The belief that the customer should come first rules the restaurant industry, but New York restaurateur Danny Meyer disagrees.
Meyer, owner of popular Manhattan restaurant Union Square Cafe and the global chain Shake Shack and author of a book about his experiences as a restaurant owner, gave a talk on the importance of hospitality in the restaurant industry to a crowd of over 100 Yale students and community members at the Whitney Humanities Center auditorium on Monday. During the lecture, Meyer shared the principles that he believes led to his restaurants’ high levels of success.
Meyer said he first realized the power of hospitality to boost a restaurant’s popularity about 15 years ago with the release of that year’s New York Zagat Survey, an annual ranking of the top restaurants in New York City according to diners. The survey features three categories — food, décor and service — and also provides a list of the top five restaurants in New York. Though Meyer said he was thrilled that diners ranked his Union Square Cafe as their third favorite restaurant overall in the city that year, he was puzzled that it managed to achieve such a high ranking since its food ranked 12th, its service ranked 11th and its décor ranked 65th.
“There must have been something that the Zagat didn’t ask about that we must have scored off the charts on,” Meyer said. “We finally figured out that that was hospitality.”
He then explained that good hospitality starts with a restaurant’s staff. In hiring employees, Meyer said, his restaurants look for people with high “hospitality quotients,” which are defined by what he referred to as six core emotional skills — kindness, curiosity, work ethic, empathy, self-awareness and integrity.
Employees are a top priority for Meyer, who said he values them over his customers.
“We were actually putting our staff in front of our customers,” he said. “We learned that if we really wanted to have great customer satisfaction, you would never put them first. You want to make sure that the people who are coming to work love their jobs and love working with each other so much that they are naturally going to do a better job of taking care of our guests.”
After his speech, Meyer fielded questions from the audience. When asked to name some of his culinary heroes, Meyer did not answer with big name chefs.
Instead, he said that his heroes are people who dedicate their lives to perfecting a single type of food, such as pizza-makers.
“I just have so much respect for someone who goes deeply into one topic and is the best in the world at that one topic,” he said.
Adela Jaffe ’13, a self-described admirer of Meyer’s work, said that she was impressed by Meyer’s use of hospitality quotients to screen employees, especially since such characteristics can sometimes be overlooked.
Amelia Cai ’14, a native New Yorker and fan of Meyer’s restaurants, said she was surprised to learn of Meyer’s philosophy of putting employees ahead of customers.
“I thought that his insight on making sure that the people who work for him are actually the ones he prioritizes was smart, and [it was] not something I was expecting,” Cai said.
In early March, Meyer told the New York Times that he has plans to open three new restaurants in Battery Park City — the casual North End Grill, and new branches of barbecue restaurant Blue Smoke and hamburger stand Shake Shack.