The other thing that started to tug on me was my own sense of wanting to express more of my own creativity. So finally, when Tom Colicchio’s restaurant Mondrian went out of business in 1992, he actually approached me and asked how I’d feel about doing a restaurant together. I was tremendously fond of his cooking. It would be like Randy Johnson calling George Steinbrenner at a much younger age and saying how would you like it if I came and pitched on your team? So I finally went for it.
RL: Were you concerned that another restaurant wouldn’t have the same quality level as the first?
DM: There was another thing going on in the back of my own head. While I was growing up, twice I had the experience of watching my own father, who was an entrepreneur in St. Louis, expand his business too quickly and have business failures. I was incredibly concerned that I [should] never go down that path.
Employees Come First
RL: You have said that your customers come second, behind employees. Can you give me an example of when an employee comes before a guest?
DM: Sure. First of all, the way you’re asking the question implies that there is always a tension between the two. There usually is not. It’s really more a matter of where our priorities lie.
By the way, there can be tensions between our five primary stakeholders. The first stakeholder is our staff, the second is our guests, the third is whatever community we’re doing business in, the fourth is our suppliers, and the fifth is our investors. That’s when you make choices. I would just say that we get much more leverage out of every calorie spent working to build a sense of team based on mutual respect and trust among our staff members than we do out of every ounce of energy expended on guest satisfaction.
Because if our staff comes to work really enjoying the experience of pulling together as a unit for the purpose of creating excellence and hospitality and they love one another’s company while they’re doing that, I don’t really have to lift much weight when it comes to delighting our guests, because the staff does that for us.
RL: It just falls into place?
DM: It totally falls into place. There are moments where there is a tension between the two. What if there’s an inebriated guest in the dining room who is saying untoward things to a waitress? The customer is not always right. The first thing I’ll do is move that waitress off that station and take her out of harm’s way.
The next thing would be if the guest kept it up, we would tell the guest that he was out of line. That’s one minor example. But generally it’s not about tension as much as it is prioritizing where you spend your time and your focus.
RL: What is your hiring and training process like?
DM: The hiring and training process understands that the emotional skills we hire for are even more important than the technical skills. What we’re really trying to field is what I call a team of hospitalitarians — people who have the emotional stuffing to thrive in the pursuit of excellence and providing pleasure for others. I’ve never figured out how to teach those skills, so if you don’t hire for those skills you can’t possibly train for the technical skills thereafter.
We have a composite of five primary emotional skills that we look for in line employees, and then we take it even further when it comes to managers. It is my job to try to teach our managers how to recognize those skills.
Service vs. Hospitality
RL: Can you tell us a little bit about the training process?
Robert Levin is the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of The New York Enterprise Report. Levin has extensive experience with midsize and small businesses, having previously held CEO, CFO, and COO positions with companies in several industries. He is also a contributor for The Huffington Post. Levin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and (212) 307-6760.