Meyer: ‘51-percenters’ have five key emotional skills necessary to provide excellent hospitality

Meyer: ‘51-percenters’ have five key emotional skills necessary to provide excellent hospitality

New York restaurateur Danny Meyer’s recently published book, “Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business,” is said to have become required reading for managers at several restaurant companies.

Meyer, who opened his first restaurant, Union Square Cafe, in Manhattan 21 years ago, tells in the book how he went from operating that single location to heading a multiconcept fine-dining company that’s acclaimed for its employee-oriented service culture.

His Union Square Hospitality Group [2] now includes nine restaurants, among them Gramercy Tavern, Eleven Madison Park, Tabla, Blue Smoke and dining facilities at the Museum of Modern Art.

In the following exclusive excerpt from a chapter called “The 51 Percent Solution,” Meyer explains his core philosophy on hiring, recruiting and managing the people who run his restaurants.

We don’t believe in pursuing the so-called 110-percent employee. That’s about as realistic as working to achieve the 26-hour day. We are hoping to develop 100-percent employees whose skills are divided 51-49 between emotional hospitality and technical excellence. We refer to these employees as 51-percenters.

To me, a 51-percenter has five core emotional skills. I’ve learned that we need to hire employees with these skills if we’re to be champions at the team sport of hospitality. They are:

Optimistic warmth (genuine kindness, thoughtfulness, and a sense that the glass is always at least half full)

Intelligence (not just “smarts” but rather an insatiable curiosity to learn for the sake of learning)

Work ethic (a natural tendency to do something as well as it can possibly be done)

Empathy (an awareness of, care for, and connection to how others feel and how your actions make others feel)

Self-awareness and integrity (an understanding of what makes you tick and a natural inclination to be accountable for doing the right thing with honesty and superb judgment)

I want the kind of people on my team who naturally radiate warmth, friendliness, happiness and kindness. It feels genuinely good to be around them. There’s an upbeat feeling, a twinkle in the eye, a dazzling sparkle from within. I want to employ people I’d otherwise choose to spend time with outside work. Many people spend a large percentage of their waking hours at work. From a selfish standpoint alone, if that’s your choice, it pays to surround yourself with compelling human beings from whom you can learn, and with whom you can be challenged to grow.

When we look for intelligence, we’re thinking about open-minded people with a keen curiosity to learn. Do they ask me questions during interviews? Do they display a broad knowledge about a lot of subjects, or a deep knowledge about any one subject? A hallmark of our business model is to continually be improving. I need to stock our team with people who naturally crave learning and who want to evolve—people who figure out how each new day can bring rich opportunities to do something even better.

Striving for excellence, as we do every day, requires curious people who also take an active interest in what their teammates do. I appreciate it when waiters want to learn more about cooking. I love it when cooks want to learn about wine. I adore it when hosts and reservationists want to learn more about the person behind the name they are greeting on the phone or at the front door.

A strong work ethic is an indispensable emotional skill for any employee who is going to contribute to the excellence of our business. We want people on our team who are highly motivated, confident and wired to do the job well. It’s not hard to teach anyone the proper way to set a beautiful table. What’s impossible to teach is how to care deeply about setting the table beautifully. When I walk into any one of our restaurants as its dining room is being set up for service, one of the most lovely sights to me is a waiter lifting a wine glass off the table, holding it up to the light and checking for smudges. This is not because I’m an unreformed smudge freak, but because it is showing care for a small detail—smaller even than what the average guest may notice. When an employee does not work out, the problem more often stems from an attitude of “I won’t” rather than “I can’t.”

Meyer: Hire ‘51-percenters’ to offer excellent hospitality

A high degree of empathy is crucial in delivering enlightened hospitality. Empathy is not just an awareness of what others are experiencing; it’s being aware of, being sensitive to and caring about how one’s own behavior affects others. We want waiters, for example, who can approach a new table of guests and intuitively sense their needs and agenda. Have they come, for example, to celebrate or conduct business? Are they here to experience the cuisine or simply to connect with a colleague over a light meal? Do they want extra attention from the restaurant or would they prefer to be left alone?

Guests may think that they are dining out to feel nourished, but I’ve always believed that an even more primary need of diners is to be nurtured. The most direct and effective way to let our guests know that we’re on their side has always been to field a team that exudes an infectious kind of empathy. No business can truly offer hospitality if the preponderance of its team members lack empathy. But when each member of the team goes to bat for the others, the mutual trust and respect engendered among them creates an infectious environment of caring for our guests.

Self-awareness and integrity go hand in hand. It takes integrity to be self-aware and to hold one’s self accountable for doing the right thing. I want to work with people who have a handle on what makes them tick. Self-awareness is understanding your moods (and how they effect you and others). In a sense, it is a personal weather report. Is the mood dry or humid? Is it rainy or stormy? Is it warm and sunny or chilly and cloudy? The staff members’ individual and collective moods influence the customers’ moods; and in the intricate, fast-paced dance between the kitchen, dining room, and guest during a meal—when hundreds of people are served—it’s crucial for my staff members to be aware of and accountable for their own personal “weather reports.”

No one can possibly be upbeat and happy all the time. But personal mastery demands that team members be aware of their moods and keep them in check. If a staff member is having personal trouble, and wakes up angry, nervous, depressed, or anxious, he or she needs to recognize and deal with the mood. It does not serve anyone’s purposes to project that mind-set into the work environment or onto one’s colleagues. We call that “skunking.” A skunk may spray a predator when it feels threatened, but everyone else within two miles has to smell the spray, and these others may assume that the skunk actually had it in for them. It is not productive to work with a skunk, and it’s not enjoyable to be served by one, either. In a business that depends on the harmony of an ensemble, a skunk’s scent is toxic.

It may seem implicit in the philosophy of enlightened hospitality that the employee is constantly setting aside personal needs and selflessly taking care of others. But the real secret of its success is to hire people to whom caring for others is, in fact, a selfish act. I call these people “hospitalitarians.” A special type of personality thrives on providing hospitality, and it’s crucial to our success that we attract people who possess it. Their source of energy is rarely depleted. In fact, the more opportunities hospitalitarians have to care for other people, the better they feel.

No matter how focused or purposeful we are when we hire, we’ve still made plenty of mistakes. Most of those mistakes have occurred when we’ve misread an employee’s emotional makeup. Technical strengths and deficiencies are relatively easy to spot. I can watch any cook sautéing a piece of fish for 60 seconds and gauge whether or not he has what it takes. I can watch a server and determine immediately if he or she has the ability to take orders gracefully. Emotional skills are harder to assess, and it’s usually necessary to spend meaningful time with people—often in the work environment—to determine whether or not they are a good fit. But it’s critical to begin by being explicit about which emotional skills you are seeking. Doing that—even if you do nothing else—greatly increases your odds of success.