Setting the Table

As we approach the holiday season and peruse Pinterest to set the perfect dinner table for family and loved ones, ask yourself, in what other aspects of your life are you setting the table? Are you cognizant of detail, considerate of others, putting your best self forward, and displaying etiquette and expertise? The traits it takes to literally set a dining table can figuratively translate into our professional and personal lives, argues Danny Meyer. A New York Times bestseller, Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business is the anecdotal guide on how to start, run, or work for a business, and how to do it well. Written by renowned restauranteur and 2017 Julia Child winner Danny Meyer (and founder of the beloved Shake Shack), Setting the Table is intended to be a fascinating “behind-the-scenes history of the creation of Danny’s most famous eating establishments.” But it’s so much more than that.

As someone who works in development and does fundraising events, I learned from Danny’s book that giving people your time and attention, remembering them, and making them feel special is the foundation of any service-oriented profession. Hospitality is not something only applicable to a hotel or restaurant job — you should strive to be hospitable in any job that engages with clients or supporters or donors of your organization.

Danny also makes it apparent that not all business owners are confident and fearless, nor should they be. It is evident throughout his book, that he has been a cautious businessman throughout his career, and may have missed some opportunities for successful ventures because he was afraid of taking risks. As a child, he saw his father take big risks and incur big financial losses. Thus, Danny always kept his father in mind and never wanted to make his same mistakes. It’s good to learn from others’ mistakes, and be a little afraid of so as to push us toward success.

It’s reassuring to learn that Danny decided to be a restauranteur not only because it was his dream career, but also because he knew he had the capacity and the ability. Yes, he could’ve taken his love of food and time in Europe to pursue being a chef, but he knew he had a business-oriented mind, and a disposition for managing a restaurant and engaging with guests on the floor. He also happened to have the income from his sales job as a young man to save for a restaurant. Thus, it was rational and within his reason to open a restaurant, and he was not just trying to make a career happen that would be a bad fit.

I recommend reading Setting the Table as a free read, to set some New Year’s resolutions for your career and business, or to gift a colleague this holiday season. I was introduced to this book after my boyfriend and I went to The Modern, Danny Meyer’s restaurant in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and I was intrigued by the no tipping concept and exceptional service. I borrowed my boyfriend’s copy of Setting the Table to learn more about Danny’s Union Square Hospitality Group restaurant group, and ended up enjoying the book’s spot-on advice so much that I tweeted a picture of the book, saying it is a must-read. Several other book and food lovers on Twitter reposted my Tweet, and Danny Meyer, himself, replied to the post, saying thank you and “You deserve a new signed copy!” and sent me an email I could send my mailing address to. Sure enough, a few weeks later, I received a brand new (and less tattered) signed copy of Setting the Table in the mail, with a hand-written note on the title page:

For Marissa – With appreciation for your friendship and loyalty to our restaurants. Here’s to the power of hospitality! Danny Meyer

Thanking me for praising his book on Twitter is a kind gesture, but mailing me a new autographed copy with a handwritten note is hospitality. Danny Meyer clearly practices what he preaches, and that’s why I’m such a fan of his! Setting the Table confirms so much of what I’ve observed from working in development, and Danny articulates so many important lessons. I strongly encourage you to read the book, and if you need more evidence or just want the SparkNotes version of his advice, below are a few of my favorite lessons, and also some good tips as we think about 2018 resolutions and our goals at work:

  • Hospitality is the foundation of my business philosophy. Virtually nothing else is as important as how one is made to feel in any business transaction. Hospitality exists when you believe the other person is on your side. The converse is just as true. Hospitality is present when something happens for you. It is absent when something happens to you. Those two simple prepositions – for and to – express it all. (11)

  • I encourage each manager to take ten minutes a day to make three gestures that exceed expectations and take a special interest in our guests. That translates into 1,000 such gestures every year, multiplied by over 100 outstanding managers throughout our restaurants. For any business owner, that can add up to a lot of repeat business. (90)

  • ‘What makes ours different and special?’ is the question we ask and try to answer every day, and not just with food. It adds interest to your work, and it can give people a reason to do business with you, no matter what business you’re in. Otherwise, who really needs your product, and what value are you really adding or selling? (101)

  • The team can be weakened or divided by conflicting loyalties if any one member feels or acts more important than everybody else. I have found that the people most likely to thrive in our organization are individuals who also enjoy playing team sports. And that’s true for any organization in which people depend on others for their ability to succeed. (158)

  • Punctuality is nonnegotiable…Chronic lateness (whether it’s showing up late for appointments or not returning phone calls or e-mails promptly) is a form of arrogance – ‘I’m important enough to make others wait for me’ – and it puts other team members in a bind because they have to cover for the tardy person or just wonder what’s going on. (159)

  • Every time I’m faced with a decision that involved an investment of money, I analyze the potential return by asking, ‘Will this yield today dollars, tomorrow dollars, or never dollars? Only the third alternative – never dollars – is unattractive to me. (207)

  • Feeling seen and acknowledged is a powerful human need. Paul Bolles-Beaven taught me a traditional greeting among South African is umbuntu. It is not traditional there to salute people by saying ‘Hi,’ ‘How are you?’ or ‘What’s new?’ Umbuntu is an expression of humanness, which conveys ‘I see you.’ That simply and effectively addresses the core human need to be seen and feel seen. (215)

  • Managers have a power over employees that creates a distinct imbalance in their relationship, and that power must be consistently and fairly imposed for the good of the restaurant and the way we do business. And team members are fully entitled to hold management to even higher standards, particularly in a company that embraces for itself the same character ideals that it demands of others. This becomes a ‘virtuous cycle.’ (218)

  • ‘The road to success is paved with mistakes well handled.’ (220)

  • The Five A’s for effectively addressing mistakes: Awareness, Acknowledgement, Apology, Action, Additional generosity. (223)

  • My grandfather used to say, ‘Doing two things like a half-wit never equals doing one thing like a whole wit.’ (296)

© Rissponsible Living, 2017

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