Just how enlightened is “Enlightened Hospitality,” really? 

By John deBary
May 28, 2021
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Waitress with a mask disinfects the table
Credit: Getty Images

The first time I heard the name Danny Meyer was from my mom. She was a New York native and avid diner who had just come from her first meal at The Modern, his fine-dining restaurant that had recently opened in the Museum of Modern Art. She had been sitting at the bar when Meyer, the founder of Union Square Hospitality Group, paused long enough to make eye contact. She recognized him, but before she realized who he was, the flutter of familiarity prompted her to blurt out an inappropriately familiar hello. He said hello right back. My mom described this as the kind of warm but politely vague hello someone gives a person who they know they should know, but can't bring themselves to register a name. My mom was so struck by how warmly he, one of the most legendarily successful restaurateurs of our time, treated her.  

A few years later, after I had gotten bartending jobs at PDT and Momofuku Ssäm Bar, I read Meyer's canonical text, Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business, and it changed my life. I saw a lot of myself in this book: I am a white male child of wealthy parents who had countless chances to travel the world recreationally. Like Meyer, I blew off my LSATs because I had found such an emotionally fulfilling job working in the service industry. I loved the experience of making miracles happen for people: serving them the perfect cocktail and turning their day around. I loved getting the grumpy guest because it was an opportunity, a challenge. 

Setting the Table, a New York Times best seller, is full of fantastic advice: hospitality applies to everyone, not just your paying customers; mistakes are opportunities; leadership requires "constant, gentle pressure"; patience is a virtue. The book helped the general public see that restaurant work was real, valuable work that required particular skills and a lot of sacrifice. 

The book also helped to create a monster: the hyper-entitled guests with too much leverage. A lot has changed in the 14 years since this book's publication, and it's time to reconsider the message of this book as we start to plan for the restaurant industry's post-pandemic future.

One of the most central—and enduring—concepts in Setting the Table is "Enlightened Hospitality." It's a concept that claims to value employees over customers. Critical to this is the idea of the "51 percenter," which means you want to employ someone whose skills are 51 percent "emotional intelligence." The book offers a puzzling caveat: "It may seem implicit in the philosophy of enlightened hospitality that the employee is constantly setting aside personal needs and selflessly taking care of others. But the real secret of its success is to hire people to whom caring for others is, in fact, a selfish act." This might sound anodyne, but it's actually somewhat sinister. 

The true exemplars of hospitality are the ones who unquestioningly surrender themselves to their guests' desires—no matter how ridiculous the request is. This idea is something we need to think about leaving behind as the industry continues to reel from the ongoing pandemic that has destroyed businesses and put workers under enormous pressure and considerable personal risk—all in the name of guest experience.

I wondered what Meyer might think of the book given the pandemic-induced reckonings of the past year, and he provided this statement via email: 

"If I were to add anything new to Setting the Table—which I wrote in 2006it would be to more fully emphasize the imperative of building a diverse team and creating an atmosphere of understanding and belonging for those who have not always had a seat at the table.

What's not new is that we remain committed to 'finding the yes,' and it is understandable that without reading [Setting the Table], one might misinterpret our ethos to mean that we put the customer first, or that the 'customer is always right.' It's a roadmap that has always guided our culture and our decisions at USHG and one that has become ever more crucial in a year that revealed all the shortcomings of our industry's infrastructure to protect our most vulnerable."

In 2018, I co-founded Restaurant Workers' Community Foundation, a nonprofit that raises money to support efforts to improve the quality of life for workers in the restaurant industry. Industry workers face considerable structural barriers to equitable treatment. As of January 2021, restaurant workers' median wage is $21,470; the practice of tipping is a legacy of slavery that exacerbates inequalities; paid sick leave is a relatively recent privilege. It's almost as if the last thing that we needed was a bestselling book extolling the virtues of infinitely gracious hospitality no matter the cost. To be clear, there is much more going on here than one book that came out 14 years ago.

Jameson Brown, the Chief Experience Engineer of Me Sous, a grocery box delivery service, has worked in New York City fine-dining spots including Jean Georges, The Pool, and the Mark Hotel. "That book is what inspired me to transition from the kitchen to front of house," he said. "It empowered me to know that I could use my personality and emotional intelligence in a way that was impactful to me. When dealing with guests, I would ask myself, 'What would Danny do?' But there is a culture in fine dining that says how good you are is based on how much abuse you can take with grace."

Jameson, who is Black, recalls a time in 2015 when a man at a table referred to him as "boy" throughout the meal. The guest eventually asked Jameson his name, but decided to call him Charlie instead. Upset, he brought this up to his manager, who said he could either put up with it, or go home. 

Stories of outlandish guest expectations are a hallmark of the service industry. And yes, someone expecting to be allowed to abuse service staff is a request that restaurants have the option to oblige, and in many cases do. Dana Koteen, founder and CEO of MiseBox, a restaurant operations platform, who worked at the Union Square Hospitality Group's Maialino for four years, said, "We as an industry should be holding our guests accountable. It's our fault that we've created these monsters." Tara MacMullen, an industry veteran and former colleague of mine, added: "We've yes-ed ourselves into a corner. We've trained guests that it's our job to say yes in whatever way possible. There is this expectation that if your mind is not blown, something has gone wrong."

An anecdote in Setting the Table that's emblematic of the kind of unattainable standard set by the book is when Meyer regales the reader with the time when a guest at USHG's now-shuttered Tabla forgot their phone and wallet in a cab. A staff member consoled the distraught guests, while another called the woman's cell phone, reaching the driver, and eventually retrieved the phone and wallet before the meal was over. Meyer marvels that the whole experience only cost $31, the price of the round-trip cab ride, but netted the restaurant much more in word-of-mouth PR. Meyer had told the staff to create a "legend" from the incident—something that the guest would never forget, and repeat to friends over and over. But the problem with legends is that eventually a lot of people hear about them, and then inevitably they become quotidian.

Looking closer at this cab anecdote, there is so much more to consider: what kind of personal risk was the staff member taking by agreeing to meet a cab driver at an unfamiliar location? What duties was that staff member neglecting while running that errand? Who had to cover for them? Did any guest experience suffer as a result and why was their experience less important? More importantly, what kind of precedent did that set? Yes, that person went on to become a devoted regular, but what did they tell their friends, that you now expect that if you leave your phone and wallet in a cab, the service staff at a slightly expensive restaurant will act as your personal valet? 

The worldview presented in Setting the Table represents a fantastic North Star, but like the star, it is unattainable as an actual destination, and it is unfair to act otherwise. Since its release, it has been the go-to book for many people starting out in the restaurant industry. But for people looking to educate themselves on the realities of working in restaurants, it's important to look past the rosy picture Setting the Table paints and to question the bend-over-backwards mentality it champions. It might be great for the customer, but it comes at a real cost to the employee—a cost that is too high.