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.

By , Thursday, Dec 14, 2006, 3:38 PM

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.

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.

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