Everyone who wants to run a business, any business but especially a service business, should work in restaurants for a while. It’s like a bootcamp in human relations and management that efficiently, and sometimes brutally, condenses every thing you need to learn if you’re paying attention.
Will Guidara, the author of the excellent autobiography/chatty management manual, Unreasonable Hospitality: The Remarkable Power of Giving People More Than They Expect (Penguin, 2022), was definitely paying attention. It’s what he does, and that principle alone defines much of what he has to say about going above and beyond in this, and any other service industry, in this lively, entertaining and enlightening peek behind hospitality’s neatly ironed veil.
The principles of good hospitality underpin the delivery of any service, whether you want to set up a trucking company or a corner deli, because whatever you do it’s always about how you relate and respond to people, and how you make them remember you and come back. No professional arena (except perhaps warfare) puts you into such close contact with so many people operating at their best and at their worst, with such speed and intensity, with such dependence on high-level collaboration both planned for and off-the-cuff, with so many tiny details to keep in mind because overlooking any one of them could lead to disaster, with such a need to constantly think 14 steps ahead but be reviewing and adding to those steps on a second-by-second basis, with such a need to retain a vast range of information from the sourcing and preparation of specific ingredients, to the suitability of any particular wine for that dish, to where the best place to listen to good music nearby might be, and to do all that while looking cool, calm, unruffled and always wearing a smile, than a busy restaurant floor on a Saturday night.
Forty-three-year-old Guidara has spent 25 years working at some of the most in demand and demanding restaurants in the world, at both the corporate end and front of house. Along the way, he became a manager and co-owner of Eleven Madison Park (ELP), one of the string of restaurants set up by famed New York restaurateur Danny Meyer. When Guidara took over ELP, it was already one of the top restaurants in the world, consistently listed on the San Pellegrino Top 50. But it was at the bottom end of the top, which bothered the ambitious Guidara. By the time he sold his part in the business, it was Number One.
Getting there, he knew there was no way the restaurant could improve its food any further, not in a way that made sense for the restaurant’s brand, and so he decided to radically adjust the other half of the dining-out equation: the service. “If we could become a restaurant focused passionately, intentionally, wholeheartedly on connection and graciousness — on giving both the people on our team and the people we served a sense of belonging — then we’d have a real shot of greatness”.
Guidara’s ambition was to turn ordinary transactions into extraordinary experiences, which meant digging into what people are really looking for when they dine out, because the food is just a part of it. There is nothing inherently wrong with simply giving people that part of what they want and leaving it there, unless you have ambitions to grow. But if you can additionally make people feel seen, and welcomed, and give them a sense of belonging, and that everything you are doing is uniquely designed for them, then there are no limits to what can be achieved.
Guidara’s epiphany came the night he overheard a group of European diners on their last night in New York celebrating all the incredible restaurants they had dined at, but lamenting the fact that they hadn’t got to taste a typical New York hot dog. Long story short: in the middle of service, Guidara raced out, got them their hot dog, talked the horrified chef into plating it, and served it to the four. That $2 hot dog in a Michelin-starred restaurant kicked off a revolution in his mind. Or rather, the response of the diners did, because their minds were blown and they will never stop talking about that meal for the rest of their lives.
As you go through the book, Guidara reminds you of a slightly geeky cousin whose enthusiasm and passion for his craft never fails to shine through. But he matches that passion with diligence, an exacting eye, and a natural rapport with people. The stories highlight the ideas and principles that have come to underpin his approach today, but also serve as a rather thrilling insight into what goes into the creation of a high-end dining experience. The number of tiny decisions that culminate in the final presentation of every meal must go into the thousands.
Among those numerous guidelines, we’ve distilled the following:
- Be present — pay attention to the person in front of you and what they are looking for. They will not always express that verbally.
- Take what you do seriously, without taking yourself too seriously: otherwise you’ll never think of something as genuinely transformative as serving a hotdog in a Michelin-starred restaurant.
- There can be no one size fits all — each customer is unique, and needs to be treated accordingly.
- The 95/5 Rule: ruthlessly manage 95% of your business down to the last penny, but spend that last 5% “foolishly”. That 5% can have an outsized impact on your business when it is transformed into transformative experiences for your clients.
- Read The One Minute Manager.
- Mistakes are inevitable. Apologise.
- You must be able to identify to yourself why your work matters.
- Excellence is the culmination of thousands of details executed perfectly, and the smallest things matter.
- A leader’s responsibility is to identify the strengths of the people on their team, no matter how buried those strengths might be. And excellent leaders create leaders.
- Don’t try to be all things to all people.
But there is so much more to be mined from this book than this. This book will become required reading for anyone interested in a future in hospitality, but its principles are true for anyone in any industry.