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.

A little perception goes a long way. Hospitality can, in the right instance, involve little more than standing nearby and allowing my body language to smile at the guests. If I catch, say, a woman's eye, she may beckon me to the table and let me know that she needs water, a waiter, or the check. If I thank her for coming to the restaurant, she might say, "You're very welcome. This place is so much better than your other restaurants!" Or, "We were wondering when you opened this restaurant." Or, "It's nice to be back. It's gotten much better. Last time, the service was so slow." Or, "We hadn't been back since you opened. It was so loud then! How did you fix that?"

In these exchanges I'm collecting information not just about who our guests are, but about how they feel about our product. One advantage a restaurant has over many other businesses is that we can get instant feedback while our consumers are consuming our product. People have an emotional attachment to food and to their money, and they come to our restaurants with high expectations. To the degree that they believe we are on their side, we usually don't have to work very hard to get candid reactions.

If our customers love what they've ordered, I can tell by looking at their faces (and their plates). If they aren't happy, they're going to let me or my staff know--as long as we've built the right relationship with them. One night in Blue Smoke, I noticed that some diners had finished eating but had left most of their onion rings untouched on the plate. They could simply have been full, but I went over to say hi and to have a closer look. Sure, enough, the rings didn't look crispy.

"You didn't love them," I said, gesturing to the rings.

"You know, you're right," the man answered. "They were the only thing I thought could have been better. I wish they'd been crispier and spicier."

"Well, then," I said, "you're not paying for them." A moment later, as they got up to leave, the man handed me a $100 bill. "This is for the waiter," he said. Good as this waiter was, I knew that the generous gratuity was in part a reflection of the fact that the guests appreciated our taking a special interest in them and caring for them. In the end, we decided to take the onion rings off the menu, because we couldn't get them consistently right without incurring a very high labor cost to produce them. That, of course, led to a spate of new complaints: "Bring back the onion rings!"

It had occurred to me in Woody Creek that until my fishing guide turned over that rock, I'd have been content to stand at the edge of the running stream enjoying the dreamy valley and mountains. But in business, turning over the rocks and reading the water, as a fly-fisherman might do, gives you crucial information so that you can take an even deeper interest in your customers, and encourages them to do the same with you.

Since I opened Union Square Cafe in 1985, guests who have dined with us there and in our other restaurants are presented with both a check and a comment card, an idea I had first seen while I was at Pesca. (There, guests were asked for their name and address, but feedback and comments were not solicited.) If guests write their name and address on the front of the card, we place them on the mailing list for our newsletter. That way, as promised on the comment card, we can "keep them informed of upcoming events," such as our "morning market meetings," "wine and food dinners," and cooking classes. On the back of the card there's room for guests to share their opinions about the food, wine, ambience, service, and anything else on their minds--an ideal opportunity for us to collect dots. Early on, I responded personally to every comment card, but today that is the job of our chefs and managers, who read up to 100 cards a week. It's an excellent way to build trust, encourage and enrich dialogue, and give our guests the confidence that, at our restaurants, their suggestions are taken seriously.

It may seem obvious now, but in the 1980s using a comment card to compile a mailing list for a fine restaurant's newsletter was an innovation of sorts. You would rarely if ever see comment cards distributed in fine restaurants--that was more the domain of places like Denny's. But within two or three years I began to notice that the wording I chose for our first comment card--"We want you to return to Union Square Cafe and eagerly seek your comments or suggestions"--was being adopted almost word for word in all kinds of restaurants. Today, we have collected well over 150,000 names on our mailing lists. The lists have proved to be an extremely effective way to build a community and stay connected with our guests and friends all over the country--and even worldwide. Today, of course, the entire marketing profession is out to collect e-mail addresses to stay in touch with existing and prospective customers. We do that too, but in my judgment nothing can or will replace the meaningful contact that happens with a personal note or newsletter sent the old-fashioned way.

One of the oldest sayings in business is "The customer is always right." I think that's become a bit outdated. I want to go on the offensive to create opportunities for our customers to feel that they are being heard even when they're not right. To do so, I always actively encourage them--when I'm on my rounds, in our comment cards, and in letters or e-mail to us--to let us know if they feel something's not right. When they do, I thank them.

Excerpted from Setting the Table by Danny Meyer. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022

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