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.

As we chatted, I also learned that they had recently moved to New York and that they were very happy to have discovered a real pit barbecue place in their neighborhood. "I only wish we didn't have to make reservations for barbecue four weeks in advance," the man said. I told him that we had just decided to leave half the tables open for walk-ins as a way of encouraging spontaneous visits to the restaurant. That news pleased them. Then the man added, "You know, in Kansas City they give you more than one kind of sauce. Would you ever consider serving a sweeter and spicier sauce than this?"

My hunch was right: something had been on their minds. Now I knew what it was, and also how to make a connection. "It's interesting to hear you say that, because we're actually working on a Kansas City-style sauce right now in the kitchen. Would you like to be the first guests to try it?"

I went to the kitchen for a pitcher of that sauce and brought it back out to the table. The man poured some on his brisket (something a Texan would never do). "This," he said, beaming, "takes me home!" I asked for his business card, and later wrote him a note when Blue Smoke began offering Kansas City-style barbecue sauce.

I'm certain that this couple felt a sense of ownership in the restaurant after our encounter. As far as they were concerned, they were in part responsible for our putting the new sauce on the table. That's the kind of dialogue we want to have. Hospitality can exist only when there is human dialogue. This particular dialogue provided great customer feedback and helped us forge a bond with two customers--not a bad investment of six minutes of my time!

I try to be in the restaurants as often as possible. For nearly twenty years, until the opening of The Modern on West 53rd Street, all my restaurants were within a 10-minute walk of one another and my apartment--and I made it my business to visit every one of them during lunch. I'm not there just to greet and shake hands. I'm building daily communities within the restaurants' larger community.

The best way to do this is to first gather as much information as I can about our guests. I call this collecting dots. In fact, I urge our managers to ABCD--always be collecting dots.

Dots are information. The more information you collect, the more frequently you can make meaningful connections that can make other people feel good and give you an edge in business. Using whatever information I've collected to gather guests together in a spirit of shared experience is what I call connecting the dots. If I don't turn over the rocks, I won't see the dots. If I don't collect the dots, I can't connect the dots. If I don't know that someone works, say, for a magazine whose managing editor I happen to know, I've lost a chance to make a meaningful connection that could enhance our relationship with the guest and the guest's relationship with us. The information is there. You just have to choose to look.

I always try to sense opportunities to glean information, and it's not limited to information about our guests. I will often just stand on the periphery of the dining room and watch. I gauge the temperature of the room, the smell, and the noise. Most important, I watch my staff members. Are they enjoying one another's company? And are they focused on their work? If the answer to both questions is yes, I feel confident that we're at the top of our game.

Think about every time you've walked into a restaurant or an office, or even looked into the dugout at a baseball game. When the team is having fun and is focused, the chances are very good that the team will win.

I study the faces of our guests. If I see that the direction of their eyes intersects at the center of the table, I know that they are actively engaged with one another and I'm confident that everything is fine. This is an inopportune time to visit. Guests dine out primarily to be with one another, and their eyes tell me they are doing precisely what they came to do.

Whenever I see that the direction of someone's eyes is not bisecting the center of the table, then a visit may be warranted. I am not certain that something is wrong, but I am certain that there is an opportunity to make a connection without feeling like an intruder. It could be that a guest has been waiting too long for his or her food and is looking for a waiter. It could be that someone is simply curious about the architecture, a work of art on the wall, or, for that matter, an attractive guest across the dining room. Or a guest could be momentarily bored, or just taking a pause, or having a fight with a companion.

I also look for solo diners. From my own experiences dining alone, I know that solo diners have a straightforward agenda: to treat themselves to a gift of quality, contemplative time, and to do so at our restaurant. I consider that the ultimate compliment, and I'm also hoping that today's solo diner will host tomorrow's party of four.

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