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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/

Alexander Hamilton: The Perfect Mentor?

Like most people infatuated with musical theater, I cannot seem to get enough of Alexander Hamilton as of late.  The smash-hit musical “Hamilton” seems to be the cause, especially as I listen to the cast album on repeat during work.  Everything about the musical is inspiring: the story, the music, the inconceivably clever raps, and even the charming, literal genius (MacArthur “genius” grant winner to be exact) writer, composer, and star behind it all, Mr. Lin-Manuel Miranda, all contribute to an enthralling tale of love, lust, and loss which will throw anyone into borderline obsession with one of our little-recognized founding fathers.  While yes I really do enjoy the music as that is all I have at my disposal (since, as with most of America, I have yet to see the show due to ticket prices reaching near bankrupting proportions), I was more curious with the man who started it all: Alexander Hamilton.  A few weeks ago, I picked up the biography that inspired the musical by the same name for two reasons. First, anyone who knows me knows I am an avid reader anyways, and after finishing Freakonomics, I figured reading a seven hundred page book on Alexander Hamilton’s life would satisfy me until ticket prices come down.  Second, I am never one to obsess about anything until I actually do my homework and know who or what I’m talking about, and this musical is no exception.  Mr. Miranda took his time crafting such an amazing musical that I am now going to take my time and study the figure that is Alexander Hamilton.

And whoa what a man!  Seven-hundred pages may seem like a lot but they are over-flowing with Hamilton’s very complex and provocative life.  This is a man who transformed himself from a poor Caribbean orphan into Washington’s right hand man, then a distinguished New York lawyer, and eventually the country’s first treasury secretary.  I’m also leaving out a plethora of other achievements, roles, and events in this incredible man’s life, but the only point I’m trying to make here is to buy Ron Chernow’s biography if you are at all interested in seeing what our most undervalued founding father did for America.  Mr. Chernow does a phenomenal job of condensing and blending Hamilton’s own writings with tertiary sources and other biographical material into a surprisingly easy to read and also really intriguing story.  The full review will come out when I finish the book, (just reached page two hundred so this might be awhile) but I wanted to write about something very distinguishing I noticed in Hamilton’s character…

Alexander Hamilton was the one of the first professional American mentors!  Now I can’t say for certainty that he was the best, as mentorship was something that thrived in colonial America, in particular the apprenticeship as a special kind of mentor-mentee relationship.  However, Hamilton seems to poses the innate ability to guide his mentees, whether they be his children, his colleagues, or even his opponents.  In personal encounters or professional meetings, Hamilton played the perfect courtier and role model for many in New York, especially among his lawyering days.  He dressed the part, “trim and stylish, though not showy in dress” writes Mr. Chernow.  He smiled first, talked second (taking from Arron Burr’s musical words), in ways that “convey[ed] an impression of mental keenness, inner amusement and debonair insouciance.”  He trained numerous new attorneys, fresh out of law school himself by only a year or two, and saw to a strict regimen for his students that was not intended for the weak of mind.  He was honest, good-natured, and daring, never one for accepting bribes and yet always tackling the challenging cases that “established critical points of constitutional law.”  Hamilton also always did his homework, reading and writing and preparing as if his life depended on it and seeking out scholarly and legal authorities in and beyond his realm of study, including “the Frenchman Domat, the Dutchman Vinius, and the Spaniard Perez”, but also the likes of Jonathan Swift, Plutarch, and Voltaire.  He was a family man and a philanthropist, having his children tutored in French and at the same time working to create educational institutions in his home state for the benefit of all children.  There are so many facets to the character that is Alexander Hamilton that my recounting his life in this paragraph does not suffice it.  In essence, Hamilton was the jack of all trades, jacked up all the notches.

Does being this multi-talented actually make Hamilton a good mentor?  I would argue yes.  This is a man who seemed to ooze perfection with a flawlessness only dreamed about in the aspiring young minds at the time.  However, peel back the ooze, and one finds a man who works tirelessly (to his eventual doom) in the pursuit of helping others, which is what a mentor is all about.  A mentor should seek to educate himself tirelessly, as Hamilton does profoundly but expediently.  A mentor should aim to help those around him, especially those less fortunate than he, as Hamilton did on many occasions in his pro-bono legal work for the poor.  A mentor should care about the ones he loves, as Hamilton did every day for his eight children and his loving and supportive wife Eliza.  Finally, a mentor should be passionate about something, and about imparting that passion onto others, for that is at the core of who a mentor is.  Nothing less characterizes Hamilton, who through passion and his relentless work ethic fought for a greater framework of law in the state of New York and eventually for the whole country.  And for this passion, Hamilton has been admired by many, as great mentors should be.  Both Judge Ambrose Spencer and Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story handed praise to Hamilton for being “one of the premier lawyers of the early republic” and that doesn’t even begin to describe him or his work.  He’s indescribable and at the time, he was nonstop.

I urge you to read Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton if you want to see more of why this powerful founding father deserves his very own musical tribute.  As for me, I aspire to be the kind of mentor Hamilton was but in doing so, I already know that I will fall short of that expectation.