anything else, my ability to see, hear, and sense what's going on so that I can connect intelligently with our staff and guests and make things happen. I don't have a standard approach for every table, but I often start with a gut sense that a patron is ready for a visit. That's what springs me into action. I might just walk over to a table and say, "Thanks for being here." That puts the ball in the other court. The encounter either does or doesn't advance from there. But once the rock is turned over and a dialogue begins, I start to learn something, and I always act on what I learn. (And sometimes I learn that the person just wants to be left alone to eat dinner.)

One night in April 2002, soon after opening our barbecue restaurant, Blue Smoke, I noticed a couple in the back room gazing out at the trees in the courtyard. I could sense that they were debating whether they liked their ribs, so I went over to greet them. "Where are you from?" I asked.

"We're from Kansas City," the man said.

"We're going to have a tough time living up to the barbecue standards of your hometown," I replied.

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