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Union Square Cafe

Danny Meyer and the Science of “Enlightened Hospitality” in Action

This past weekend, I had the privilege of traveling to New York City to see what has now become one of my favorite musicals (Hamilton, that is) and spending some quality time with my father.  It was some sorely needed R&R and I thoroughly enjoyed Hamilton in a way one can’t really appreciate until one is sitting in the theatre and taking in all the sights and sounds.  However, I will not be writing anything on that experience (other than to coincide with my post on reading Ron Chernow’s biography on the same man), mostly because there is no commentary I can make that hasn’t already been said.

This post is dedicated to another event that occurred during the same weekend and both the man and the philosophy behind it: The event was dining at Union Square Café (USC) before seeing the show.  The man is Danny Meyer, restauranteur and entrepreneur extraordinaire, and the philosophy is enlightened hospitality, the science of delivering exceptional customer service and how it makes the guest feel.  After reading Mr. Meyer’s amazing book Setting the Table, I knew that I eventually had to dine at one of his restaurants and experience this science for myself.

The truly amazing aspect was that the service began before I even visited USC.  After confirming my reservation on the phone at another one of his restaurants a few days before, I asked the receptionist if there was any availability at USC.  I had resigned myself to a response of “no”, considering one usually must book a month in advance at USC, until the receptionist came back and not only found us a spot but accommodated our need to be at the theatre by 7:45 PM.  If that’s not a textbook good first impression I don’t know what is!

What’s more, the enlightened hospitality didn’t stop once we reached the restaurant.  Every staff member seemed to know our time table for getting to the theatre on time, and they all made it their duty to accommodate our crunched schedule.  Nevertheless, we were greeted warmly, indulged in complimentary champagne (this also happened to be my long overdue birthday dinner), and provided superb recommendations that turned out delicious.  We were even greeted by the restaurant’s own guest relations manager, who I made a connection with over our mutual love for Danny Meyer, hospitality, and the UK (having studied there only just last year and she being originally from London).  She gave me her card and invited me to come up sometime again for a private behind-the-scenes look at the restaurant operation.  The ending to our meal was just as spectacular, as I was surprised with a birthday dessert and we were given a loaf of bread to celebrate the company’s newest bakery opening up soon.  Needless to say, I left happy and satisfied, both with food and with experience of enlightened hospitality in action!

I could honestly go on and on about the restaurant and the hospitality I received but let us also look at the way enlightened hospitality was delivered: every single staff member I met, from the associate who took our coats to the guest relations manager, was either informed or genuinely curious about me.  Everyone was excited for me to be seeing Hamilton.  Everyone wished me Happy Birthday.  The guest relations manager capitalized on my zeal for hospitality and made it a point to give me her information and invite me back.  There was no ulterior motive in anything done, only the desire to build customer loyalty and good will among the restaurant’s guests, with the hope that they will either return again (as I hopefully will in the future) or spread good news about the restaurant (which I certainly will).

Enlightened hospitality goes beyond what Danny Meyer describes as the technical delivery of a product or service, which any fancy restaurant with a decent chef can accomplish.  All the interactions I had with the staff and the service I was provided contributed to an entity beyond any product and vastly more valuable: a feeling.  A feeling that I was important and cared about and not simply another customer to feed.  For any business, creating value out of feelings might be challenging and have no immediate monetary value.  However, the reason I believe Danny Meyer has been so successful is that he focuses on these feelings as the building blocks for success (i.e. brand loyalty, bigger customer spends, word-of-mouth marketing, etc.)  The feeling that Danny Meyer and his staff created for me was priceless, and everyone knew that.

So a huge thank you is in order, to Danny Meyer and the entire staff of USC, for delivering more than a tasty meal and a loaf bread.  Thank you for an indescribable feeling that I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world.  That’s enlightened hospitality.

Here is the link to Union Square Hospitality Group, the parent company to all of Danny Meyer’s fabulous restaurants, if anyone happens to be in New York and looking for a fantastic time out: http://www.ushgnyc.com/

Adding Hospitality to Your Own Life

At the current moment, I’m not feeling my emotional best.  When I’m down, however, it helps to retreat to the comfort of something I am passionate about and for me that passion is hospitality.  Even though I’m sad, hospitality is a way of living that can make me feel better.  By treating other people with respect, with warmth, and with care, you can create for yourself hope of happiness by doing something good.  I hope I can spread some goodness even when I’m not feeling the greatest.  Enjoy:

What do I mean by adding “hospitality” to your life?  If we take the straight definition of hospitality, as the relationship between host and guest, where the host welcomes and takes care of the guests needs, my title doesn’t really make sense.  But in my experience, one can do more than simply exhibit hospitality: one can live it, cultivate it, and spread its message to those who don’t yet practice good hospitality.

Moreover, hospitality in this day and age is not only exhibited in formal institutions of customer service like hotels and restaurants.  When I say you should add hospitality to your own life, I am referring to what characterizes the host-guest relationship.  If you’re the host, you should be kind to everyone and respectful of other people’s needs in addition to being proactive in all of your responsibilities.  As the guest, you should have manners toward and consideration for others’ thoughts, feelings, and actions when it may be hard to do.  At its best, hospitality is utilized to understand the characterization of both the host and the guest, synthesizing the two into a balanced representation of what you hope to present to the world.

Now that may be a lot of fanciful language but let me offer two concrete suggestions on adding hospitality to your life with examples: go out of your way to show you’re thinking about someone and the famous line from Arron Burr in “Hamilton”, “Talk less, smile more.”  The first suggestion doesn’t need much explanation; if you go out of your way to show kindness, appreciation, or thanks toward someone, you will be playing the perfect host and your guests will love you for it.  The situation happened to me a few times in the last several months where some really good friends forwarded me articles that not only had to do with my interests in hospitality, but had really insightful outlooks for the future of the industry.  My best friend sent me an interesting article about recognizing gender differences and how these translate to addressing people in the 21st century , and another very good friend sent me a couple of articles on how Airbnb is impacting the hotel industry.  The way these two individuals took time out of their day to think of me and actually do something is beyond touching and not only makes me want to return the favor but also pay it forward.  The simple act of caring and acting on that caring feeling can make a world of difference in the world of hospitality.

Now my second suggestion will need a little more explanation, especially on how it pertains to the hospitality industry.  If you’ve read one of my last blogs, you know that I am very familiar with “Hamilton…An American Musical” and one of Arron Burr’s repeated lines throughout the show is “Talk less, smile more” which is to mean that one should keep his thoughts to himself and erect a facade to cover one’s true intentions; cue the smile.  For Burr, that strategy worked well throughout his life where he transitioned from successful lawyer, to New York Senator, to Vice President of the United States very methodically.  However, if we are to glean anything from this phrase, we need a modern approach.

The reason I chose this phrase is because I have been trying (rather unsuccessfully) to utilize an alternative version of it.  Rather than concealing bad intentions with a smile, I want to listen and understand people, which requires less talking and more listening, and then respond with a positive attitude.  The art of listening is something I struggle with and as a hospitality professional, listening to your guests and keeping a positive attitude no matter their problems or complaints is of paramount importance.  So rather than political gain, my goal for talking less and smiling more is to understand more and support that understanding with good vibes.

I believe anyone can and everyone should become a hospitality professional in some way and incorporating a few key behaviors into how one lives life is the first step on the way to becoming one.  As for me, I still have much to learn (or actually remember) about hospitality but it’s the journey that’s the exciting part.