Restaurateur Shares the Secret of His Success Danny Meyer has built an empire of 10 restaurants in cutthroat New York City. In his new book, Setting the Table, Meyer explains that more than good service, hospitality is what sets his eateries apart from others.

Restaurateur Shares the Secret of His Success

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

When it comes to establishing a successful restaurant in New York City, the competition is cutthroat. Dining spots come and go like the seasons, even the ones with stellar reputations. Given those odds, Danny Meyer's track record is amazing.

He has built an empire of 10 successful restaurants, all with a coterie of regulars. From Gramercy Tavern to eateries at the Museum of Modern Art, to a burger joint called Shake Shack, and his original, Union Square Cafe.

Can you tell us what Nudie are?

Unidentified Woman: Sure. Nudie means naked in Italian.

NORRIS: I figured that…

Unidentified Woman: So it's the corn and the ricotta has been milled together…

NORRIS: Yes, people come for the food, a sumptuous menu that straddles grand cuisine and grandma's comfort food. But Meyer says the key to his success is something that's in the air instead of on the plate: a welcome and unpretentious atmosphere.

Here everyone is treated like a VIP, whether or not they know their foie gras from their fricassee.

Mr. DANNY MEYER (Restaurateur): One thing that I remember from years and years of traveling on airplanes in the old days was the flight attendant would stand right outside of the cockpit as everyone was leaving, chirping, bye, bye now, bye, bye, bye, bye now, bye. And no one was a person.

We'll have as many as four or five people waiting to be seated at a time. Each one needs to believe that they're the only person in the world that matters.

NORRIS: Meyer has shared the secret of his success in a new book. More than just a tale of a profitable restaurateur, it's a guide for any business that deals with the public. For Danny Meyer, the success came when he learned the difference between service and hospitality.

Mr. MEYER: Service is really a way to describe how well the product was delivered. Hospitality describes how the recipient of that service feels when they're getting the service.

(Soundbite of telephone ringing)

RESERVATIONIST: Good afternoon, Union Square Café. I'm well. How are you?

NORRIS: Here hospitality begins in an upstairs office, although office is an overstatement. In a room smaller than a walk-in closet, two employees are taking reservations.

RESERVATIONIST: Okay. What date are you looking for?

NORRIS: Meyer explains why this space is important, talking in a whisper so as not to disturb the reservationist.

Mr. MEYER: When you can have somebody feel cared for, even when they were said, I'm sorry to, for the exact time they wanted, it's an amazing test of great hospitality skills. Many of our managers actually began as reservationists.

RESERVATIONIST: And you were looking for something around 9:00. Is there a time range that would work if something a little bit before or after should cancel? Sure. Between 8:30 and 9:30. Okay. If anything should cancel, we will give you a call. You're welcome. Thanks for calling.

NORRIS: Never tell a customer no, Meyer says. Find another open slot or maybe suggest another one of his restaurants. Reservationists play a key role. They take notes and build a computer file for each person: diner has just published a new book, or likes peanut butter cookies.

Customers shouldn't be surprised if their favorite dish happens to be on the menu when they show up.

Downstairs at the maitre D's podium, that personal relationship continues.

Ms. AMANDA PATTON (Maitre D): How are you doing?

Unidentified Woman #2: Good and you?

Ms. PATTON: Good. I spoke to Manny when he called in. I never get to talk to him…

NORRIS: Maitre D Amanda Patton is expected to know regulars and study up on anyone else, famous or not.

Ms. PATTON: Do you want to wait for him at the table, (unintelligible)?

Unidentified Woman #2: Yes, please.

NORRIS: Now none of this is to say that things always run smoothly. Mistakes are inevitable Meyer says. How you handle them sets the stage for success or failure. Case in point: the time when a beetle - yes, a bug - turned up in a salad served to a dinner-mate of former Senator Bob Kerry.

Mr. MEYER: I took that as a challenge the next day when, happily, he was actually having lunch at one of my other restaurants. And he asked me if I had heard what had happened the night before, and I said no. When he told me the story I was absolutely humiliated, embarrassed.

So at this point, obviously, I can't change what happened. So my only job is to try to figure out how to write a good last chapter. I said, I'm going to have a little sense of humor about this. So he has his lunch and I instructed a waiter to deliver a salad from the lunch restaurant with a little piece of paper on the rim of the plate that said Ringo.

The waiter puts it down and Senator Kerry looks up with a question on his face, and the waiter said, Danny just wanted to make sure you knew that Gramercy Tavern wasn't the only one of his restaurants capable of serving a Beatle in his salad. I don't know whether he thought that was funny but I couldn't think of any other way…

NORRIS: But you thought it was funny, and it certainly is (unintelligible). That's the story he'll tell instead of the bug in the salad.

Mr. MEYER: Exactly.

NORRIS: Your definition of hospitality, the way that you view this, how much of that comes from your own childhood, and your experience, particularly watching your father in his business.

Mr. MEYER: I feel like I had the most privileged training for this business one could imagine, and I didn't even know I was getting it at the time. My dad's business, when I grew up in St. Louis, was to design driving tours for Americans throughout the French countryside, primarily.

I got to travel at the age of seven and taste the food, receive the incredibly generous hospitality of mom and pop innkeepers. It was hospitality boot camp.

NORRIS: Do you still hear your father's voice in your ear when you work the dining room?

Mr. MEYER: There's a few voices I hear him say. One is, always make sure that you're dressed at least as well as your best-dressed customer. I think I fail that test almost all the time. I also hear his voice telling me that he's not so sure I should've gone into this business in the first place.

NORRIS: Really?

Mr. MEYER: Yeah.

NORRIS: After all these years, you still hear that voice?

Mr. MEYER: I still hear that voice. He went into the restaurant business himself towards the end of his life, almost as a sidelight. He liked to - quite the opposite of me - he liked to have the corner table and he liked to enjoy entertaining his friends in his restaurant.

I think that was the model he thought that I would probably pursue.

NORRIS: Almost like a supper club.

NORRIS: Almost like, yeah, Danny's supper club and that's not what I ever wanted to have. And he did not see that as being a worthy profession for me to be in as my sole profession.

NORRIS: Well, Danny Meyer has found success on his own terms. And, yes, this may sound touchy-feely, but he says a restaurant should be a laboratory for life.

Mr. MEYER: If you think about it, the very first four gifts of hospitality any of us got within moments of being born were eye contact, a smile, a hug, and some food. In our business we can do all those things. The hug tends to be more of a metaphor but I do believe that those are gifts that people crave for their whole life. And I think the good companies today and the success companies understand that's the only compelling reason to come back.

NORRIS: And his diners do come back. Danny Meyer's book is called Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business.

Unidentified Woman #3: So how about this? We'll split the tomatoes for you. We'll split the risotto for you. We'll get some oysters as well and then we'll split the Indian vegetable. I can't imagine you'd be much more hungry than that.

Unidentified Woman #4: You're wonderful.

Unidentified Woman #3: Especially when you need some dessert today (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: To hear Danny Meyer talk about a hard lesson he learned, thanks to Julia Child, go to our Web site,

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