Book Review: Setting the Table by Danny Meyer
In Setting the Table, Danny Meyer distills decades of restaurant-opening experience into a quick-read that stands as a favorite for hospitality, but also for people that interface with the public or clients in their regular work. My sister (a restaurant manager) had recommended it years ago, and when I came across Meyer’s compelling vision for “Enlightened Hospitality” in an in-flight magazine, I knew it would be a good fit for a book review.
Meyer has a background in politics and sales, but for the past thirty years he has been a full-time restauranteur, opening restaurants in New York with a variety of tastes and audiences: shakes and burgers, Indian, and French style restaurants have all found success with his focus on service.
Meyer has a range of knowledge that informs his restaurant choices: he had worked and studied in Europe, had entrepreneurial family members, and had been raised to appreciate fine food and drink. His passions translated easily into the type of business he would open.
This book has Meyer describing this entire progression, from taking the leap to enter the risky restaurant trade, to the later-stage problems of transitioning to a more corporate structure for his restaurant company. While describing his journey, Meyer describes his philosophies for managing businesses, spicing the text with stories, characters, and aphorisms.
Each chapter has a title that sums up some key element of Meyer’s thinking, and a few of these are tied to the core practice of collecting bits of information on guests’ preferences. One such chapter is called “Looking Under Rocks”, which simply means asking people for a bit more background information, and then using that information to provide them with an amazing experience that will lead to them being repeat customers—these restaurants are often not cheap, so the way for them to be successful is to engender a loyalty through enjoyment of the entire experience. Another chapter describes the practice of ABCD: Always Be Collecting Dots. Each little bit of information about a guest’s tendencies, lifestyle, and preferences is a dot. In his business, Meyer is constantly seeking to collect dots, and later connecting those dots to improve the business’s offerings.
These practices are of course taxing—it takes quite a dedicated staff to drive a half hour to retrieve a wallet left in a taxi, and also to remember every guest’s name and their associated ‘dots’. Though guests are clearly important, Meyer further prioritizes his employees. For his philosophy of “Enlightened Hospitality”, Meyer has a hierarchy of who is important in his organizations, and its order is surprising: Employees, Guests, Community, Suppliers, and Investors. This order implies the long range plan that Meyer’s restaurants are meant to carry out: for his guests to love the experience, he needs to have incredibly motivated staff. Investors will of course benefit from this process, but satisfying their needs must come from the positive relationships that the other stakeholders enjoy.
Should you read this book?
Meyer’s love for excellent food and service comes through again and again. The book made me want to open, work for, and eat in great restaurants. This will stay a vicarious experience, however, since I love being a librarian. Nevertheless, the book has inspired a number of slight tweaks in how I think about my work, and anyone who must develop relationships or face the public will almost certainly find benefits to reading this book.
Like many autobiographical business books dedicated to one industry, the book can suffer from a bit of jargon and minutiae–I know what champagne is, but the hundred other wines mentioned have not made a mark on my pallet. Nevertheless, if you are interested in customer service and hospitality, I give this book a high recommendation.
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