The Transforming Power of Ho‘okipa in Business

Danny Meyer’s book has sat on my desk since I’d written yesterday’s post (Are we seeking Hospitalitarians?) and I’ve been enjoying reviewing it: In fact, I’ve been adding to my 1st-reading annotations in a very wonderful three-years-later-way.

When I read the book in 2007 I wrote two blog postings for Joyful Jubilant Learning; first a book review, and then an interview with Danny. His book had spoken to me in such a strong voice, and I felt compelled to reach out to him, and did.

With the weekend coming up (goodbye to April and Aloha to May!) I decided to bring a combination of both postings here, to a new publication of them for Talking Story, giving them a second home-spot here on the mothership. This will therefore be much longer than usual, offered up to you for your leisurely weekend pleasure.


Danny Meyer has been called “America’s Most Innovative Restaurateur” and that’s the tagline his publisher has grabbed for his book cover. Whether he likes it or not, today he is more CEO than restaurateur, yet Meyer lives up to this billing within the pages of his book, as he shares his stories on why and how he successfully did innovate with each of the restaurants he’s opened. As he says about Shake Shack, “the burger, hot dog, and frozen custard stand we created in 2004 for Madison Square Park,”

“As always with our new ventures, the idea was to draw on the best elements of the classic, make it authentic for its present context, and then try to execute it with excellence.”
—Setting the Table, page 131

That one sentence says a lot about this book; within it Meyer explains what “the classic” is in his view, what authenticity means both historically and in terms of his next innovation for restaurants, and then most importantly about how “to execute it with excellence” means understanding the difference between service and “the transforming hospitality in business.”

Though an ex-restaurant person myself, reading through Meyer’s writing about ‘the classic’ was the least interesting part of the book for me (other than my usual glee with learning how a person’s Ho‘ohana comes to be). I can see where he may have felt it necessary to establish his credibility outside of his New York renown with scoops of his life-shaping industry knowledge. It may also have been that he was sensitive to giving those who influenced him credit where credit was due, but it bordered on tedious name-dropping and insider’s foodie talk which dished up the sections of the book I was more apt to skim through.

However I only share this to encourage you to persist through this less than compelling first impression if you’re struck by it as I was, for the rest of Setting the Table (i.e. the greater majority of its 320 pages, from chapters 4 through 13) is truly terrific reading, and a very satisfying meal for anyone who studies management and leadership.

The book was initially attractive to me for the promise of explaining Meyer’s well-known philosophy on service versus hospitality, and to that end, he delivered magnificently, covering his Virtuous Cycle of Enlightened Hospitality, and adding an extra ingredient he calls the “charitable assumption.” (page 206) There are abundant bonuses: The management and leadership lessons he shares were like starting with extra desserts before having to eat the meal.

Meyer is a big believer in emotional intelligence. He lives by it and looks to surround himself with it in the partnerships he selects, eagerly collecting mentors and savoring their wisdom— yet another way in which their classics become his innovation. Self-awareness and integrity are often mentioned as traits he values; they are the common threads running through his five core emotional skills” sought in the hiring of a staff he refers to as his “51 percenters” (skills divided 51-49 between emotional hospitality and technical excellence) and through a list of nine specific traits he believes define the mind-set and character of his critically important managers.
Meyer describes himself as a “high touch leader” and a “bottom-up manager who subscribes to the concept of servant leadership” and he says, “I believe that leadership is not measured just by what you’ve accomplished, but rather by how other people you depend on feel in the process of accomplishing things.” (page 217)

The management philosophy Meyer speaks of is a kinesthetic buffet of terms like “constant, gentle pressure” (he explicitly describes the gravity of each of those words) and he is a master of the metaphor. Several are sprinkled through his book, giving it a stickiness this reader is sure to remember. In particular I loved his explanation of why those new to management have to understand the instant appearance of megaphones, binoculars, and fire. In explaining fire, Meyer masterfully illustrates that a high touch, servant leader who understands that ultimately, all employees “are volunteers,” is no wishy-washy softie.

“With each year I’ve spent as a leader, I’ve grown more and more convinced that my team ”“ any team ”“ thirsts for someone with authority, and power, to tell them consistently where they’re going, how they’re doing, and how they could do their job even better. And all the team asks is that the same rules apply to everyone.”
—Danny Meyer in Setting the Table, page 198

Danny Meyer may be one of the most humble yet savvy businessmen around; he tells his story in an almost self-depreciating way, and is extremely open about his fumbles ”“ one terrific chapter is called, The Road to Success is Paved with Mistakes Well Handled, and it could’ve easily been another tagline for his book. Yet don’t let the word “humble” mislead you. In my view, Meyer is one smart cookie. A chapter he calls Broadcasting the Message, Tuning in the Feedback on how he’s handled and learned from the press is exceptional, a glimpse that this is not a man to underestimate. “My only choice then, is to hop on the back of the shark and ride with exceptional care and skill, or I’m lunch.”

Judge for yourself. If you are in business, a manager and a leader, I’d recommend you consider Danny Meyer as one of the mentors you collect, for there is great advice generously given within the pages of his book. On bookshelves full of the newest business books written by academics, journalists and theorists, look for Meyer’s Setting the Table in the company of stories from the trenches. From those trenches have emerged his very successful world class team, and you can read how it happens.

Visit to purchase the book, or to read more reviews.

Related posts: These were written on Talking Story in preparation for this review, and you will see how my feelings grew ever more favorable the more I read!

Union Square Cafe by Zagat Buzz on Flickr

What makes a person a Joyful and Jubilant Learner?

The answers are sure to be found in most of the successful people we know.

Jubilant Learners Speak Up!

One of the things I believe, is that we learn best from other people. When we started this series for Joyful Jubilant Learning, we had the goal of bringing the voices of learning coaches to you. Some of the people who immediately came to mind for us may not think of themselves as learning coaches, but we certainly do!

As we talked about the series, I put together a “silent list” of those people I would truly love to have us interview one day; silent in that I hadn’t shared it with the rest of my JJL team —yet, and silent in that these were people I thought of as my learning coaches even though the one thing they had in common was that I didn’t know them personally —yet. They are people I would love to know better because they have coached me through their writing or speaking, and I am intent on meeting them one day so I can let them know how much I appreciate what they have already taught me.

The very first name on my list was Danny Meyer. I had received his book as a Christmas present from my husband who bought it for me based on the subtitle alone, “the transforming power of hospitality in business.” As I peeled away the gift-wrapping, he said, “It sounded like he’s as nuts as you are about hospitality and what businesses are capable of should they choose to be.”

That was when a man I hadn’t yet heard of became one of my heroes. I have since written about Danny’s book, Setting the Table several times, and we’ll add those links at the end of this article, but first, we are very honored to introduce Danny to you within the transforming power of his own words. Meet Danny Meyer, “America’s most innovative restaurateur.”

In October 1985, at age twenty-seven, Danny Meyer, with a good idea and scant experience, opened what would become one of New York City’s most revered restaurants—Union Square Café. Little more than twenty years later, Danny is the CEO of one of the world’s most dynamic restaurant organizations, which includes eleven unique dining establishments, each at the top of its game.

From Setting the Table (page 11);
“Hospitality is the foundation of my business philosophy. Virtually nothing else is as important as how one is made to feel in any business transaction. Hospitality exists when you believe the other person is on your side. The converse is just as true. Hospitality is present when something happens for you. It is absent when something happens to you. Those two simple propositions —for and to— express it all.”
— Danny Meyer

Rosa: First Danny, I must say thank you. Thank you for writing a book that I have come to think of as a must-read primer for any business person learning about hospitality, a value we must elevate and allow to inspire in so many of our professions. You have added to my own coaching arsenal magnificently; I want to help you sell millions of them! For those of our readers who have not yet read your book, would you first tell us what that “good idea” you had was back when you were twenty-seven?

Danny: Like so many entrepreneurs, it wasn’t so much that I had a good idea, as it was that I had an “itch” I had no choice but to scratch. That itch was to create the restaurant that I would most want to go to being a food lover and wanting to be treated well.

Rosa: In your book’s introduction, you write, “Along the way, I’ve learned powerful lessons and language that have allowed me to lead with intention rather than by intuition.” I tend to think of both intention and intuition as powerful; why not lead harnessing both?

Danny: I do lead with both. But like many intuitive leaders, I am not naturally analytical. The discipline it took for me to sit down and write Setting the Table forced me to give language and words to those ideas which had always been obvious to me, but maybe not as evident to others. Telling stories and drawing conclusions has allowed me to do a much, much better job of teaching and not expecting my colleagues to be mind readers!

Rosa: As a workplace coach, I very much appreciated how your stories opened up possibilities for readers to step into. In capturing those ideas and conclusions you had expressed, you invited us to live our own stories of hospitality at work, leading us in a very inspirational way. Do you make a distinction between management and leadership?

Danny: Absolutely. I think of management as a way to keep things on track; to make sure all is safe and sound and functioning well ”“ an important facet of any successful business. Leadership is the act of imagining where to go, providing people with an uplifting, yet realistic idea of what the journey might be like, setting priorities, embodying what success looks like, letting people know how they’re doing, and supporting peoples’ success all along the way, saying thank you a lot.

Rosa: Danny, you have used language phrasings within Setting the Table that I love, making your stories and concepts so easy for me to recall and think back on. Examples jump out with chapter names like “The 51 Percent Solution” and “Constant, Gentle Pressure,” and another that drew comments here within my book review for you this past March was about the new managers’ “gift of fire.” Would you tell us more about “charitable assumption” (found on page 206)?

Danny: I believe that most people truly want to do their best and to succeed. Too often, especially in a highly competitive arena, colleagues (not unlike siblings!) are quick to assume someone else was acting out of ill-intent. Encouraging colleagues to sustain a charitable assumption ”“looking for the best in people ”“ dramatically increases the odds that a team will thrive together.

Rosa: When you say “a team will thrive together” and I think about restaurants, managers are the ones who instantly come to mind for me as needing to find their place in that team. My husband, son and I had dinner out just last night, and I noticed a manager walking the floor with that Pigpen-like cloud I see in far too many restaurants around far too many managers, where it seems they just don’t belong, or are redundant. They seem to be just pacing, checking up on everything, and not knowing how to intercept their staff processes, much less a dialogue with a customer; it’s painful for a guest to even watch! What do you teach your managers about their role in the dialogue of hospitality? What would you suggest to all those restaurant managers out there so they can immediately make a change on their next shift?

Danny: Nobody wants to be in the near proximity of a skunk, and certainly nobody wants to work with or for one! For me it’s simple: a manager should be constantly looking for opportunities to do thoughtful things for someone. His or her first priority is to provide support ”“ both technical and emotional ”“ to staff members; next he or she should look, listen, and feel for ways to do thoughtful things for guests.

Rosa: As someone who earned her own server’s stripes in different restaurants, there were so many parts of your book where I cheered for you as the champion of servers everywhere! It was so refreshing and encouraging to read that hospitality is extended to everyone for you. However you seem to believe that only certain people are meant to be ‘hospitalitarians,’ for you say, “A special type of personality thrives on providing hospitality, and it’s crucial to our success that we attract people who possess it. (page 146)” So similar to the question often asked about leadership, are hospitalitarians born or made in your view?

Danny: In the same way as we are each born with a certain IQ that doesn’t much change over the years , I believe that we are each born (and to some degree raised) with a certain HQ ”“ or hospitality quotient. That HQ determines the degree to which we naturally derive pleasure from providing pleasure. I wrote about a number of emotional skills that are typically at a high level in people with a high HQ. I don’t believe they can be taught, but I do believe managers can be taught to identify and hire people with these skills.

Rosa: Now that you have written it, is Setting the Table used as a textbook for your training programs? I certainly would be! It has been said that great leaders draw from their personal stories, and you are a wonderful story-teller, with the added bonus that your book shares the values of your company told within the history of your company. In addition to hospitality, what are the core values you speak of most with your staff?

Danny: Yes, we use Setting the Table as a learning tool for our staff, and we refer to it frequently as a way to describe what works, and also what doesn’t. I really wrote it as a case study in what was working. By understanding what we do when we’re really on our game, we can be far more purposeful about doing it with greater frequency and consistency.

If I were to distill my job down to just two tasks they would be to make sure we were always fully stocked with hospitalitarians, and to hold them accountable for the degree of hospitality ”“ respect and trust ”“ they accorded one another. At that point, we’d be capable of accomplishing almost anything!

Rosa: Those two tasks do accomplish so much; I think you give would-be leaders terrific insight on where their focus should be. Going back for a moment to that HQ factor, you said you don’t believe some basic emotional skills can be taught, and you hire for them. Having selected the right people, what do you expect they will learn once they begin to work within your company? If you were to jot down a short list of learning expectations for your hospitalitarians, what kind of things would be on your list?

Danny: It’s a hard thing to trust that you can achieve more by mastering your emotions and putting others first ”“ especially in a high pressure setting of a restaurant. But I think people learn to trust that you get more when you first give more. They learn that the best way to get a hug, is first to give one. They master all kinds of technical skills specific to our business, and they gain like minded friends for life.

Located in the Gramercy Park Hotel, Maialino serves traditional Italian dishes. Photo from Zagat Buzz on Flickr.

Rosa: Learning is often connected to the word your publisher used in your tagline: innovation. What kind of innovation do you believe needs to happen within your business, or in business as a whole?

Danny: It’s a tired cliché ”“ but it’s true: unless a business is moving forward, it will atrophy and die. Staff members need to be challenged with new opportunities to perform at their peaks. And while guests do return in part to repeat experiences they’ve loved, they too expect you to constantly find new ways of doing things.

Rosa: Having accomplished what you have, and knowing how universal your lessons-learned are, do you have any desire to tackle another field, or will there always be another restaurant waiting for you to open it somewhere? Are there other professions you’d love to learn about?

Danny: I’ve been fortunate to be able to continuously grow within my chosen field, and I’ve had the privilege of using restaurants to further explore a lot of my own personal interests ”“ like art, music, cooking, wine, antiques, travel, meeting people, community investment, philanthropy and even politics. What more could I want?!

Rosa: There is another quote I pulled from your book Danny, choosing it for the scrolling marquee when my laptop is on power save; “The courage to grow demands the courage to let go.” You explained this well in chapter 13, however bring us up to date since that writing; what are you letting go of now to continue in your own personal growth?

Danny: Each day my job is to ask myself whether any task I am doing is truly my best and highest use. I must also ask that of every other colleague on my team. A byproduct of our growth as a company is that we’ve continuously surrounded ourselves with talented colleagues with high HQ’s ”“ many of whom are far better at what they know how to than I ever would or could be. This allows me to spend more time thinking of ways to push the envelopes of hospitality and excellence, rather than being the guy who’s pushing them!

Rosa: Danny the core mission we have here at Joyful Jubilant Learning is to share lessons-learned that everyone can personally apply to their own learning. What would you say are those lessons-learned that have had the most impact in your life?

Danny: That nothing else rises to the level of hospitality ”“ making people know you are on their side ”“ in terms of distinguishing one organization from another. Not performance, not anything. Long after people forget what you served them, they’ll remember how you made them feel.

Rosa: What’s next for you Danny, and how shall we all keep learning from you, and with you?

Danny: My Union Square Hospitality Group ( colleagues and I are in the process of improving all of our restaurants, and meanwhile building our catering company, Hudson Yards Catering. We’re interested in seeing if we can add anything to the dialogue on dining while at sports stadiums. And one of these days, we’d like to have the experience of replicating something we’ve already done ”“ like Shake Shack, ( Blue Smoke (, or Tabla (

Rosa: Mahalo nui loa Danny, thank you so much for being my guest on Jubilant Learners Speak Up!

Shake Shack, the burger, hot dog, and frozen custard stand Meyer created in 2004 for Madison Square Park. Photo by Biskuit on Flickr.

Who might be one of your learning coaches? I hope my talk with Danny encourages you to seek them out too.

~ Rosa Say


  1. Rosa Say says

    I wonder if Danny Meyer, who refers to a “Virtuous Cycle of Enlightened Hospitality” was influenced by Noel M. Tichy and his “Virtuous Teaching Cycle” in The Cycle of Leadership?

    In his book, Tichy had written,

    “We have made the case throughout this book, and most people agree, that in the new ‘knowledge economy’ the key to winning is maximizing human capital. Ideas and knowledge have replaced physical goods as the most valued commodities in the global marketplace. Consequently, brains, energy and talent —human capital— have replaced plant and equipment —physical capital— as the primary source of value creation. But while many people and organizations grasp the concept, few have figured out how to really utilize the talents and knowledge of everyone in the company, especially the younger new members of the company.”

    “That’s because they remain attached to the old way of thinking, the ones that say ‘experience knows best’ and ‘you must prove yourself before we will listen to or seriously invest in you.’ This is a particularly costly way of thinking in times of highly mobile labor markets.”

    Written in 2002, yet still true today, maybe more so.

    Tichy’s quote is in a section devoted to the how-to of maximizing human capital, and it strikes me that Danny Meyer has illustrated making it a true specialty and service distinction with the way he views the innate talent of the hospitalitarian —our Mea Ho‘okipa in Managing with Aloha.

    Imagine if we can look to all of our people with this investigative approach, asking ourselves what others bring to the table” beginning to call people Mea Alaka‘i, Mea Mālama, Mea Ho‘okela and more…