Author Talks: Hospitality lessons from a Michelin-star restaurateur

Eleven Madison Park cofounder Will Guidara explains why a hospitality economy is on the horizon and shares the “unreasonable” strategies that he has used to lead restaurants to the top of their game.

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Vanessa Burke speaks with lifelong restaurateur Will Guidara about his new book Unreasonable Hospitality: The Remarkable Power of Giving People More than They Expect (Optimism Press, October 2022). The former co-owner of Make it Nice, a hospitality group that included award-winning restaurants, Guidara took New York restaurant Eleven Madison Park from number 50 to number 1 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. During his 25-year career in hospitality, he has combined vulnerable leadership with distinctive service to create a MICHELIN Guide level experience for restaurant patrons and staff alike. An edited version of the conversation follows.

What was your motivation for writing this book?

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When I was a kid, my dad always told me to keep a journal as I was growing through my career. There were a few reasons that he wanted me to do it.

First was this notion that “perspective has an expiration date.” He wanted me to keep a journal when I was a busboy, then when I was a server, then when I was a manager, a general manager, and an owner to maintain the perspective that I had in those roles.

As much as people try to hold onto the perspectives they’ve had in the past such that they can have greater empathy as a leader in the future, it’s not possible. Every time I’ve promoted someone from a server to a manager, for the first couple months, they have this amazing ability to empathize with the people they’re managing. But eventually, they start thinking like a manager, which is completely reasonable.

My dad always told me that if I was able to capture my perspective as I grew through my career, I’d be able to tap back into that perspective and be a better leader. Once I began owning my own company, if I’m being honest, I stopped keeping a journal. I missed the idea of memorializing my thoughts and allowing them to make me better, as well as giving me the ability to tap back into those thoughts. So I wanted to write a book. The COVID-19 pandemic gave me the space and the time to do that.

I have a genuine belief system that more businesses should make the choice to be in the hospitality industry.

As I was writing the book, I quickly started to feel that my real reason for writing it was because I believe that I’ve learned a lot in a career in restaurants—through my experiences and from the mentors I’ve been able to work with—about leadership and service when approached through the lens of hospitality.

I believe, especially right now, with how divided the world seems to be and in coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic—when so many people feel such a loss of connection to people, places, and things—that those lessons could materially help a lot of other people, whether in their personal lives or in other industries. I have a genuine belief system that more businesses should make the choice to be in the hospitality industry, and I think the lessons I’ve learned could really help people do that.

What advice do you have for being intentional with your time?

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My dad taught me a lot about being intentional. If there’s one word that’s probably the throughline of the entire book, outside of “hospitality,” it is that. This book is about being intentional in pursuit of everything, and in many cases, it’s about being intentional in pursuit of relationships.

My dad had a requirement to be intentional. My mother was a quadriplegic, my dad was in the restaurant business with a son to raise, and the only way he was able to be a good husband to her, a good father to me, and a good president of his company was to be intentional about how he used every hour of his day. I don’t have a requirement that feels as significant when I compare it to his, but I think watching him and his requirement gave me the gift of knowing how valuable it can be to be intentional.

Hospitality is about relationships. Being intentional in pursuit of those relationships is everything.

I do know that if I want to be a good father and still achieve meaningful success in my career, I need to be very intentional about the choices I make—the things I say “yes” to, the things I say “no” to, when I turn my computer on, when I turn it off—because hospitality is about relationships. Being intentional in pursuit of those relationships is everything, and the relationship that I want to be the most intentional pursuing is the one with my kid.

What lessons about leadership have been most impactful to you?

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This one applies to both leadership and service: the power of being vulnerable. I don’t believe that two people have the capacity to connect unless they both have their guards down, and one of the best ways to get people to relax is to lead with vulnerability.

I’ll give you an example. We were debuting this new menu at our restaurant, and I wanted it to be a dialogue between us and the guests—where they weren’t just ordering things off the menu. We would begin the experience by seeing what they were allergic to and if there was anything they didn’t like or anything they just weren’t in the mood to eat that night. I wanted to be “unreasonable” in how much we contoured the experience to their preferences.

It was a Herculean lift to get to the point where our kitchen was prepared to do that. When we started, it almost didn’t work at all, because nowadays it’s kind of cool to like every ingredient. No one in the dining room felt confident enough to share with us the things they didn’t like, until one night.

I don’t believe that two people have the capacity to connect unless they both have their guards down, and one of the best ways to get people to relax is to lead with vulnerability.

I took the floor, and I was waiting on tables myself to figure out what wasn’t going right. Finally, by the fifth table, I said, “Hey, is there anything you don’t like? Is there anything you’re not in the mood to eat tonight?” Again, crickets—until I said, “Let me tell you a secret: I hate sea urchin, and I don’t like oysters.” Is that being vulnerable? Well in my world, it is. You’re supposed to like sea urchin and oysters. In that moment, they finally opened up and responded in kind. The guy said, “I don’t like celery,” and the woman said she didn’t like beets.

Once I offered up a piece of myself, they were willing to offer up a piece of themselves as well. In leadership, if you can’t get people to let their guard down to the point where they’re opening up to you—where they’re sharing things about themselves that will give you a heightened ability to serve and lead them—then I think you’re holding yourself back. Being vulnerable is a really, really big skill.

I also think the idea that “one size fits one” is a really important guiding principle that I’ve used in how I serve people and how I lead them. It could apply to how you deliver service and hospitality to your customers, which is to contour the experience to the person that they are. As a leader, it means that you need to manage people not as just another number on your team but as individuals—getting to know them and tailoring your approach to how you lead them in a specific way that will be most effective, most investing, and most loving to them.

What is the ‘rule of 95/5,’ and how did it play a role in your success?

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The rule of 95/5 was something I came up with that I believe was a huge part of our company’s evolution over the years. What it means is, “Manage your money like a crazy person 95 percent of the time so that, 5 percent of the time, you can spend ‘foolishly.’”

I put “foolishly” in quotes because it’s actually not foolish at all; it’s with great intention. I believe that the 5 percent where you overspend is where you can create the kind of lasting memories that help give people a strong connection to your brand—not just for your customers, but also for your team.

For example, you manage overtime, turnover, costs of disposables and chemicals, payroll, and everything else in a way where you care about every single penny. Then when it comes time to throw a party for your team—when it comes time to bring people together such that they can stop being a collection of individuals and actually come together as a trusting team—that’s when you spend more. That’s when you go a little bit overboard.

We actually added positions to our team called ‘dream weavers,’ people who are responsible for helping members of the team come up with extraordinary gestures of hospitality—of over-the-top, ‘unreasonable hospitality’

It’s important to make certain moments significant, to bring a few inflection points to the experience of working there or interacting with the brand as a customer. In our service, that 5 percent did a ton of heavy lifting. We actually added positions to our team called “dream weavers,” people who are responsible for helping members of the team come up with extraordinary gestures of hospitality—of over-the-top, “unreasonable hospitality.”

I’ll give you an example. One night, a family of four from Spain was in our dining room when the most beautiful thing happened. The kids were looking out our massive windows with wonder because it had started snowing, and it was the first time they’d seen real snow. We sent the dream weavers out to find a store that was somehow still open, at eight on a Friday night, selling sleds. When those guests left, they were greeted by a chauffeur-driven SUV to take them to Central Park for a really special “nightcap”: a night of sledding.

That is that 5 percent at work. I couldn’t have earned the ability to spend money on those sleds had I not been managing my money so effectively the other 95 percent of the time. With that 5 percent, some people might think it’s wasteful. But I guarantee you that the family of four has told that story so many times and has driven so many other people into our restaurant—I can’t imagine an investment that is worth making more.

Among the hospitality traditions that you have created, which one are you most proud of?

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One of the things I’m most proud of is creating a culture in the restaurant where everyone on the dining room team felt empowered and felt that they had opportunities to go above and beyond for the people they were serving. The moment you invite your team to bring their creativity to the experience they’re delivering is the moment they become so much more willing to work hard to make sure that experience is great because now they have creative autonomy. They’re not just helping to realize someone else’s vision—or in our case, serve plates of food that someone else had created—they have creative agency.

When you do that, you’re effectively taking salespeople and turning them into product designers. I’ve never met anyone who won’t sell something with more passion once they’ve had the ability to help design it. When you create a culture where the team has the permission and the structure and the resources to be generous, it becomes a really, really great culture.

It’s much more fulfilling when you actually get to bring some of your own intellect and creativity and your brain to the job.

As our entire team found themselves so quickly addicted to the idea of going above and beyond for our guests, we all found ourselves doing that for one another. I think the tradition I’m most proud of is that we were able to create a culture where people had permission to be creative—and were celebrated for it—in how they were showing generosity to others. It was exciting. They weren’t just doing the same thing day in and day out. It’s much more fulfilling when you actually get to bring some of your own intellect and creativity and your brain to the job.

How did you marry the care, attention, and luxury of four-star dining with the fun of a more casual experience?

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Take what you do seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously. I think that is one of the most fundamental rules of unreasonable hospitality. Too often in customer service organizations, we let our self-imposed standards stand in the way of us giving people the thing they actually want—both our customers and the people who work with us.

I think so many companies spend so long building these perfectly manicured brands, and those brands end up becoming handcuffs. People spend way too much time doubting their instincts by saying, “Wait, is that part of our brand?” In doing that, they actually get in the way of connecting with people in the way that would feel most connective to those people.

Take what you do seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously. I think that is one of the most fundamental rules of unreasonable hospitality.

One of the things that really unlocked this whole philosophy for me was serving a “dirty water” hot dog from a street cart to one of our tables in the middle of their four-star meal because I overheard them talking about it. In my world, serving street food at a four-star restaurant is sacrilege, but the way it made me feel showed me how important it is—no matter how good you get at the thing you’re doing, no matter how seriously you take your work—to never take yourself so seriously that you impede your ability to thoughtfully serve other people. I think that applies to any customer service business.

What does it mean to ‘hire the person, not the résumé’?

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I created an organization—and it took me years to get there—where every single person who joined our team started at the very bottom of the organization, and we had a pure promote-from-within culture. With that being the foundation I was operating from, we never hired people based on their experience.

I believed that I could teach people the things they needed to know to enter into our organization, and then, over time, they would learn the things they needed to grow. I was simply looking for people who I trusted, people who had integrity, people who were passionate and who would work as hard as I wanted to work to help our company achieve its goals—both our outward-facing goals and our inward-facing goals.

We need to be looking for connection over perfection. The advice I give to people as they’re trying to hire into roles is to be very, very disciplined in terms of what experience you need someone to have.

I also understand that the philosophy doesn’t apply to all jobs. There are certain jobs where, when you’re hiring someone, you need them to have the experience to do that job well. That said, one of the things I’ve found is that so many job postings put such an unrealistic list of expectations on that posting that they weed out the person who could probably be best-suited to take that job. We need to be looking for connection over perfection. The advice I give to people as they’re trying to hire into roles is to be very, very disciplined in terms of what experience you need someone to have.

How would you advise leaders to balance trust and control?

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I want always to have a culture where people are given trust and agency and empowerment; I think it’s everything. It’s required if you want to have a team of people who will give as much of themselves to the work as you need to accomplish something amazing. It’s required if you ever want to be in a scenario where people bring their most fully realized selves to the work.

At the same time, I’m a perfectionist. I’ve struggled with it my entire life. If my wife makes the bed, I remake it; if she parks the car crooked, I repark it. When you’re a perfectionist, it’s hard to trust people because people are inherently imperfect. They’re going to make mistakes. I think the only real advice I can give is that you need to be self-aware enough to know when you’ve fallen off the path, and you need to have the kind of relationships such that when you’re not self-aware enough to know, someone else is there to tell you.

There’s no one you will be more inclined to receive criticism from than someone who’s willing to also criticize themselves. Acknowledging your mistake and righting the ship is a pretty cool way to handle those moments where you weren’t the best version of yourself.

When those things happen, have the confidence to acknowledge the mistake and right the ship. Acknowledging a mistake is perhaps the most important thing because when you do make a mistake—when you are so controlling that you take away some of the trust that you want to give to your team—acknowledging that to the team is one of the best things a leader can do.

I believe in normalizing feedback and creating a culture where people are excited not only to be praised but also to receive criticism. There’s no one you will be more inclined to receive criticism from than someone who’s willing to also criticize themselves. Acknowledging your mistake and righting the ship is a pretty cool way to handle those moments where you weren’t the best version of yourself. Then every time it happens, try to make sure you learn something from it so that, over the course of your career, you get a little bit better every single year.

Why should businesses that are thriving financially care about joining the hospitality economy?

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This is the premise of the book: America was a manufacturing economy, then it became a service economy, and dramatically so—more than three-quarters of our GDP is driven by service industries. I believe we’re becoming a hospitality economy, especially after the couple of years that we’ve just had. People are craving connection now more than ever. Making good products is no longer enough, and serving them efficiently is no longer enough. It’s how people are made to feel that’s starting to matter most of all.

It doesn’t matter how well you’re doing financially right now. Once your competitor starts to put that idea at the center of every decision, they will pull ahead. If you don’t do it now, someone else is going to start doing it, and you’re going to lose your market share. Maybe you’re doing well now, but if you don’t think with a long-term perspective, it will come back to haunt you.

During a time when so many people are struggling to create the kind of cultures where teams and customers are inclined to stay for years, hospitality is the answer.

The other reason to do it is that it just feels better. If you create a culture of hospitality, not only for the people who you’re serving but also for the people you work with, turnover goes down, and retention goes up. People who you’re serving start to develop more significant connections to your company, and the lifetime of a customer relationship becomes longer.

It also feels good making other people happy. It’s energizing, and during a time when so many people are struggling to create the kind of cultures where teams and customers are inclined to stay for years, hospitality is the answer.

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Will Guidara on creating a Michelin-level customer experience through ‘unreasonable’ hospitality practices

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