This Blog is the 6th, in a series of EIGHT, that focuses on the success behind Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group.  

Here’s a short story, a true story.

The story illustrates a problem that keeps burning.

This weekend I had brunch at a well-established Auckland eatery. The waitress was sweet, tentative, nervous even, but clearly a lovely person who was eager to please. At one stage the owner walked in, and with one blasé hand gesture communicated to the Barista that it was time he made her a coffee. Later when briefly chatting, she said something close to, “Oh hospitality yes, I’ve tried that idea, but employees just don’t take the industry seriously enough.”

It’s not that I don’t understand the frustration and the experience. I’ve seen, felt, and expressed the same emotions. I even understand how difficult it is to rise above the daily grind, which is already extremely difficult. Indeed, the only reason why I see things with fresh eyes is because I’ve had the luxury of stepping away from the daily grind to look, watch and see. It’s a privileged position.

Nevertheless, as experienced, talented and charming as that restaurateur clearly is, she still unwittingly illustrates how easy it is for industry leaders to make profound mistakes. The biggest mistake of all is to believe that Hospitality Leadership is an add-on, or extra-curricular activity that ‘we could possibly play around with if only we could get our margins looking a little healthier’.

My experience with the Union Square Hospitality Group clearly illustrates that the problem is not whether employees take the industry seriously enough, but whether employers take their employees seriously enough, and that the impact on the restaurant’s bottom line is not direct and immediate.   

I watched the waitress work, and the Barista beavering away busily behind the bar. There was obvious intelligence, personality, but also an uncomfortable hesitancy in the way they worked. It’s speculation of course, but there was something submissive in their demeanour.

I watched, and while the service was fine, and there were smiles at the appropriate moments (more than what I often see) there was no real hospitality, no offers of second drinks, more food or encouragement to stay longer on this gentle Sunday morning.

The food was fine, good even, but I left feeling, as I often do, a bit sad for the lost opportunities for the restaurant owner, the team and the other ‘guests’. Most of all I feel a bit disappointed for the industry, because I know we can do better.

I saw the lost moments for increased revenue dwindle away, one after the other until they were well into double figures; hundreds of dollars in a few short minutes.

I saw the lost moments for making connections with customers who, on a peaceful Sunday morning, were prepared to praise and appreciate.

The Union Square Hospitality Group comparison is a bit unfair, but when Danny Meyer says that putting employees first is the key to running a meaningful and sustainable business, then he’s either right or wrong.

Oh, but the culture is different in America, they’re just more hospitable people!

Hmmm …ok. We are culturally different. But hospitality is hospitality and it’s a virtue all over the world. America, New York, in particular, has its own challenges. We have many advantages. Kiwi’s are special.

My experience with Union Square Hospitality Group provided a thousand illustrating images, but there is one that stands out for me at this moment. Despite all the racial tension in the United States, and the obvious challenges in Manhattan itself (I was staying in Harlem), I will never forget the African American teen earnestly and beautifully providing amazing hospitality while we were waiting in line for our Shake Shack burgers.

He asked us where we were from, how we were enjoying our time in New York and made our wait as enjoyable as possible. He was confident, smiling and worked like the success of Shake Shack, and the experience of the customer meant something to him. I chatted with him and asked him about his experience working at Shake Shack. He said he felt looked after and taken seriously.

What I didn’t ask him, but I wish I had, was had his boss ever expected him to deliver her coffee. Knowing the culture at Union Square Hospitality Group I very much doubt it, on the contrary, I witnessed the reverse.

Five conclusions to consider:

  1. Serve your team, don’t expect them to serve you.
  2. Take your team seriously, look after their welfare and be on their side.
  3. Consider, are your team confident around you and with customers?
  4. Are your team looking out for each other?
  5. What is the hospitality experience of your average customer?

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