GLS18 Session Notes–The Transforming Power of Hospitality: Danny Meyer One-on-One with Elaine Lin Hering

Published August 16, 2018

Elaine Lin Hering: You are a restauranteur responsible for some the most critically-acclaimed restaurants and a brand promise of hospitality. At what point did you know this was what you wanted to do with your life?


Danny Meyer: The night before I took my LSATs, I went out to dinner with my aunt and uncle. My uncle said, “What’s wrong with you?” I said I had to take my LSAT tomorrow. He said, “You want to be a lawyer, don’t you?” I said no. He then asked me the most impactful question of my life. He said, “Do you realize how long you are going to be dead?” I said no. He said, “I don’t know either. But it’s a heck of a lot longer than you’ll be alive. So why would you spend these precious moments of your life doing something you don’t want to do?” He added, “Your entire life, you have loved restaurants. You should open one.” It had never crossed my mind. I’m grateful to have found a calling where I could take something I love and share it with other people.


Hering: Now, you didn’t invent food or restaurants, and yet, you set the standard for restaurant experiences. In New York, there are more than 10,000 restaurants…


Meyer: 26,000 or 19,000 if you exclude the pizza parlors.


Hering: …restaurants are opening and closing all the time. Yours seem to have passed the test to time. What’s the difference? What are your secrets?


Meyer: I am a huge believer that the road to success is paved with mistakes well-handled. It’s like a sailing regatta. As the skipper, I got to pick the boat and decide where we’re going. But I need the people in the front to tell me what the conditions are and if we are heading for a crash. I truly need to listen to them.


The road to success is paved with mistakes well-handled.


Hering: How do you decide who is in the boat with you?


Meyer: That’s the most important question there is. When I evaluate an employee, I look for 49% technical proficiency and 51% hospitality skills. Technical proficiency means you can do your job. But perfection in your job only counts for 49%. The rest is hospitality. Not service. Hospitality is about how we made you feel when we delivered service.


Hering: Parse that out for us. Everybody understands customer service, but you are talking about enlightened hospitality. Compare and contrast the two for us.


Meyer: Service is the technical side of the things we do. As an example, hotels with great customer service started to give away free shampoo, then conditioner, newspapers and a shoe shine. All those innovations were copied. The shelf-life of a service innovation today is about two minutes. Hospitality, on the other hand, is about how you feel. It is not as easy to copy. If I know how to deliver great service, and to make you feel better, you are going to probably come back to my place.


Hering: In the hospitality industry, there’s an idea that “the customer is always right.” Do you agree with that?


Meyer: That’s absolutely wrong. When I was young in the business, an investment banker came into the restaurant and asked for a Chardonnay. I brought him my most expensive Chardonnay–a white burgundy. He said, “That’s not a Chardonnay.”

I learned it is completely irrelevant who is right and who is wrong. The only relevant thing is that the customer must always feel heard.

So, my grandfather would say, “The customer is always right.” And my wine teacher would say, “A white burgundy is a Chardonnay.” So, I left and brought him a California Chardonnay. I learned it is completely irrelevant who is right and who is wrong. The only relevant thing is that the customer must always feel heard.


Hering: You said earlier that the road to success is paved with mistakes well-handled. What is a memorable mistake that you’ve made?


Meyer: Mistakes, if embraced and handled in a profitable way, could land you in a better spot than if you had never made the mistake in the first place. We teach the 5 A’s of mistake-making.

1. Be Aware of the mistake.
2. Acknowledge it.
3. Apologize for it.
4. Act on it.
5. Apply additional generosity.


The only thing you can do is write a great next chapter. I would like to go down in history as the restauranteur who had the most patience with honest mistakes.


Hering: In your book you talk about memorable mistakes. Can you share one of those with us?


Meyer: This one happened after the book came out. During a large dinner party, as our servers were clearing the bread basket, I observed olive oil slowly drip onto the back of one woman’s brand-new Calvin Klein dress. I had our team get her a shawl. Then I called Calvin Klein and found that dress in her size and delivered it to woman’s apartment that night. The next day, we delivered a basket with salami and wine and a $500 gift certificate to come back. That was the additional generosity. We do these things all the time. Hopefully not all mistakes are going to be that expensive.


Hering: Talk to us about family values, since a restaurant team is often described as a family. How do you balance the camaraderie and caring of a family with the accountability of a professional team?


Meyer: Great question. First, we work to create sibling rivalry between our restaurants. But there are ways the family metaphor goes too far. You can’t fire people in your family who are not upholding the family values. When you find someone whose technical, hospitality and emotional skills are uplifting to the family, that person needs to be promoted and celebrated. But keeping someone who is technically proficient but lacks key hospitality or emotional skills ultimately diminishes our leadership.


Hering: You’ve talked about your employees as volunteers. Say more about that.


Meyer: As a 22-year old, I worked on a political campaign. I didn’t have a paycheck to motivate people. I brought that to my restaurants. I lean into our values and purpose to provide vision and motivation. You still need to compensate people well. The best talent in the world is looking for a place to belong at work.


Hering: How have you learned to scale your impact without compromising values or quality?


Meyer: What we’re working on the most is–beyond systems–how to scale culture. How do we scale the way we make you feel when you work in one of our places? How do we scale the way we make you feel when you dine in one of our places? It starts in the interview when we share what our company stands for. We don’t just hire based on what you can do but who you are in six key emotional skills.


Hering: What are the six emotional skills?


Meyer: They seem obvious – but we have to be intentional.

1. Kind-hearted and optimistic
2. Curiosity
3. Work Ethic
4. Empathy
5. Self-Awareness
6. Integrity


All these emotional skills add up to a high HQ – Hospitality Quotient. These people are most satisfied when someone else feels better.


*Disclaimer: GLS2018 Session Notes are only available in the United States*


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About the Author
Danny Meyer Headshot

Danny Meyer

Restaurateur, CEO

Union Square Hospitality Group, Shake Shack

Danny Meyer is CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group and the founder of Shake Shack. Highly acclaimed for some of New York’s most beloved restaurants, including Gramercy Tavern, and more, in 2015 he was named one of TIME Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People”. Meyer’s New York Times bestselling book, Setting the Table, examines the power of hospitality in restaurants, business and life.

Years at GLS 2018

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