Book Review: Setting the Table

Setting the Table The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business

Review by Chris Wendel

Of all of the businesses to start a restaurant is perhaps the most challenging. Get it right from the beginning and you may be successful. One could gather a group of people who have very little in common, mention a local restaurant and suddenly have an interactive discussion of its positive and negative attributes. Getting it wrong right out of the gate is the kiss of death, mostly because everyone likes to give an opinion on a restaurant, and initial negative word of mouth can be difficult to overcome.

Here in the Grand Traverse area, we have seen several well established eating places fold in the past few months. Yet, more open to take their place, up to the challenge of getting it right and having the business last long enough to pay for its inevitably high start-up costs.

So, it is interesting to read a different kind of book that discusses in fine detail the process of opening a restaurant, and more importantly, building a team and infrastructure that takes the guess work out of insuring a business’ success.

Setting the Table is written by the hugely successful Danny Meyer, who has built an empire of restaurant businesses in New York City. The book serves as an autobiography of sorts for Meyer, who was born in raised in St. Louis. His father and grandfathers were entrepreneurs with varying degrees of accomplishment. Meyer’s father ran a company that offered off-the-beaten-path tours of Europe. It is in his formative years that Meyer studied food and hospitality in select bistros in Italy and France, appreciating in detail, the nuances and atmosphere of each establishment.

It is evident early on in Meyer’s story that he is destined for running his own restaurant. Out of college he works as a sales executive, saving money while continuing his careful analysis of restaurant concepts. He then works in the restaurant world, absorbing every facet from dish washing up to executive chef. Before forging out his own Meyer appears to thoroughly comprehend not just the inner workings of restaurant operations, but also the personnel dynamics, and the importance of having the restaurant become a vital part of the community.

The process that Meyer goes through with his first restaurant Union Square Café demonstrates the steps needed to insure sustainability. Meyer uses his accumulated knowledge and sales negotiating skills to find a location that is undervalued, but has strong potential for future growth. Meyer considers dozens of location options in his quest for the right locale, also giving consideration to strong personal emotions that creep into his decision before choosing a building that will make it all work.

Meyer’s other projects demonstrate his persistent ability to create a atmosphere and discover best practices for food tastes, presentation, and preparation. One could become envious of Meyer’s sojourns to far flung destinations that serve as due diligence for developing a new restaurant concept. For example, before opening the first of several Shake Shack locations in New York, Meyer and his crew toured the United States to see what made other successful hamburger, hot dog, French fry, and milkshake operations work. After completing their homework Meyer’s crew referred back to their copious notes for weeks, before perfecting the right meat combination for hamburgers, the size and cut of fries, and the consistency of the shakes.

Setting the Table provides great story telling from a business owner that seems to have the “Midas touch” when it comes to operating multiple businesses. Through author Danny Meyer’s powerful and enjoyable story telling narrative, this combination of personal passion, painstaking preparation, and owner awareness makes his tremendous success relatable to others. For someone considering a restaurant venture, or anyone else who appreciates a good story written by a tremendously successful entrepreneur, Setting the Table is a great choice.

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • 3 ½ stars (out of four)
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