Danny Meyer's book Setting the Table is in my view a must read for anyone in the restaurant world. He has a clear philosophy behind what he does and a string of successful restaurants across multiple styles that is a testimony to that philosophy. What I also like about the book is that he discusses the mistakes he made and is always asking himself how he can learn from that experience. Most great managers talk of learning more from their mistakes than from their successes but few speak of real examples of this learning process, however, this one from Danny Meyer is stand out in my view...
When Meyer opened up the restaurant Eleven Madison Park, his lunch business was lagging behind his expectations and Meyer convinced himself that the community of office workers in the vicinity of the restaurant were simply too busy to leave their desks for lunch. His 'solution' for this was to decided that Eleven Madison Park would do a box lunch delivery service to the offices. However, that gained little traction either. Meyer, who seems to think deep and hard on all aspects of his restaurants' business soon understood why:
We had made a fundamental mistake by trying to extend an original brand without having first established the core brand. It wasn’t so much that people were tied to their desks; it was that they had no clear idea what Eleven Madison Park represented as a dining experience. Was it a bistro or a grand restaurant? Was it inexpensive or for special occasions? Was it French? Was it a place for sandwiches, potato chips, and cookies? Until we had answered those questions for ourselves, we couldn’t avoid confusing our potential customers.
I love the way that Meyer analyses his restaurants to define a core brand combined with world class hospitality. But beyond his analysis above, he has further insights from this mistake:
creating the box lunches had kept chef Kerry Heffernan and the management team from focusing on what we should have been doing all along: improving the restaurant itself and doing the hard work necessary to build our lunch business one guest at a time... the experience was a vitally important illustration of inappropriate brand extension, wrongheaded priorities, and inadequate focus on a core product.
He then notes that returning to the business basics of Eleven Madison Park resulted in a busy lunchtime service within six months.
There's so much to like and learn in the above but I would take away three key things: first, be wary of distractions from your core business/objective, these can come is so many forms, not just box lunches. The idea now that Eleven Madison Park would do sandwich delivery is laughable but clearly it seemed a sensible solution at the time. Second, when the lunch box delivery didn't work either, Meyer rapidly stopped it. Lesson: don't let your mistakes compound. Third, the lunch box episode was a distraction from the real business of what the chef and his team should have been doing so there is an opportunity cost to the restaurant that needs to be considered.
We will without doubt be returning to Danny Meyer in future posts, but if you are in the hospitality industry you should not only read this book, you should also encourage all your staff to read this book. It's a good a staff training manual that you will find around the ethos of a successful restaurant.