Danny Meyer, the foodie who would be a business guru.

What to eat. What not to eat.
Nov. 10 2006 1:12 PM

Danny Meyer

The foodie who would be a business guru.

Setting the Table by Danny Meyer.

You can learn a great deal about restaurateur Danny Meyer from his book jacket. On the cover of Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business, Meyer peers up at us with a knowing grin. He sits, arm casually propped up, at a simply dressed white table. The camera's slight aerial perspective shows Meyer sitting in what seems to be a restaurant, but no commotion surrounds him—only quiet, infinite blackness. And while the book is clearly about dining ("America's Most Innovative Restaurateur," the cover proclaims), there's not a crumb of food in sight.

That's Meyer for you: He governs all and intimately beckons you in but leaves the cooking to the chefs. Consider him—owner and operator of six of Manhattan's most popular (and best) restaurants, along with a burger shack, a jazz club, three museum cafes, and a catering company—more gastroteur than gastronome. While Thomas Keller, Nobu Matsuhisa, Charlie Palmer, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and the other kings of epicurean empires sport chef hats, Meyer leaves his apron at home.

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Being a talented restaurateur without chef's credentials is hardly new. The Delmonico family, often credited with opening the first full-service American restaurant, Delmonico's, in the 1800s, employed famed chef Charles Ranhofer; restaurant owner Jean-Claude Vrinat runs—but does not cook in—Paris' three-Michelin-star restaurant Taillevent. But in America today, our food heroes are the chefs, which leaves Meyer, a first-class restaurateur, in a strangely marginal position. While American foodies respect him, he's not idolized or adored by the masses.

With Setting the Table, Meyer reaches out to a new audience: CEOs. The book is part memoir, part business guide, and in it Meyer mines his experience running restaurants and offers up lessons for those who run global conglomerates.

In some ways, this strategy makes sense. First, Meyer has already co-authored two successful cookbooks ( The Union Square Cafe Cookbookand Second Helpings From Union Square Cafe); business books may seem like the next hot publishing category to crack. Second, what Meyer's restaurants specialize in is the experience—from the way you're treated on the phone when you make your reservation, to the noise level of the restaurant, to the smile of your server, to the taste of the food on your plate. He's made an art of customer service and thinks other businessmen should, too.

Unfortunately, his advice for businessmen is trite—the sort of gauzy homilies you'd imagine the "Chief Motivational Officer" would dispense at a dot-com. On emotion's role: "Virtually nothing else is as important as how one is made to feel in any business transaction." On following your gut: "I have never relied on or been interested in market analysis to create a new business model. I am my own test market." On expansion: "The courage to grow demands the courage to let go." On employees: Hire individuals who possess 51 percent "innate emotional skills for hospitality" and 49 percent "potential for technical excellence."

He elaborates:

Imagine if every business were a lightbulb and that for each lightbulb the primary goal was to attract the most moths possible. … Now what if you learned that 49 percent of the reason moths were attracted to a bulb was for the quality of its light (brightness being the task of the bulb) and that 51 percent of the attraction was to the warmth projected by the bulb (heat being connected with the feeling of the bulb). It's remarkable to me how many businesses shine brightly when it comes to acing tasks but emanate all the warmth of a cool fluorescent light … In business, I want to be overcome with moths.

These gimmicky nuggets, generally offset and peppered in bold throughout the book, are too touchy-feely to revolutionize most industries. And it's a shame that Meyer tried to repurpose his experiences for a wider business audience. In doing so, he has obscured the true lesson of his career: not the transforming power of hospitality in business, but the transforming power of hospitality in the hospitality industry.

Meyer underplays the degree to which he has been a pioneer in raising the bar for service, particularly in less than hoity-toity environs. When he opened his first restaurant, Union Square Cafe, in 1985, casual dining establishments weren't known for their fine hospitality. Manhattan offered diners two major choices—über-formal French restaurants, or exclusive eateries that had emerged to accommodate the Studio 54 nightclub set. Union Square Cafe quickly established itself as a charming but upscale neighborhood joint that proffered Meyer's vision of "relaxed excellence."

As Meyer expanded, he continued to emphasize hospitality above all else, even food. Meyer's book is riddled with telling anecdotes on this point. His staff enters information about regular diners into his restaurants' "guest notes" databases ("Likes table 42; bring hot sauce with food … ice on side always with cocktails"). They also note past mistakes—"overcooked salmon on 7/16"—as well as patrons' birthdays, anniversaries, and lines of work. (Meyer has been known to provide introductions between guests when he feels it could benefit them professionally.)

He tells the story of one woman who left her cell phone and wallet in a cab after arriving at his restaurant Tabla. Upon hearing this, Tabla's general manager, at Meyer's urging, called the woman's cell phone, got a hold of the cab driver, and sent staff up to the driver's location in the Bronx to retrieve her phone and wallet. Or there's the couple who, when dining at Eleven Madison Park on their anniversary, remembered they'd left a bottle of champagne in their freezer, in danger of exploding. The husband was ready to run home himself, but the maitre d' insisted he stay and enjoy dinner with his wife. Instead, the maitre d' went to their nearby apartment, liberated the champagne from its perilous fate (with the aid of a doorman), and set it out alongside some complimentary chocolates and caviar.

These save-the-day feats of generosity undoubtedly leave the average reader agape, and rightfully so. They're impressive. And I'm all for the Aetna chief operating officer who wants to take pointers from Meyer. But somehow that seems unlikely. The real beneficiaries of Meyer's wisdom will be the aspiring hotelier seeking to fan out his enterprise, the celebrity chefs rapidly overexpanding their fiefdoms. It would be even more valuable, though, if Meyer could be as focused in his writing as he is in his business. As his own grandfather used to say, "Doing two things like a half-wit never equals doing one thing like a whole wit."

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