Setting The Table

In 1997, right after we had moved Flatiron Partners into the neighborhood that it was named for, I was invited out to lunch by Lester Wunderman, who was on the board of Seth Godin’s company Yoyodyne with me. Lester suggested we meet at Gramercy Tavern which was half a block from our new offices. I told him that sounded great, he made the reservation, and I met him at the desired time.

Lester was already seated at our table, a choice location in one of the back rooms. I sat down and we started talking about various things. Not long after I had joined Lester, Danny Meyer came over and greeted Lester. It was clear to me at that moment that Lester was a frequent guest at Danny’s restaurants and there was a warm feeling between the two men.

Lester introduced me to Danny and suggested I take Danny’s card now that I was "in the neighborhood". I did and when I got back to work, I called The Gotham Gal and told her I had met Danny. We were big fans of his Union Square Cafe. She said, "call him and make a reservation for lunch tomorrow". I told her I didn’t have a lunch. She said, "get one". She said, "he’ll remember you tomorrow, but maybe not a month from now." I did as she suggested and the next day when I was eating with whomever I found to have lunch with me, Danny came over and greeted us like he had with Lester the day before.

That’s when I realized that Danny is the master of hospitality. I’ve been a frequent guest at his restaurants ever since.

A year or so later, Danny came calling to my office with Debbie Landau and Bill Lukashok to pitch us on joining the campaign to rebuild Madison Square Park. I shared with him the fact that the Gotham Gal and my first apartment in NYC was adjacent to the park and we used to walk by hookers and crack addicts going home each night. He nodded and walked me through the plan to fix up the park.

Around that time, Yoydoyne was sold to Yahoo! and I had a bunch of highly appreciated Yahoo! stock. The Gotham Gal and I gave some of it to Madison Square Park. Danny called me up to thank me and asked how they could sell it as it still had a legend on it. I told him how to get the legend removed. He called back about a month later, told me he’d gotten the legend off, but the stock had soared in value since they got it and he asked what he should do with it. I told him to sell it immediately. He did and the Gotham Gal and I became much bigger donors to the park than we had ever imagined. And I am rewarded for that gift every time I eat at the Shake Shack which I do regularly when its open (it closes in the winter months).

Why am I telling you all of this about Danny Meyer? Because he is a great person and for many of the same reasons, he is a a great entrepreneur. He has built restaurants that serve more than good food, they serve good feelings. And he also invests in his communities, as evidenced by the amazing work he led in the rejuvenation of Madison Square Park.

Over my vacation, I got around to finishing his new book, Setting The Table. If you are an entrepreneur, you should read this book.

It’s not your typical business book. It’s half biography/memoir and half advice on how to succeed in business. It’s nominally about the restaurant business, but it’s really about all businesses.

I’ll give you two things that stand out to me about Danny’s philosophy;

  • He rates the priority of the stakeholders in his business as follows; first employees, second customers (guests), third the community, fourth his vendors/suppliers, and fifth his investors. He figures if he gets the first four right, the fifth will take care of itself. I generally agree with that sentiment.
  • He values emotional competency higher than technical competency in his employees. Both are critical, but he says he can teach technical skills, he cannot teach attitude.

Danny takes a long term view to building his businesses. He forgoes quick gains and easy wins in favor of building sustainable institutions. And he has built a bunch of them.

I’ve gotten a bit out of the habit of constantly frequenting his restaurants. I used to eat lunch at Gramercy Tavern a lot more, for example. But after reading his book, I am eager to get back in the groove. It’s my second New Year’s Resolution (the first one is here). I am going to make it a point to eat at Danny’s restaurants a lot more in 2007.

And in case you are interested in eating at one of Danny’s restaurants (not Shake Shack), you can easily get a reservation using Open Table, where Danny is on the board. That’s how I generally do it and you’ll be surprised to see how well it works.

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