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Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business
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Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business

4.1 16
by Danny Meyer

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A landmark, bestselling business book and a fascinating behind-the-scenes history of the creation of Danny's most famous eating establishments, Setting the Table is a treasure trove of valuable, innovative insights applicable to any business or organization.


A landmark, bestselling business book and a fascinating behind-the-scenes history of the creation of Danny's most famous eating establishments, Setting the Table is a treasure trove of valuable, innovative insights applicable to any business or organization.

Editorial Reviews

Wall Street Journal
“Anyone in the hospitality industry would do well to consult ‘Setting the Table’.”
Time magazine
“Restaurateur Danny Meyer offers a rich menu of business tips.”
Vanity Fair
“Danny Meyer, restaurateur nonpareil, shares his never-fail recipe for business success.”
Time Magazine
"Restaurateur Danny Meyer offers a rich menu of business tips."
Even if you've never dined at Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern, or any of the nine other distinctive Manhattan eateries owned by Gotham restaurateur Danny Meyer, you'll find plenty to chew on in this appealing memoir-cum-management primer. Loaded with smart, savvy, advice, Setting the Table also provides the inside story of how Meyer opened each of his restaurants, created a flourishing gustatory empire, and continues to attract discriminating diners and top-notch employees. There are no esoteric lessons here; just sensible suggestions about developing leadership skills, putting people first, and imbuing every aspect of business with the grace and generosity ("enlightened hospitality") that has catapulted this charming entrepreneur to the top of the "food chain."
Sara Dickerman
Meyer is more persuasive and interesting, both as a storyteller and as a business adviser, when he sticks to concrete examples from his working life instead of spinning them into catchphrases that might work in a PowerPoint presentation. He has built his business not on food or service alone, but on the value of a colorful story — especially the ones that his clients tell to his future clients: the wallet lost in a cab and tracked down by Tabla’s manager; the personal call from Meyer before a big anniversary dinner; a superb frozen custard on a sunny day in Madison Square Park.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
With the same grace and generosity displayed in his dining rooms, Meyer's instructive how-we-did-it account shares lessons learned on his way to becoming CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group. Meyer opened Union Square Cafe in 1985 when he was 27 years old. It hit its stride three years later when he hired chef Michael Romano, and Meyer charts its evolution from a neighborhood to international institution. Initially cautious about expansion, he opened Gramercy Tavern with chef Tom Colicchio three years later, eventually broadening his New York City restaurant empire to 11 establishments including Eleven Madison Park, Tabla, Blue Smoke, Shake Shack and the Modern. Meyer makes a distinction between service ("the technical delivery of a product") and the "Enlightened Hospitality" at the core of his business strategy-both necessary for restaurant success. He notes that hospitality "is how the delivery of that product makes its recipient feel" and shares tips like hiring "51 percenters," or staff with "skills divided 51-49 between emotional hospitality and technical excellence," and the "Five As" for addressing mistakes: awareness, acknowledge, apologize, act, additional generosity. This honest, modest book will appeal most to foodies and aspiring restaurateurs but also offers insight for entrepreneurs in any industry. (Oct.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Meyer is known to foodies as the man behind 11 acclaimed restaurants in New York City, including Union Square Caf and Gramercy Tavern. While that would be more than enough professional accomplishment for most people, apparently Meyer has had time enough on his hands to branch out into writing as well. Anyone who has started or maintained a business will have strong ideas about the best way to run things, and Meyer is no exception. While such chapter headings as "The 51 Percent Solution" and "Constant, Gentle Pressure" evoke the all-too-common themes of most leadership books, this book is something more. It is actually the story of Meyer's restaurant empire and how he got to where he is today, overlaid with his own views on management and what has worked for him. A fun and enjoyable read, it provides a good behind-the-scenes view of the restaurant business, though it's more autobiography than business how-to. Recommended for libraries with strong cookery or business collections.-Susan Hurst, Miami Univ. Libs., Oxford, OH Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The First Course

I've learned more of what I know about life from people than from books, and I've learned much of what I know about people from the food they eat. I'm on the road a number of days each year, solo, or with my family, buddies, or colleagues—and when I travel, the first thing I do in my first free moments in a town is visit its food markets, pastry shops, butchers, and grocery stores. I read menus posted outside restaurants. I watch the residents argue back and forth with the merchants over the virtues of their wares. When I meet people who look like locals, I ask them where they'd eat if they had only one or two days in town, as I do. Cultures that care deeply about food often care about life, history, and tradition. I'm constantly on the lookout for local idiosyncrasies, ways of eating that exist nowhere else. And I'm always energized by a hunt for the best version of any local specialty.

In towns throughout Italy's Piedmont I've tasted a meringue-hazelnut cookie called brutti ma buoni ("ugly but good"). In Siena I've searched for the supreme panforte, a sweet cake. In New York's Chinatown I walk into butcher shops—not necessarily to buy, but to observe how people select their cuts of meat and and sausage. In Maine, of course, I cherish tiny wild blueberries. In northern Wisconsin I'm unable to resist perch, bass, pike, and Native American fry bread. In Miami, I look for Cuban counter restaurants. In Texas, there isn't time enough to visit all the Mexican taquerias for breakfast. And the barbecue—within a thirty-five-mile radius of Austin in the Texas Hill Country lie five towns I revere, each with a distinctly different style of barbecue. The elements of barbecue are limited—ribs, brisket, pulled pork, chopped pork, minced pork, sausage, chicken, cole slaw, beans, and a handful of side dishes—but it has become an American culinary language with thousands of dialects and accents. I try to understand each variation. During one thirty-six-hour road trip through North Carolina, I tasted fourteen variations on chopped pork, each defined by subtle and dramatic differences in texture, the degree and type of smoke used, the amount of tomato or vinegar in the sauce, how much heat was applied to the meat, as well as how much or how little crackling got chopped up and tossed in. And that's in addition to checking out the many styles of fried chicken, Brunswick stew, and hush puppies on offer.

From as far back as I can remember, I've been eating with my eyes, nose, and mouth. When I was four I fell in love with stone crab at the Lagoon restaurant in Miami Beach. I couldn't stop eating it (and apparently I couldn't stop talking to anyone who would listen about the "cwacked cwab"). Over the next years I remember savoring variations of key lime pie in Key West; eating my first roadside cheeseburger somewhere in the hills outside Santa Barbara; trying Dungeness crab and saline abalone at San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf; and having a lobster roll in Ogunquit, Maine. I devoured my first custardy quiche lorraine as a seven-year-old when my parents took us to the city of Nancy in France. I tasted bottled water (Evian and Vittel) for the first time in the town of Talloires, and I can also remember exactly how the water of Lake Annecy tasted as I swam in it. I discovered fraises des bois (wild strawberries) and crème fraîche at La Colombe d'Or in Saint-Paul de Vence; I tasted a baguette with saucisson and pungent moutarde in Paris's Jardin des Tuilieries. My writing improved because my mother insisted that I keep a diary of our trip. At the time, I hated doing this. But the diary turned out to be one of the greatest gifts she ever gave me. I wasn't writing about the museums and churches we'd seen. Instead I chose to write about food.

Back in my hometown, St. Louis, I was no less curious about what people ate. When I brought my lunch from home to elementary school, I swapped and shared sandwiches, not because the other kids' lunches were better, but because this was the best way I knew of to learn about another family. I had never heard of Miracle Whip until I traded my braunschweiger on rye with another kid for his baloney sandwich (one slice of Oscar Mayer and Miracle Whip on Tastee white bread). It tasted nothing like the Hellmann's mayonnaise we used at home, and I began to understand something about families, solely on the basis of their preference for Hellmann's or Miracle Whip. I was fascinated to discover that the household across the street used Maull's, the thin, tangy classic St. Louis barbecue sauce, whereas my family was in the more mainstream Open Pit camp, using it as a base to be doctored with other ingredients. I learned that various brands of peanut butter tasted better with certain brands of jelly. I observed that some families chose Heinz ketchup, while others used Hunt's or Brooks. I got to know and cared about the differences in the flavors of these ketchups.

These explorations of food not only taught me about myself and others but were central factors in how and why I chose to go into the restaurant business, and perhaps even in why the restaurants have fared so well. My discoveries have also convinced me that there's always someone out there who has figured out how to make something taste just a little bit better. And I am inspired by both the search and the discovery. The restaurants and other businesses I have opened in New York City—Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, Eleven Madison Park, Tabla, Blue Smoke, Jazz Standard, Shake Shack, The Modern, Cafe 2, and Terrace 5 (our cafés for visitors within the Museum of Modern Art), plus Hudson Yards Catering—were all conceived and are all driven by a passion to add something new and compelling to what I call a dialogue between what already exists and what could be. When I decided to create Tabla, our Indian-inspired restaurant, I wrote a list of ten things that one could ordinarily expect of an Indian restaurant in New York—they included a predictable menu; ornate décor with background sitar music; and austere service and hospitality. Then I asked myself what Tabla might add to these expectations—what it could perhaps add to the dialogue New Yorkers already had with Indian restaurants. Although its earliest years were rather rocky—perhaps because we were trying to learn and educate at the same time—Tabla has more than exceeded my goals for it, pioneering "new Indian" cooking in America and building a solid foundation of loyal customers. Perhaps the surest sign of its success is that it has inspired derivative restaurants in New York and beyond.

Whether the subject is Indian spices, new American cuisine, the neighborhood bistro, barbecue, luxe dining, a big-league jazz club, the traditional museum cafeteria, or hamburgers and milk shakes, my passion is always to explore the object of my interest in depth, and then to combine the best of what I've found with something unexpected to create a fresh context. I then look at the result and ask myself and my colleagues what it would take to do this even better. Creating restaurants or even recipes is like composing music: there are only so many notes in the scale from which all melodies and harmonies are created. The trick is to put those notes together in a way not heard before. For us, the ongoing challenge has been to combine the best elements of fine dining with accessibility—in other words, with open arms. This was once a radical concept in my business, where excellent cuisine was almost always paired with stiff arm's-length service. Sometimes, we've moved in the other direction, beginning with the casual atmosphere of a barbecue joint or a shakes-and-burgers stand, and then attempting to exceed expectations by employing a caring staff and using the finest ingredients. Our formula is a lot tougher to achieve than it sounds, but it can be applied successfully to virtually any business you can name.

Where does my hunger for good food served with thoughtful care and consistency come from? Why am I so energized by seeking to uncover the best? The answer is my family, though its various influences on me have often been at odds. My three most important male role models were businessmen with profoundly different business philosophies, personalities, and styles.

My parents, Roxanne and Morton Louis Meyer, had spent the first two years of their youthful marriage in the early 1950s living in the city of Nancy, capital of the French province of Lorraine, where my dad was posted as an army intelligence officer. He was the son of Morton Meyer, a St. Louis businessman who had been educated at Princeton and ran a chemical company called Thompson-Hayward. Grandpa Morton was a visionary civic leader and a die-hard Republican—but one who understood the importance of working effectively with Democrats. For instance, he collaborated with Senator Stuart Symington to raise the funds and forge the coalitions necessary to build the St. Louis flood wall. He was a stoic member of the city's establishment, and rarely talked to his family about his work, though he often talked to me about baseball and horse racing. There were no surprises with Grandpa Morton, and I loved him for that. He was in many ways the opposite of his flamboyant, entrepreneurial son, my dad, who also attended Princeton, where he demonstrated a flair for languages, having mastered French, Italian, and Latin (and, as the managing editor of the Daily Princetonian, English).

My mother too was the child of a privileged midwestern family. Her father, Irving B. Harris, was a singular man whose combining of social consciousness with business acumen was an enormous influence on me as a human being, and ultimately as a restaurateur. He graduated from Yale, and he made his first fortune before he was forty years old, having cofounded the Toni Home Permanent Company with his brother Neison. They sold it to the Gillette Safety Razor Company in 1948 for what was then an enormous sum: $20 million.

Grandpa Irving's piercing analytical business mind was radically different from my father's intuitive entrepreneurialism. Morty, as my dad was known, always had an abundance of new, imaginative ideas for companies that he would run—or try to run—by himself. Irving, on the other hand, invested in or acquired other peoples' businesses, especially when the ideas that defined these companies were compelling to him. His passion wasn't to operate the companies, but rather to bet on the quality of their senior leadership. Evaluating human potential was every bit as important to him as any business idea.

I adored Grandpa Irving, and I was awed by his otherworldly business success. Through him I became aware of my own competitive zeal and began to believe in my own potential for winning. But for many years I suppressed my love for him and also muffled my own self-actualization, out of misguided deference to my father. Irving and Morty may have once loved each other, but as the years went by they grew to dislike each other intensely. If pressed for his true opinion, Irving would have described Morty as an unpredictable, irresponsible riverboat gambler. For his part, my dad considered his father-in-law an overbearing tyrant who couldn't loosen his all-controlling grip on his daughter, or for that matter on anyone else in the family. Morty called Irving "the boss." Their adversarial relationship turned out to be detrimental to my parents' marriage, which would end twenty-five years after it began.

In 1955, at the conclusion of my dad's overseas military service, my parents were still very much in love with each other and with Europe. Their knowledge of and fondness for France in particular was a powerful bond between them. From a very young age I was lucky to be taken abroad on family vacations, and it was on those trips that I was first immersed in the unaffected, timeless culture of gracious hospitality represented by European restaurateurs and innkeepers. In France we usually stayed in low-key, family-run inns where the welcome felt loving and the gastronomy was exceptional. Those trips left a lasting impression. The hug that came with the food made it taste even better! That realization would gradually evolve into my own well-defined business strategy—the core of which is hospitality, or being on the guests' side.

Hospitality is the foundation of my business philosophy. Virtually nothing else is as important as how one is made to feel in any business transaction. Hospitality exists when you believe the other person is on your side. The converse is just as true. Hospitality is present when something happens for you. It is absent when something happens to you. Those two simple prepositions—for and to — express it all.

The foregoing is excerpted from Setting the Table by Danny Meyer. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022

Meet the Author

Danny Meyer, a native of St. Louis, opened his first restaurant, Union Square Cafe, in 1985 when he was twenty-seven, and went on to found the Union Square Hospitality Group, which includes some of New York City's most acclaimed restaurants: Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, The Modern, Maialino, North End Grill, Blue Smoke, and Shake Shack, as well as Jazz Standard, Union Square Events, and Hospitality Quotient. Danny, his restaurants, and his chefs have earned an unprecedented twenty-five James Beard Awards. Danny's groundbreaking business book, Setting the Table, was a New York Times bestseller, and he has coauthored two cookbooks with his business partner, Chef Michael Romano. Danny lives in New York with his wife and children.

Michael Romano joined Union Square Cafe in 1988, preparing his unique style of American cuisine with an Italian soul. In 1993, Michael became Danny Meyer's partner. Under Michael's leadership, Union Square Cafe has been ranked Most Popular in New York City Zagat surveys for a record seven years. The restaurant also received the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant of the Year. Michael has coauthored two cookbooks with Danny Meyer, The Union Square Cafe Cookbook and Second Helpings. He is the recipient of numerous nominations and awards, including the James Beard Foundation's Best Chef in New York City in 2001, and in 2000, he was inducted into the James Beard Foundation's Who's Who of Food & Beverage in America.

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Setting the Table 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
sparkspace More than 1 year ago
Being in the hospitality business (on the business to business side), I was curious to know if Danny's views of the restaurant business would be applicable to a business to business setting. It is absolutely applicable! You will learn so much from this book about how to put your employees and customers first, how to build a grow a sustainable business for the long term, and maybe most importantly, how to build a business based on excellence without compromise. The only problem with this book is that it will also make you hungry! Danny's passion for food gets you not only excited about your business, but makes you start looking for a better place to eat dinner, no matter what city you live in!
thedish More than 1 year ago
The only one of his restaurants I have eaten at is Blue Smoke which I must say is very good. The staff is in fact quite hospitable but not necessarily more so than some other places. That said he outlines the importance of each group 1. Employees 2. Customers 3. Community 4. Suppliers 5. Investors in that order. He is wildly successful and he is doing the right thing. As my title says if more CEO's acted this way the world would be in a much better state. As for the read, it's incredibly easy to get through and quite enlightening although somewhat obvious. Do the right thing.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was required reading for class but I pleasantly took a liking to it. I left it on my desk at work and 2 other co-workers have asked for it when I am done. If you love hospitality or food service, this is a really good read!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wow... cant put this book down! I am 1/4 of the the way finished and its incredible! This book affirms all the reasons i became a part of the hospitality industry! it pulls at my heart strings and reminds me of childhood memories "fly fishing and how Texans dont put bbq sauce on brisket"! Fantastic!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book and what Danny Meyer has modeled in his own business can be applied to most businesses. I especially believe in having engaged employees (and owners) that love what they are doing. This book is insightful on how to do that.
AlyceMH More than 1 year ago
Thank you Delta for covering Danny Meyer in your December in flight magazine.  In the process of changing industries to become a Chief Experience Officer, &quot;Setting the Table&quot; was exactly what I needed.  Danny's journey and insight has gone a long way toward getting me off to a great start in my new role.
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