Setting the Table Key Takeaways

Setting the Table Key Takeaways

As I’ve dived deeper into the hospitality world because of Unlimited Brewing, I’ve found that I really enjoy reading books by folks in the restaurant industry. In particular, I’ve enjoyed Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, Work Clean by Dan Charnas, and The Kitchen and The Cook by Nicolas Freeling. While all of these books were entertaining and had great takeaways, the most immediately applicable takeaways were found in Setting the Table by restauranteur Danny Meyer, the entrepreneur behind Union Square Cafe, Blue Smoke, and last but certainly not least, Shake Shack. Without further ado, let’s get into our Setting the Table key takeaways.

Setting the Table Key Takeaways:

Key Takeaway #1: Nothing is More Important Than How You Make People Feel

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.

In my experience, Meyer’s focus on hospitality is spot on. People like to do business with people and companies they like. Any dislike or even ambivalence is a source of friction that makes it less likely that a transaction occurs. Looking at your business from a hospitality mindset will change how you view your processes, your sales organization, your website, social media, and nearly everything else. The goal at the end of the day is to make your customers genuinely feel that you are working on their behalf for the best possible outcome.

Reading this section made me wonder if it’s possible to use hospitality as a differentiator in traditionally inhospitable industries. Health insurance comes to mind.

Key Takeaway #2: Know What Your Strengths Are

Early in his career, Meyer realized he was better suited to running a restaurant than being a chef. Having a culinary background was helpful to him in his business but he came to the realization that if he was truly going to be great, he needed to be a generalist over specializing as a chef:

One role I decided not to play myself was chef. Though I had fantasized early on about leading the kitchen (and in fact had seen being a chef as my only legitimate avenue into the business), it increasingly dawned on me that as much as I loved to cook, I was much more suited to becoming a restaurant generalist. My culinary education in Europe had provided the necessary foundation with which to communicate clearly about food with chefs in their own language. Firing myself as chef (or at least abandoning the notion that I might one day become a chef) turned out to be one of the smartest business decisions I have ever made.

Key Takeaway #3: The Dessert Wine Apology Tactic

This was one of the most brilliant pieces of advice in the book. Meyer recommends an “athletic” approach to customer complaints, which means utilizing both offense and defense. On offense, one would look to enhance an already great experience (free dessert on the house). On defense, one would apologize for any errors and be generous in correcting the mistakes. It may cost more in the short term but is more than worth it for long term success. For example:

For those who had to wait too long, there was often a reward – a generous supply of dessert wines on the house. We had resuscitated an old refrigerator from Brownies in the back bar that we named the “Medicine Cabinet,” the medicine being our ample collection of dessert wines, which we dispensed liberally by the glass as an apology to guests. Except for the most hostile, the medicine generally worked.

Key Takeaway #4: The Difference Between Service and Hospitality

This is something I had no understanding of prior to reading Meyer’s book. Meyer’s opinion on hospitality makes me think that the future of everything is personalization, as customers everywhere want experiences tailored to themselves.

Understanding the distinction between service and hospitality has been at the foundation of our success. Service is the technical delivery of a product. Hospitality is how the delivery of that product makes its recipient feel. Service is a monologue – we decide how we want to do things and set our own standards for service. Hospitality, on the other hand, is a dialogue. To be on a guest’s side requires listening to that person with every sense, and following up with a thoughtful, gracious, appropriate response. It takes both great service and great hospitality to rise to the top.

Key Takeaway #5: The Power of Shared Ownership

Shared ownership is a powerful concept. The idea is that your customers and fans feel that they have a stake in your success and become evangelists for your brand. We see this often with bands, breweries, restaurants, and even startups.

Shared ownership doesn’t necessarily mean that your customers own a stake in your business (after all, do you own a piece of your favorite brand). This is much more about customers wanting to share the feeling you give them:

Shared ownership develops when guests talk about a restaurant as if it’s theirs. They can’t wait to share it with friends, and what they’re really sharing, beyond the culinary experience, s the experience of feeling important and loved. That sense of affiliation builds trust and a sense of being accepted and appreciated, invariably leading to repeat business, a necessity for any company’s long-term survival.

Key Takeaway #6: Stay Steady

This takeaway is actually from Meyer’s grandfather, Irving Harris but I absolutely loved it:

People will say a lot of great things about your business, and a lot of nasty things as well. Just remember: you’re never as good as the best things they’ll say, and never as bad as the negative ones. Just keep centered, know what you stand for, strive for new goals, and always be decent.

Key Takeaway #7: How to Handle Mistakes

Every business makes mistakes for one reason: businesses are run by humans and humans are imperfect. But those mistakes don’t necessarily need to derail your company. Another great quote from the book, this time from Stanley Marcus, the founder of Neiman Marcus:

The road to success is paved with mistakes well handled.

Meyer and his businesses use a framework to handle mistakes that I found to be really useful. They call it “The Five A’s for Effectively Addressing Mistakes”:

Awareness – Many mistakes go unaddressed because no one is even aware they have happened. If you’re not aware, you’re nowhere.

Acknowledgement – “Our server had an accident, and we are going to prepare a new plate for you as quickly as possible.”

Apology – “I am so sorry this happened to you.” Alibis are not one of the Five A’s. It is not appropriate or useful to make excuses (“We’re short-staffed.”)

Action – “Please enjoy this for now. We’ll have your fresh order out in just a few minutes.” Say what you are going to do to make amends then follow through.

Additional Generosity – Unless the mistake had to do with slow timing, I would instruct my staff to send out something additional (a complimentary dessert or dessert wine) to thank the guests for having been good sports. Some more serious mistakes warrant a complimentary dish or meal.


As you can see, Setting the Table is packed with useful takeaways for anyone who interacts with people, but is especially helpful for those who work in customer-facing roles or run businesses. The hospitality industry has a lot to offer to other industries when it comes to customer experience.

You can buy a copy of Setting the Table on Amazon or wherever you buy your books. Let me know what you think of Setting the Table Key Takeaways on Twitter or by email.

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