Book Review: Setting the Table by Danny Meyer

“Setting the Table” is a book written by Danny Meyer, a renowned American restaurateur and entrepreneur. In this book, Meyer shares his insights and experiences from his successful career in the hospitality industry. The central theme of the book revolves around the transforming power of hospitality in business.

The book goes beyond merely focusing on recipes or culinary techniques and delves into the philosophy of hospitality and the key principles that have contributed to Danny Meyer’s remarkable success as a restaurateur. He emphasizes that hospitality is not just a side aspect of the restaurant business, but rather the foundation upon which a successful restaurant is built.

You may be wondering if you should read the book. This book review of “Setting the Table” will tell you everything about this book so you can decide if it is worth your time.

Without further ado, let’s get started. 

Key Insights

Lesson 1: A Passion for Food and Curiosity

Imagine being so fascinated by food that you start swapping lunches with other kids just to see what they eat. Well, that’s exactly how Danny Meyer’s lifelong passion for food began. Growing up in St. Louis, he was always curious about different flavors and cuisines. Whether it was the tangy taste of Miracle Whip or the richness of deep yellow butter, Meyer wanted to explore it all.

This love for food eventually led him to open his first restaurant, Union Square Cafe, in 1984. Despite facing challenges and criticism from others who thought it was a risky move, Meyer followed his heart and vision. He wanted to create a place that served cuisine reminiscent of his childhood in Europe and offered top-notch service inspired by his experiences in France and Italy.

Lesson 2: Authenticity and Listening to Customers

When Meyer opened Union Square Cafe, some experts doubted his concept. They believed a restaurant needed to specialize in one specific type of cuisine. But Meyer wasn’t swayed by the naysayers. He knew that authenticity and the ability to adapt to his customers’ preferences were essential.

By carefully listening to customer feedback, he struck a balance at his next restaurant, Tabla, which served Indian-inspired dishes. Some customers wanted more Indian flavors, while others preferred a milder approach. Meyer and his team cleverly accommodated both preferences by offering bolder Indian dishes downstairs in the Bread Bar and more refined options upstairs in the main dining room.

Lesson 3: Embrace Enlightened Hospitality

Enlightened hospitality is the heart of Danny Meyer’s approach to running a successful restaurant. It revolves around making everyone feel special, from customers and staff to suppliers and investors. Meyer’s core values prioritize expressing hospitality within the team, extending graciousness to guests, the community, and suppliers, and finally, offering value to investors.

Empathy plays a significant role in enlightened hospitality. Rather than scolding a guest for being late to a reservation, Meyer believes in making charitable assumptions. Being understanding and warm not only creates a pleasant dining experience but also fosters lasting relationships with guests.

Taking a long-term view is also crucial. Meyer believes in investing in relationships and considers the potential return on every decision made in the restaurant. For instance, when a waiter accidentally breaks the cork of a wine bottle, the way they handle the situation can impact the guest’s experience and loyalty to the establishment.

Lesson 4: Hire 51 Percenters

As much as Meyer values technical skills, he emphasizes the importance of emotional job performance, which he refers to as the “51 percent solution.” Hiring employees who possess emotional qualities like optimism, curiosity, empathy, work ethic, and self-awareness is crucial to the success of his restaurants.

In Meyer’s metaphorical world of lightbulbs and moths, the quality of light (technical skills) only accounts for 49 percent of attraction, while the warmth projected by the bulb (emotional skills) accounts for 51 percent. To attract moths (customers), one needs a team of emotionally intelligent individuals who can provide a warm and welcoming experience.

Meyer believes that emotional skills are harder to teach than technical skills, so hiring 51 percenters saves time and money on training. Finding employees who naturally radiate warmth and kindness creates an atmosphere where guests feel nurtured, leading to repeat business and customer loyalty.

Lesson 5: Serve the Community

For Danny Meyer, running a restaurant is not just about serving food; it’s also about serving the community. He takes an active interest in his neighborhoods, naming his restaurants after their respective areas, such as Union Square Cafe and Eleven Madison Park. This fosters a strong sense of belonging and pride within the community.

Meyer also believes in giving back to the community by investing in local parks and participating in hunger-relief events. By taking care of the community, he creates a positive impact that often translates into good luck and increased profitability for his restaurants.

Moreover, Meyer supports local suppliers whenever possible, strengthening the ties between the restaurant and its surroundings. By making a difference in the lives of people outside the restaurant walls, he demonstrates a commitment to being a responsible and caring member of society.

Lesson 6: Capitalize on Positive Press Opportunities

When you open a new business, you’re exposed to public scrutiny, especially in the hospitality industry. Restaurant critics and journalists have the power to influence your reputation, both positively and negatively. But instead of fearing media coverage, Danny Meyer advises using it to your advantage.

He recommends using media interviews as an opportunity to communicate your company’s core values and principles to a broader audience. Additionally, Meyer believes that word-of-mouth marketing is the most powerful form of advertisement. By providing exceptional customer experiences and going the extra mile, you can encourage customers to share their positive stories with others, creating a ripple effect of good publicity.

Meyer exemplifies this by recounting a story where his restaurant, Tabla, went above and beyond to help a guest who left her wallet in a taxi. The simple act of retrieving her belongings before the check was even presented created a customer for life, and her positive word-of-mouth recommendation was worth far more than any traditional advertisement.

Setting the Table Review

“Setting the Table” by Danny Meyer is an absolute game-changer for anyone in the restaurant business! As someone who has always been fascinated by the hospitality industry, this book resonated with me deeply. Meyer’s emphasis on adopting an enlightened hospitality business model is what sets this book apart.

The insights shared in these pages go beyond just serving good food and treating guests well. It’s about creating a welcoming environment for everyone involved, from employees to suppliers and investors. I loved how he highlights the importance of community involvement and giving back, as it truly makes a difference in the long run.

Meyer’s personal anecdotes and practical advice make this book an engaging and informative read. If you’re in the restaurant business or aspiring to be, “Setting the Table” is a must-read. It’s a roadmap to success, focusing on the core values that can help your business thrive and grow.

Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business

About The Author

Daniel Meyer is a renowned restaurateur and the Founder & Executive Chairman of the Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG) in New York City. With a background in hospitality and real estate, he opened his first restaurant, Union Square Cafe, at the age of 27, marking the beginning of a successful culinary journey.

Throughout his career, Meyer has established a diverse portfolio of restaurants, including Gramercy Tavern, Blue Smoke and Jazz Standard, Shake Shack, and The Modern, among others. He co-wrote award-winning cookbooks and authored the bestseller “Setting the Table,” which delves into the significance of hospitality in various aspects of life.

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