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What Is Entrepreneurship And How Does It Relate To Restaurants?

10 Dec

This past Wednesday night I got the chance to reengage with my entrepreneurial roots at an intimate gathering of about 30 graduates of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where we all came together to both congratulate and hear more of (the man I’m proud to say was) my professor Buck Goldstein’s new book, Engines of Innovation.  That was a run-on sentence, I think.

Now I’m not sure if it was because they were all UNC grads or if it was just a coincidence, but the people around me were all so brilliant, but more importantly, they were passionate about entrepreneurship.  You see, Buck’s new book (which he co-authored with the Chancellor of our university, Holden Thorp) seeks to shift the paradigm that entrepreneurship is a ‘dirty word’ and in fact unite entrepreneurs with academics at our nation’s top research universities with the hope of solving the world’s most difficult problems.  A special thanks to Doug Hamilton and Brian Fenty (two UNC grads, do you see a theme here?) for hosting the wonderful event!

Buck put it so eloquently when he described what entrepreneurship actually is.  The coming together of innovation and execution, Buck said, is what breeds entrepreneurship.  One without the other is useless.  And then Buck told a quick story.  A few weeks earlier at a similar event in North Carolina, Dean Smith (legendary UNC basketball coach, one of the greatest of all time) showed up uninvited and was sitting in the first row as Buck was giving his speech.  When he was explaining his thesis about innovation and execution, he likened it to Smith’s career, where he could have been as innovative as he was, but without executing on a daily basis, nobody would remember his name (and some names like Michael Jordan, James Worth, Sam Perkins, Bob McAdoo, and Vince Carter probably wouldn’t have meant so much as they do to us today).  Coach thanked Buck with the finger point that Michael Jordan made famous, acknowledging whoever gave him the assist (but actually was a Dean Smith trademark).

So we know now what entrepreneurship is.  How then, does it have anything to do with restaurants?

Let’s tackle innovation first.  I remember it clear as day, one of the most important lessons I ever learned about the restaurant industry.  Jenn, Will, and I were sitting as interns at the back table, adjacent to the upstairs bar, at Shanghai’s new Kagen Teppanyaki.  Alan was sitting on the other side of the table, and I remember vividly how the polished hibachi grill was so similar in color to his wristwatch that was clanking against it as he spoke.  “The restaurant industry is war.”  Three years later and I now know exactly what he meant that day.  In an industry that evolves daily, you must constantly innovate to stay ahead of your competitors.  When a potential guest walks down the street, she has hundreds of restaurants to choose from.  Why will she choose yours?  You have to innovate on so many different levels, which is why so many restaurants fail to succeed in the long run.  From a culinary, hospitality, service, decor, management, and advertising standpoint, you can have teams of people working to make your concept innovative, but if they fall behind for even one second, the restaurant next door just surpassed you.

And execution?  That is plain to see – without executing operationally on a day to day (and even minute to minute) basis, your restaurant will go down quickly and in flames.  Kitchen doesn’t produce, the guests leave.  The guests leave, the employees don’t make money.  The employees don’t make money, they leave.  Then the owner is left sitting there trying to eat the rest of the inventory before it goes rotten!  That can happen within a matter of weeks, literally, and that is why execution and operations are imperative for success.

Now, you have a team that is innovative and constantly staying on top of the game.  They’re always aware of what the competition is doing and always one step ahead on every level.  But the restaurant doesn’t execute their findings.  The restaurant goes down.  That is why entrepreneurship is the coming together of the two concepts.  It is only when innovative minds are paired with those who can execute that success will be near.

Finally, I’ll bring it a little closer to home and talk about the relationship between Anthony and myself.  While we both have the ability to be innovators and executors (we’re not talking head chopping here, folks), I would say that Anthony is much more of the doer while I am much more of the thinker.  I have always found it magical that I could name some ingredients and Anthony could put together a top-10 meal that I have ever tasted.  He’s like a bulldog in the kitchen – he puts his head down and produces exquisite products.  On the other hand, I’m more of a big-picture person.  While I believe Anthony sees the details and then builds upon them, I see the innovative finished product and then work my way down to the details.  The first time I saw the building that Anthony and I are targeting for The Vaulted Door, I immediately imagined a Saturday night dinner service taking place there.  From there, I worked my way down and built a plan to get to that point – layout, design, branding, competitive analysis, marketing plan, and eventually the financial that fit with and reflected the given plan.  It all started for me, though, with a vision of the finished product.

Based on what Buck believes to be the definition of entrepreneurship, I think Anthony and I are on the right track – the innovator and the executor coming together to form Long Island’s favorite restaurant.  I like the way that sounds.


Working a Dining Room

20 Oct

I was at a blue-and-white-checkered table towards the back of the dining room of Maialino – the hottest new restaurant in NYC – when I realized what it meant to work a dining room.  It was the third night of ‘friends and family’ at the new Roman trattoria in Ian Schrager’s ‘Haute Bohemian’ Gramercy Park Hotel and absolutely frigid outside, but the dining room was filled only with warmth as Danny Meyer walked from table to table greeting his guests.

I remember the moment very clearly.  I sat with two buddies/coworkers of mine, Charles Leisenring and Naum Shuminov, and we stared with open eyes and even more-open mouths at our table full of entrees.  We had already put away a selection of cured Italian meats (portioned for 6), a round of 5 appetizers, and a glass or two of surprisingly delicious white wine.  The entrees arrived and there were even more than we had remembered ordering.  The three of us looked at each other, picked up our forks and started digging.

During the entree course, I saw Danny starting to work his way across the room.  He has this aura about him, almost magical.  When he walks into the restaurant, you know.  He doesn’t have to say anything, but you know he is there.  And so I saw him towards the front of the restaurant and he made his way through the middle area where the fresh bread and salumeria is located.  He stopped at a table about fifteen feet away from ours and spoke with the guests for a minute.  As he turned away from the table, he caught my eye and headed right for our table.  He smiled as he walked to our table and greeted us all with a handshake, a thank you, and that was it.  He was gone.  Off to thank his next table of guests.  It was magical and a moment I will always remember.

Now, at this point in my career with Blue Smoke, I had been there for about six months as a manager.  In a company of about 2,000 people, there were many, many people with more important and higher-ranking jobs than mine.  But Danny remembered my name after the first time he met me.  Not only that – he greeted me and called me confidently by name as if to say that I was important to him.  He didn’t stay long at the table.  What he did do was make me feel like he was on my side.  It is one thing to make a guest feel welcome in your restaurant; it is another to make them feel like a king.

Danny once told me that he feels that the one thing he can do better than anybody in the world is work a dining room.  He proved it to me that night at Maialino.  What he also did was inspire in me a confidence that I could one day soon make people feel that great.  Now, I won’t go so far as to say that I can work a dining room better than anybody in the world.  Not yet.  But I think I am on my way to that point, and that is certainly where I will soon be.

What, then, does it take to work the dining room?

A Genuine, Caring Nature

This tenet is multi-faceted:

  • On one level it is about simply caring for others.  To care for someone is simple.  See every guest as a person.  A mother, father, child, grandparent, friend.  We often forget this principle in business or outside of our homes.  Everybody means something to somebody.  Treat them accordingly, how you would want your loved ones to be treated.
  • On another level, it is about truly caring about how your guests are enjoying themselves.  To be the best, you must get to the point that if even the slightest thing goes wrong with your guest’s meal, it strikes pain in your heart as an owner/manager.  It is about pride.  Even the slightest of mistakes, that is a personal shot against you.  You must internalize that and use it as your motivation to make the guest experience perfect.

A Deep Appreciation

The words of Alan Wong that will forever resonate with me are: “Every guest that chooses to eat at your restaurant had a thousand other places to choose, but they chose you.  It is your obligation to do everything in your power to go above and beyond and show them that they made the right choice.”  While working a dining room, it is imperative to show your guests that gratitude and appreciation not only through your words, but through your manorisms, gestures, and warm smile.

No Set Plan, Be Yourself and Gauge Your Guests

This tenet has three pieces:

  • You can’t have a plan when working a dining room.  Enter with a clean slate and no preconceived route.  Work like Danny did at Maialino; he caught my eye after speaking with another table so he came to greet us.  It is not genuine and not personal enough to walk from table to table based on the floor plan.  Working the dining room is as much about ‘feeling’ the dining room and guests as it is touching the tables.  That is what helps generate that magical aura that Danny has.  He is mentally, emotionally, and spiritually in touch with his surroundings and can function much better than somebody who is relying on his thinking as opposed to feeling.
  • Can’t stress this one enough.  You’ve made it to the point where you’re working a dining room.  That either means that one or more of your superiors trusts you enough to be on the front lines or that you somehow snuck through the metaphorical barricade and are jumping right into enemy fire.  More often than not it is because you’re ready for the job.  Now, not that this should be surprising, but I find it is one of the things managers/owners screw up the most – Be Yourself!!  Chances are you’re a genuinely good, caring person.  If you weren’t, you probably won’t last long in this industry.  So just be yourself with nothing added or fake about you.  Smile when you want to smile.  Feel it.  Enjoy it.  This is your life and guests can quickly tell if you’re starting a conversation because you feel you need to or because you actually want to.
  • One thing I learned very early from one of my mentors, Mark Maynard-Parisi, is that not every guest is looking to chat, regardless of who it is with.  It is important to remember that you are greeting the guest and welcoming them, and therefor are playing by their rules.  Be sure to touch every single table and every single guest, but judge the situation on an individual basis and adjust accordingly.  Some guests will talk to you for hours.  Others just want to eat their meal.  Both are equally fine, and they will all respect and appreciate a visit – even if just a quick hello – from a manager/owner.

Eye Contact, Posture, and a Firm Handshake

This goes without saying.  All the things your parents taught you when you were a little child.  Stand up straight.  Don’t slouch.  Exude confidence.  Look people in the eye not only when you’re speaking to them, but also try to make eye contact from across the room and flash a smile at a guest.  That is above and beyond and that is one of the simple tricks to working a dining room.  When you shake a guest’s hand, make sure it is a firm handshake.  And on the topic of shaking hands, if you introduce yourself to a table, make sure you shake all of the guests’ hands and not just the person you are closest to.  A handshake is a very simple way of gaining somebody’s first level of trust.  Without it, you are just a person at their table.  With it, they feel like they know you.  They’ve touched you.  They can relate to you and will remember the handshake after they leave.

A Sincere ‘Thank You’

One of the simplest things you could ever do.  Relating back to Alan’s point about the deep appreciation you must feel towards the guest, nothing is better and more powerful than a sincere – I’m talking cocked head-shaking, clenched hands, nearly-Japanese-bowing –  ‘Thank You’ — but just make sure it is right from your heart.

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Like I said, I’m not there yet, but I will be there soon.  I’m ambitious and competitive beyond belief.  I want to be the best at everything I do.  No doubts.  No equivocations.  If I could say that I truly believe that I can work a dining room better than anybody in the world, that would rank as one of my greatest professional accomplishments in what I hope to be a long life in restaurants and hospitality.  I’m confident that I’ll be able to say that one day soon.  I’ve learned from the best so far, now it is up to me to put my spin on and become the best.

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