ICE Book Review – Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business

By Rob Cooney (@EMEducation)

“Business, like life, is all about how you make people feel. It’s that simple, and it’s that hard.”

Danny Meyer’s restaurants are a “Who’s who” list of fine New York City establishments: The Union Square Cafe, The Gramercy Tavern, The Modern, Blue Smoke, Jazz Standard, and many others. Setting the Table distills his leadership philosophy while sharing the lessons learned in a highly competitive industry.

As you can imagine, restaurants are a “service industry.” Or are they? One of the first key distinctions Mr. Meyer makes is the difference between service and hospitality. As he explains, “Service is the technical delivery of a product. Hospitality is how the delivery of that product makes its recipient feel.” As healthcare educators, I think this is an important distinction and as medicine focuses more and more on providing “service” to patients, perhaps we need to step back and remember that beyond service is hospitality. Simply providing excellent technical delivery can be done at the expense of hospitality. It takes both.

This theme of hospitality provides the foundation of Mr. Meyer’s philosophy. Later in the book, he explains that they apply concept applies to the team, guests, community, suppliers, and investors (in that order). This echoes other business leaders who favor treating employees well instead of focusing on the “customer is always right” mentality that is favored elsewhere. Hospitality became the differentiator separating his businesses from the competition. It also became a key feature for the hiring and performance. As the business expanded and the team grew to more than 1000 employees, technical job performance only accounted for 49 percent of performance while emotional job performance accounted for 51 percent! And, he even has criteria (competencies?): optimistic warmth (kindness, thoughtfulness), intelligence (not smarts but curiosity to learn), work ethic (do something as well as it can be done), empathy (awareness of how others are feeling, how your actions make them feel, and caring to make the connection), and self-awareness/integrity (knowing what makes you tick, willingness to be held accountable for doing the right thing).

One of my favorite analogies of the book appeared as he discusses self-awareness. In this section, he describes “skunking.” While a skunk sprays to deflect a threat, everyone nearby will smell the effects. So it is with emotions. We’ve all worked with a skunk-the person whose emotions are so toxic, it brings the team down. Mr. Meyer acknowledges that a person can’t be happy and upbeat all of the time, but, with self-awareness, we can recognize when we’re angry, nervous, depressed, etc. Getting ahead of these emotions prevents you from “skunking” everyone else on your team.

Another section I appreciate was his approach and explanation to using data. Mr. Meyers refers to it as ABCD-Always be collecting dots (data). In his case, this data is used to build connections with his guests-anniversary dates, birthdays, special occasions. Similarly, he takes time to collect dots about his staff. Direct observation helps him to gauge their teamwork and focus on providing the best experiences for their guests. There are many parallels here for medical educators as well!

Overall, the book is a fun and relaxing read, especially if you’re into food, restaurants, or business. Part memoir, part business approach, there are many lessons and reflections for medical educators throughout the pages and many of his challenges are ours as well.