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Book Review: Setting the Table by Danny Meyer

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Rather daring, don’t you think, for a restaurateur to write a book titled Setting The Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business? Especially since no matter a restaurateur’s personal ideals and goals, he or she depends on chefs and servers to communicate these ideals to the guests. Not only must the restaurateur walk the talk, the staff must willingly do so as well.

Danny Meyer has been in business over 20 years, growing his original Union Square Café into a brand (Union Square Hospitality Group) now including the celebrated Eleven Madison Park, The Modern, Gramercy Park, and many others. In his new book, Meyer attempts to chronicle his not-quite rags to riches story of how he succeeded in the restaurant business by listening to people and putting the customer first.

Skeptical by nature and well-versed in the world of PR, I’d expected to read the typical froth about how the little things matter. And in print articles and interviews related to the book, I’ve read shaggy dog stories about how Meyer’s service-obsessed waiters jumped cabs to airports to return a forgotten purse to a diner, or scrambled to retrieve a chilling bottle of signature champagne from a patron’s refrigerator when he (isn’t it almost always a ‘he?’) forgot to bring it to the restaurant for an anniversary dinner.

Leery of tales of servers so heroic each seemed equipped with a knight’s armor and charging white horse, I wondered why Meyer would resort to such extremes when in the real world I’ve always found his service staff (at the Modern, Union Square, Gramercy Park, and Eleven Madison Park) always sincerely friendly, well-trained, and extraordinarily well-versed in wine. And requests for sauces on the side and other When Harry Met Sally-style deviations have always been delivered exactly as ordered.

Then, without design, Meyer’s message was put to the test when a friend entertaining important business clients and myself at the Modern (the pricey dining room, not the bar room) discovered after the first of many already ordered courses that his parties’ theater tickets for the sold-out hit musical Jersey Boys was for 7:00 PM, not 8:00 PM.

Despite the fact it was a busy Thursday night (in Manhattan, the busiest night of the week) with every table booked, arrangements were made for us to return to our wines and already-fired courses following the performance.

Now given Meyer’s proclaimed customer-first heroics, you may be wondering: Did Danny Meyer send a long stretch limo to take you all to the theater (about six blocks away) in the pouring rain? Did he send a bottle of Dom Perignon to enjoy during intermission?


This experience occurred a few months before I read the book, but the incident did reinforce the fact that Meyer has very successfully articulated his message to his staff, and they internalized it quite well. Not because they “had” to (otherwise I’d sense it in their attitude), but apparently because they admired Meyer’s leadership enough to believe in his message and his mission.

Instead of hubris, Meyer never shies away from admitting his own mistakes as a young restaurateur in his book. He gives a no-holds-barred account of his struggles and successes, both on a personal and professional level. Quite a bit of raw personal emotion in what is touted as a business leadership book, and this is exactly the ingredient that keeps it more real and gripping than the recycled, canned information you find in most books on customer service.

Meyer is also generous in crediting his mentors, especially Robert Chadderdon, an importer of French wines, in both his marketing and wine list education. Though Meyer grew up in a self-described "Euro-centric" household and developed an early interest in wine and food, nothing in his background could prepare him for the territory he was to conquer in New York City circa 1985, a time when Union Square Park was not the leafy, clean, upscale place to buy farm fresh produce it is today, and the park outside what is now the exclusive Eleven Madison Park was rundown and ignored.

As economic conditions in New York City improved and created a growing market for his restaurants, Meyer’s growing fleet of restaurants gained in popularity and his focus on customer service deepened. Meyer admits he was afraid of instilling a “Stepford Wives” type approach to hospitality in his staff, similar to the repetitive “bye-bye” chirp of seemingly robotic flight attendants as passengers depart a plane. Instead, he empowered his servers to give great service by letting their personalities shine through in terms of their approach to guests.

Michael Porter, a professor at Harvard Business School, has written: “Danny Meyer’s marvelous book is not about restaurants, but about how to really learn a business and create a distinctive strategy,” and this is true. If your objective is to please customers, and train staff so that they like you, respect you, and are comfortable following your formula, this is the book for you.

This is also a “must read” book if you’re interested about how to open a restaurant. Yet perhaps, above and beyond anything else, it is a book that warns you to pick your advisers carefully.

Meyer writes that in the early 2000s he was driving past what would be the glamorous Time Warner Center, with its Mandarin Oriental hotel, CNN studios, luxury apartments, shops, and five-star restaurants with his then eight-year-old daughter, Hallie. At the time, it was just a dug-out hole, but Meyer painted the picture of what it would one day be and asked: “What would you think if Daddy opened a restaurant there?”

Hallie burst into tears and said, “I never want you to have a restaurant where people are going there for some other reason than to go to your restaurant. People go to your restaurants because they want to be at your restaurant.”

Well said, Hallie. If nothing else, Danny Meyer, sounds like you really do pick your advisors well.

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  • This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States. Nice work!