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  • Nick Hague and Paul Hague

Building a business the Danny Meyer way

Danny Meyer opened his first restaurant in 1985. It was successful. And it was successful because (this should be no surprise) he focused on customer satisfaction. Meyer became a serial restaurateur. In 2001 he opened a hot dog cart in New York’s Madison Square Park. Since then it has become one of the fastest-growing food chains, going public in 2014 and operating 250 locations around the world. He called it Shake Shack.


We can learn from Danny Meyer because he has shared his “secrets” in a book that is well worth reading – Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business.

Meyer’s views on building his businesses are applicable to all of us whatever we are doing. His starting point is products can be easily imitated. It is the service and experience that is more difficult to copy. So, naturally we must get the product right – that goes without saying. But it is service that makes things special and this is where Danny Meyer says we should focus. It isn’t complicated but it can be tough. In his words,


“Business, like life, is all about how you make people feel. It’s that simple, and it’s that hard.”


You don’t open 250 restaurants without help and the help that you seek is going to determine the success of your businesses. Meyer looks for five things in his hires:


1. They must be optimistic and warm. He wants people who are thoughtful and show genuine kindness

2. They must be bright. He wants people who have an insatiable curiosity to learn new things.

3. They must be prepared to work hard. He wants people with a work ethic and who will do things in the best possible way.

4. They must show empathy. By this he means he wants people who feel for others and will connect with them.

5. They must have self-awareness and integrity. This is important because if you know what makes you tick you are more likely to be accountable for doing the right thing with good judgment.


Most businesses are hierarchical and managed from the top down. Meyer flips the V so the boss is on the bottom. In this way, he serves the layer above him so that they in turn can serve and support the layer above them. This is the concept espoused by Robert Greenleaf in his essay "The Servant As Leader" in 1970. This bottom-up style of management is an anathema to most managers who prefer controlling from above. However, if you can do it, it builds trust and respect among the workforce and acknowledges that the critical customer experience is provided by those with the lowest pay and the lowest status. And these people sit at the top of the inverted pyramid.


Since we are in a restaurant groove today, let's finish with a quote from Sean Murphy, the owner of a well-known restaurant in Florida called the Beach Bistro. Murphy confesses that he has never learned to cook. His success has been waiting on the tables; being front of house and welcoming people. It is one of those jobs at the top of the inverted pyramid and it needs constant attention. In Mr Murphy's words “I never feel successful – you’re only as good as your last meal”. We should all remember that.

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