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Small Business

Managing Your Business

Feel Good Food: Danny Meyer's Hospitality Mantras

While in college, Danny Meyer spent a summer in Rome as a tour guide. Instead of following the tourist trail, he took visitors to trattorias. Sure, he liked spaghetti alla carbonara, but the best part was putting people in a good mood. “They'd be just off the plane and cranky, and I found this inner need to turn the crankiest person into the happiest." he said during a marketing event at JPMorgan Chase.

Three decades later, Meyer and his team try to do that every day in his restaurants. Harried urbanites often brighten up with a Shake Shack burger or Gramercy Tavern's duck confit. And it's not just the food that aims to be uplifting. The service does, too.

Meyer grew up in St. Louis. He attended college in Connecticut, and after a brief time in Chicago post-graduation, he moved to New York. He says he considered a law career but decided to switch gears and worked as a restaurant manager. He opened his own place, Union Square Cafe, in New York's Flatiron District in 1985, when he was just 27.

“I wanted to create a restaurant I wanted to go to," he says.

Union Square Cafe was a hit. Meyer spent every night greeting guests at the door before opening his second restaurant, Gramercy Tavern, in 1994. Since then he has picked up the pace, expanding his Union Square Hospitality Group to include 13 restaurants and bars, including Blue Smoke, North End Grill and The Modern. A humble food cart in Madison Square Park launched Shake Shack, now a global empire that's also a public company after an initial public offering earlier this year for which J.P. Morgan Securities was one of the lead underwriters.

In 30 years, Meyer has closed just one business, Tabla, an upscale Indian restaurant that struggled to fill its cavernous space. Meyer has tweaked his menus over time, easing out once-popular items that felt dated, like filet mignon or tuna. But dishes have also evolved naturally, since the focus on fresh ingredients forces them to change with the seasons.

A Hospitable Employee Experience

Meyer attributes his long-running success to his employee culture. At Union Square Hospitality Group, he says his leadership team focuses on making the restaurants great places to work. This fall, he announced a plan to eliminate tipping at all of his New York restaurants by the end of 2016, saying it will expand professional growth opportunities for workers and even out the pay gap between kitchen and dining room teams. If the staff feels good, Meyer says, diners do, too.

From the beginning, “I identified with the servers and cooks," he says. “I felt that my first responsibility was to take care of the people who were taking care of our guests. When you have a happy team running your business, you tend to have happier customers."

Meyer calls this approach “Enlightened Hospitality." The staff often seems unusually upbeat. The bartender jokes with the maitre d' or the host smiles at a server before handing off a table. Even before looking at the menu, you want to spend time there.

Enlightened Hospitality has won acolytes in and outside the business, thanks to Meyer's bestselling book, Setting the Table. Anthony Rudolf, founder of the restaurant-industry hub Journee, says he experienced the kind of trickle-down management that Meyer describes when he worked as a director of operations for restaurateur Thomas Keller. It was liberating, Rudolf says, to realize “that as a leader I only have to take care of a few people. If I take care of three general managers, they'll take care of the staff, who will take care of customers."

In the end, Meyer says, “it really comes down to how you make people feel." Many places cook a tender strip steak, and innovative menus beget copycats. It's harder to replicate good hospitality.

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