This Blog is the 4th, in a series of EIGHT, that focuses on the success behind Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group.  

To become and remain an ‘institution’, in a market as competitive as New York, means that Gramercy Tavern must have ‘something’ special.

Gramercy Tavern must ‘re-present’ every day to taste-buds, the moodiest of the senses. Irrespective of culture-vulture pedigree or lack of foodie-sophistication, the restaurant must repetitively hit its mark.

In a sense, this is the challenge before all well-established hospitality enterprises, and the way that Gramercy Tavern faces that challenge is a lesson for all those well-established in the industry.     

We can’t all be as fine and beautiful as Gramercy Tavern, nor would it be wise for us all to aspire to the same aesthetic heights. Nevertheless, amongst the impressive backdrop is a standard of excellence that we can, and should, aspire to reach in our own style.

There are two distinct restaurants in one; the Dining Room at the back, itself divided into two areas, and the Tavern at the front. There is no full physical division between the two; except for a different atmosphere and a slight refinement of experience.

The very first thing I notice is the ‘genius’ level heating, lighting and sound. Clearly years of thought, adjustment and passion have been put into the three restaurant hospitality staples. The acoustics were like being wrapped in layers of angora; with your ears caressed, but not covered. There was no music in the Dining Room despite being atmospheric in the Tavern through open space; both areas are packed and everyone was talking, but I couldn’t hear anyone distinctly (not even at the next table). It’s like every table had a cone of silence, but enjoyed the atmosphere at the same time. The lighting was much the same. In the Dining Room, every table was illuminated softly in the centre, leaving faces soft and meals clean and vibrant. In the Tavern, natural light was softened somehow; how do they do that? It was a freezing wet day in New York; Gramercy Tavern felt like a cuddle.

The lesson from Gramercy is institutional depth and knowledge coupled with the sort of hospitality that forces you to forget that you are a nobody amongst millions.

Despite the sumptuous nature of the environment, Gramercy Tavern is unintimidating. It was my shy daughter’s first ever fine dining restaurant (talk about jumping in the deep end) and she felt at home immediately. If anyone is going to feel intimidated, it would be an unaffected 15-year-old Kiwi girl who had delivered circulars for three years to get there. This was achieved, not through loud obsequious service, but through gentle forethought and care. We had been well ‘read’ before we arrived.

It’s true, they DO achieve a form of wholesome homeliness.

The team knew how to make my daughter and I feel like the most important people in NYC. The question is why? The answer is … no reason at all, except that they could; they had the information to achieve one lovely moment after another in such a way that demonstrated experience but felt unique and special at the same time.

Let’s not exclude our experience as unusual, because it was the same well-oiled level of hospitality that was everywhere that day. I deliberately omit the word ‘machine’ from well-oiled, because there was nothing machine-like about the hospitality; it was organic and real. Hannah, our server, looked after ‘us’ – not just as any ‘mother and daughter’, but for who we were and what made us feel wonderful.

Ok, our experience was special, a welcome card was waiting from, ‘Danny, Chef Mike, the team at Gramercy & the USHG’ welcoming us to NYC (loved it – will keep it forever – husband won’t let me frame it), multiple complimentary surprises from the chef, and a thorough back-of-house tour – extra special attention from Paul Walsh (Guest Relations Manager) and the famous Scott Reinhardt (now General Manager) and introductions to the entire kitchen team. We were treated like very special guests, no-one was interested in whether we were special; it was about making us feel special.

Even Gramercy Tavern couldn’t keep this type of hospitality up for every customer, but the right question is why do it for anyone? And why make such a huge effort to tailor the right experience to the right customer, and the right experience for every customer?

The answer, I believe, is how the team feels about working at Gramercy Tavern. Every team member is incredibly proud of where they work, who they work with, and what they are achieving.

It’s true, Gramercy Tavern is unique, and in more ways than one, could only exist in a city like New York, but that still does little to reduce its teaching applicability to the wider industry.

Here are a few notes of particular interest for practitioners:

  • Gramercy is a ‘Hospitality Included’ Restaurant; no tipping since Dec 10th The ‘revenue share programme’ at Gramercy is 10% for the FOH team.
  • All hourly wage earners can take part in the monthly P&L meetings; for them, it is not compulsory; all salaried earners are involved in P&L strategy.
  • Gramercy uses Open Table – the reservations company and their electronic reservations book.
  • The USHG use Avero Business Intelligence
  • Gramercy Tavern uses Resy Operations Technology
  • USHG restaurants use a feedback card with the bill, asking the customer to star-rate their experience, and with room to provide name, email, phone, date, meal and whether you mind joining the mailing list. The card has been landscape; recently switched to portrait and the response has improved substantially
  • I received an email within 12 hours – asking for feedback and providing an easy 5-star rating in a series of different areas. It took less than 2 minutes.
  • Gramercy Tavern takes their extensive database VERY seriously and studies the feedback. They use their database as a foundation for their dining community.
  • Yes, despite the reality that we have to fly, literally, from the other side of the world; I’ve organised a table in September for my special loved one.

Top FIVE lessons for ALL hospitality businesses from Gramercy Tavern (USHG):

  1. Focus on making your customers feel special. Great hospitality and technically great service TOGETHER create a fan in a customer … we left feeling like we had made friends with a group of truly wonderful people. There is no better experience, and it needs to be at the core of what drives us all in the industry.
  2. Prioritise heating, lighting and sound – you think you are but are you really? When you experience it done well, you realise what a big deal it really is.
  3. Treat your team like they are most important people in the world, and provide them with the information, and tools, to make your customers feel important. Help them feel proud of where they work.
  4. Always create a surprise hospitality moment for every customer, and make sure it happens all the time. Experiment, but always provide a ‘wow’ moment. Read your customers before they arrive.
  5. Treat your database, and fulfilment processes, as critically important. A database is NOT merely a list of email addresses, but a record of important people who matter – make sure you collect as much information as you need to make each individual feel special.

Our expectations were sky-high; we left surprised and excited. Our first day in New York and we were already feeling special and important. We ate some amazing food and, more importantly, we met some wonderful people.

Foodie nirvana delivered – as promised, but the hugs and the new friends came as a lovely surprise. Gramercy Tavern lifts the bar for everyone, in every business and in every industry.

Reflections on New York, Alexis O’Connell for The Hospitality Company