I gobbled up Setting the Table, the new book out from Harper Collins by successful New York City restaurateur Danny Meyer.
Meyer has done extraordinarily well in a notoriously difficult industry, yet when he opened his first restaurant, the classic Union Square Cafe, in downtown Manhattan in 1985, he was operating basically by instinct. Meyer reveals in his book that his ideas begin in questions. In the early 1980s, when he was a high-earning salesman for a company that sold anti-theft tags to retail outlets, his passion was food and the question firing that passion was: "who ever wrote the rule that stuffiness and pretension must accompany great food?"
Meyer had traveled to Italy many times as a tour guide for his father's travel agency, and he fell in love with the outstanding neighborhood trattoria he found there. He wanted Union Square to become a place that people returned to for the food but loved because of the service and warmth.
And return people did. Union Square Cafe became a hit, but Meyer reveals in the book that because his father gambled unwisely in expanding his various businesses--travel agencies, hotels--his son resisted going bigger. Gramercy Tavern, Meyer's second restaurant, didn't come to life until the 90s. But the success of Gramercy Tavern begat Eleven Madison Park and the Indian-themed Tabla, which in turn led to The Modern, at the Museum of Modern Art, the barbecue joint Blue Smoke, and the burger place Shake Shack.
I didn't necessarily associate creativity with hospitality, but Meyer cemented the link. He is brilliant when it comes to being nice. Take this illuminating story: a distraught woman walks into Tabla and lets the host know she's lost her cell phone and wallet in the taxi on the way to the restaurant. The host tells her no problem, of course he will extend her credit, but he goes one better; he tells Mr. Meyer, in the restaurant that day. A light bulb flicks on for Meyer: this woman will certainly make a story of her bad luck--why not turn her tale of woe into a tale of wonder about Tabla?
Meyer finds an intern and asks her to start calling the lady's cell phone, which she does until locating the taxi driver in the Bronx. The interns scurries uptown and returns to match dessert with the missing phone and wallet. Obviously the lady is overjoyed. For Meyer, the math was simple: round-trip taxi fare from downtown to the Bronx, $30; a free glowing publicity, priceless.
When Meyer began as a restaurateur, he flew by the seat of his pants. But as he became a CEO, he realized he'd have to put his hospitality philosophy into words. For him it went like this: your business is only as good as the people you hire to work with you. Meyer makes his employees a priority, even before his customers and investors. If his waiters aren't happy, they won't make his customers happy. Meyer made me see waiters differently. If I'm in a restaurant now and a waiter seems disgruntled, hard-pressed, bitter, I start to think about the environment in which he/she works. Suddenly I'm thinking, her bad mood isn't just about her, but a reflection on the management.
Business books are not typically my thing, and the embossed cover of the book makes Meyer seem more like Tony Robbins than Robert Stone. But Meyer is a very good writer. He minored in English and Creative Writing at Trinity College. And I recall that a eulogy, reprinted in an issue of The New Yorker, which he delivered at a memorial service for FSG founder Roger Straus, was the best thing I read that year after the death of that much-written about publisher.