“We waste so much energy, so much effort on being right.”
At yesterday’s Welcome Conference — a hospitality-focused, TED Talk-like gathering organized by Eleven Madison Park’s Will Guidara and Journee’s Anthony Rudolf — Danny Meyer gave a rousing speech to close out the day. He reflected on the conference’s 2015 theme of “Being Right,” and shared stories about dealing with restaurant critics, uninformed customers, and downright angry and vengeful patrons:
So I’m having a conversation with my family on Friday night. And we’re talking about today. I was talking about the Welcome Conference, and I did the best I could to explain what it meant. I said there’s this topic called “Being Right.” And they said, “Okay, cool, so what’s your talk going to be about.” I said, “Well my talk is going to be called ‘The Irrelevancy of Being Right’” … where upon my Yale daughter says, “That’s wrong! The word is irrelevance, not irrelevancy.” What would you do in that situation, if you were me? Take this guy out [pulls out iPhone] and Google the world irrelevancy to see if it actually exists in the real world, because I want to be right. Then I said, “Wait, I’m in trouble, because I care about being right, but the whole point was the irrelevancy of being right!” The good news is that irrelevancy is a word, and the meaning of irrelevancy is irrelevance. Go figure! But I’m going to use both of those words in Scrabble — it just depends on if I get an extra e or a y.
But here’s why I wanted to talk about the irrelevancy of being right. I’m going to tell you a couple of stories. Is Alan Richman in the crowd, by any chance? Good, I’m going to give you the opportunity of being the subject in one of my stories, for a change. I’m going to guess this was eight or nine years ago. We’re always grateful when we open a brand-new restaurant, or when a brand-new chef begins at one of our existing restaurants. And we’re really grateful when people want to come see what we’re doing — especially grateful if within the first day or so, one of those people is a restaurant critic. Because we know that, just like a wine that’s been put in a cask, it’s never going to taste any better than this, is it? Right? Ha. So, sure enough, one of the people that took a wonderful early interest in Gramercy Tavern — I think it was two days after Tom Colicchio had left, and Mike Anthony was just getting suited up to see if his chef’s whites would work in our very dark kitchen, with all his knives and everything. And by the way, I’m not a restaurateur who thinks he’s a bad writer. This is one of the best writers you will ever see. I just don’t always love what it is he’s writing. But that man knows what to do with the word, al lright. The review comes out, and the entire review is based on a menu that was not Mike Anthony’s menu. One of things I insist on, as a restaurateur, is that while it’s fresh in people’s minds that there’s a new chef around, give the chef a month or two to understand the restaurant, what the guests like to eat, and which cooks can cook as well as the chef wants them to cook — without having to go through the process of changing the menu overnight.
So the review comes out, and it was maybe not as scathing as the one he wrote about New Orleans, but kind of close to that. Unfortunately, the review was based on Colicchio’s former menu, and not the menu that Mike would put in place. So I knew that being right was irrelevant right here. Because Alan Richman, or any critic — because our job is to produce, and his job is to criticize … My kids taught me that a long time ago, after I saw some review in the New York Times, they said, “There’s a reason why they’re not called ‘restaurant praisers.’” But he had absolutely every right to critique that meal. And I took about a minute or two feeling really bad for Mike Anthony. Here he is, and if it’s your first week and you’re stepping into an institution like Gramercy Tavern, left by big shoes like Tom Colicchio’s, that’s a really tough thing to get slammed for a menu that’s not even your menu. But it didn’t even matter if that was right or that was wrong. If I’m not mistaken, I wrote Alan a note after that. And Alan, you may think it’s wrong to turn the other cheek, but I thought the right thing to do was to turn the other cheek, and give you the benefit of the doubt. Here’s what happened: Four months after this, my wife and I were invited to an anniversary party of some really good friends, and my wife’s best friend — who we’re seated next to — has a date with Alan Richman that night. The right thing for me to do is to turn the other cheek, and not talk about who was right or who was wrong. That’s the irrelevancy of being right. Well-written, but wait until you try Mike Anthony’s food now! It’s really good.
Here’s another story: probably the first time in my career that I learned about the irrelevancy of being right. This goes back almost 30 years because Union Square Café will be 30 on October 21. About three months into Union Square Café’s existence, when I started to really understand how much fun it was to sell wine to people — especially this new breed of people that I had never really encountered before, called investment bankers — I didn’t even know what they did, except that every time we had an “investment banker” in the house, they bought the most expensive wine on the list. So I would start to salivate whenever I heard there was an investment banker in. Back then, a really expensive bottle of wine at Union Square Café was $35 or $40. We were selling Sancerre for $12 a bottle, Beaujolais for $14 a bottle. How frustrating is it that you can’t get a decent bottle of Beaujolais for under $80 these days? It’s ridiculous, but we’ll leave that for another occasion.
So this group of investment bankers comes into the restaurant — eight of them, biggest table we had — and the guy who had now been there for four visits — so that qualified as a regular, three months into the restaurant — clearly wanted to impress his group. He asked me to bring over my best Chardonnay. This was going to be good, because we had just gotten in a Premier Cru Meursault, which was on the list for $45. Imagine that — $45! Maybe by the half-glass these days? And so I proudly brought that to the table. We’re going to make a lot of money tonight. He looks at me and goes, “That’s not a Chardonnay.” And I said, “It is a Chardonnay.” At this point, he goes, “That’s not,” and he looks at all of the people at the table, and they’re all nodding with him, and I feel that big. I’ve got my grandfather in my ear saying, “The customer is always right,” and I’ve got my wine teacher from L’Académie du Vin in my other ear saying, “Of course it’s a Chardonnay. There’s only one white burgundy that’s not a Chardonnay” — is that right, you master sommeliers here? Is that right? Anyway, we’ll talk about that another time as well. But this was a Chardonnay. This goes back and forth maybe three times. And finally, I leave the table, go back, and get a Sonoma-Cutrer, for $35 instead of $40. I bring it the table and he goes, “Now that’s a Chardonnay.” The most important lesson of my professional career happened right then, three months after being in business, in terms of the irrelevancy of being right. I wasn’t right; he wasn’t right; I wasn’t wrong; he wasn’t … it didn’t matter. No one’s ever right. No one’s always right, that’s for sure. The only thing that was truly relevant was that he needed to feel heard. And what I should have done, at the very moment — which I trust I’ve done in every situation that’s come up since that point in time — is simply, after he said, “This is not a Chardonnay,” is to forget what’s right and what’s wrong and say, “Sounds like you’d like a Californian Chardonnay.” And he would’ve said, “Thank you.”
The whole point is that we waste so much energy, so much effort on being right. Earlier, Will was talking about the notion of how often convenience, and sometimes laziness, gets in the way of the generosity of the spirit that sometimes is shielded by the shied I call being right. Being right can be used as the most dangerous shield in the world of hospitality — and in life. Think about life in general. Think about religion. How many wars have been fought in the name of religion? Name one religion that doesn’t think that its way is the right way. If that religion is the right way, someone’s wrong. Think about not only the irrelevancy of being right, but the danger of being right.
A couple of years ago at Eleven Madison Park, we had a policy — every restaurant has policies — and it had to do with the number of bottles of wine you were able to bring in before we’d say, “No more.” Stiff corkage fee for bottle one and two, and at bottle three, take it home with you. A restaurant has a policy to prevent all hell from breaking loose. Right? We had a similar policy, years ago, at Gramercy Tavern: We will never serve tavern food in the dining room. Never. It’s a really simple thing to take out that shield of being right, and say, “Sorry, that’s our policy.” Guess what ends up when you end up taking out that shield? The guest winds up hitting you so hard that your policy ends up costing the chaos it was trying to prevent. I’m not up here to tell you not to have policies in your restaurants. There’s a good reason, generically, for every single one of them. But I would say that the best to use a policy is to think of it as a guideline, and to use it as an opportunity to break that policy in the name of hospitality.
Let me get back to the Eleven Madison Park story: Person comes in, and I wasn’t there that night. But, boy, did I see the letter the next day. This happens to be an investment banker — you’re going to think I have a thing with investment bankers here — and he said in his letter that he was going to write every single person he knew, and he almost started listing all the people he knew, and he was going to make sure that not only they never go back to Eleven Madison Park, but that they never go back to any of our restaurants, because of this policy with the wine. Did I have any idea what a compliment it was that all of those people would have brought wines with that stature to drink with our food, and to spend all that money at our restaurant? I gave the opportunity to respond to him to my team, because they were the people responsible for what had happened. I always feel like the best way to learn is not to have me come in on a cape and to save the day, but to get it done. But the more he pushed back, we pushed back. And the more he pushed back, we pushed back. It got the point where we were emailing the entire city of investment bankers. I’m now starting to hear from managers at other restaurants saying, “This person has just been in, and he said it’s the last time he’s coming here, because of the incident at the other restaurant.” And I’m going, “Didn’t I write a chapter in Setting the Table called, ‘The Road to Success is Paved With Mistakes Well Handled’?” How in the world have we turned this one policy into a mistake that keeps begetting more and more mistakes? I realized that being right was the thing that was motivating the behavior of so many people on our team. They knew it, but they had gotten themselves so entrenched, it was almost like the U.S. being in Vietnam or something. You just keep making mistakes, and you back yourself into a corner, and then pride starts to take over. It gets so far away from why we’re in this business in the first place, which is: Figure out how someone feels when they walk in the door, do some stuff to them for two or three hours, and make sure they feel a little happier when they leave. And we had done completely the opposite.
So 15 emails back and forth later, finally, we make peace. I have to go have a bottle of wine with this person at Maialino, and break bread together and make peace, which of course we do. It then leads to a good outcome, so the road to success is paved with mistakes well handled, because this is the person that ended up buying the mosaic artwork off the wall at Tabla when it went out of business. Now this artwork lives in this person’s home. It had a happy ending, but can you imagine the energy that went into being right, instead of just doing the right thing in the first place? We’re all capable of so much more than that.
I want to conclude by talking about what’s wrong about being right, and what is a better way of being right, and how we go to this place. Being right is how I grew up being told to be. As a matter of fact, anyone in this room who grew up before the internet, is someone who was educated on getting the right answer to a question. Today, you don’t have to have the right answer to the question. It’s completely irrelevant. If you want to know the right way to drive between here and Poughkeepsie, turn on your GPS. If you really want to know the right way, turn on Waze. The answer is there for you. If you want to know if irrelevancy is right or wrong, compared to irrelevance, go the internet. It’s all there. If you want to know the answer to a mathematical problem, take out your smartphone.
Being right was something that we were taught was the ultimate pinnacle of knowledge, and there’s a reason, culturally, that so many of us care so deeply about being right. But it’s time to get rid of that. It’s no longer the currency that separates who does the really great work in life from who doesn’t. Right now, there’s no excuse to not get the knowledge stuff right. It’s there for everyone to have. The awesome part about this whole thing — at a conference that’s about hospitality — is that we have to be right in respect to things that people expect us to do well. There’s absolutely no excuse for any of us to run businesses when people expect them to be clean, and expect us to respect their time … it’s ridiculous at this point, with all the technology we have, not to get the right food to the right person at the right table at the right temperature at the right time. Not to remember what people are allergic to. Not to remember who their favorite server is, or what their favorite table is. All that stuff is knowable, and it doesn’t even rely on our brains to do it. But you’ve heard an expression over and over today, which is an expression of generosity, and you’ve also heard about the hospitality part. Just as you can see, in a championship of swimmers — someone who’s got long feet, almost built in flippers — or Jon Batiste, a talented musician — did anyone notice his hand? If that man was not born to play keyboards, I don’t know who was. But what you can see in Tim, and in every single person in this room, is the athletic heart of a true hospitality professional. Somebody who, for whatever reason, was born with the equipment to be generous. If there’s one thing that frustrates me, more than anything, about the notion of being right, it’s that being right, too often, gets in the way of being generous. Being right is too often used as a way to protect us from doing the thing that will actually most serve us. If I can leave you with one thought, it’s: Forget being right. It’s completely fucking irrelevant.
Begin at 1:20:00 to watch Meyer: