Hospitality industry bigwigs, including Danny Meyer, Chipotle CEO Steve Ells, and 21c Museum Hotels’ Sarah Robbins, share some of the biggest takeaways from their careers.

By Stephanie Wu
January 24, 2017
Noah Fecks

At Will Guidara and Anthony Rudolf’s Welcome Conference, speakers riffed on the theme of "Being Right." The messages were layered and inspiring, with lessons that apply far beyond the restaurant and hotel industry:

1. Food Should Not Be Foolproof
Early on in the company’s history, Chipotle CEO and Culinary Institute of America grad Steve Ells knew he wanted a level of difficulty involved when preparing the ingredients for the chain’s burritos and tacos. Guests should see workers chopping tomatoes, mixing the rice, and more, he says, not just ripping open plastic containers and heating items in a convection oven. “There are no fools at Chipotle.”

2. Following Rules is Not What Makes People Happy
Sarah Robbins, the SVP of Operations for the quirky, art-focused 21c Museum Hotels chain, encourages staffers to say “yes” to guests whenever possible. “It’s easy to say no, which ends the conversation,” she says. “Yes allows the story to move on.” 21c gives employees flexibility to go the extra mile for guest requests—without fear of being reprimanded—and the policy is, as Robbins says, what allows for “original and memorable moments.”

3. There’s Nothing More Powerful Than a Printed Invitation
One of the day’s most inspiring talks came from Bill Golderer, a Philadelphia-based minister whose Broad Street Ministry provides three-course meals, legal and healthcare services, and more. He spoke of the importance of extending hospitality to those who receive (and expect) it the least. When Broad Street Ministry first opened, they went beyond the soup kitchen idea by passing out handwritten invitations to dinner parties, and the community responded in droves. Golderer’s intended message: “Your presence is valuable, and we cherish it.”

4. Aim to Be Unforgettable
At Claridge’s, the ultimate goal is to become “part of the story of people’s lives,” says General Manager Thomas Koch. The London hotel hopes to create memories so powerful that they end up in a guest’s hypothetical (or not) autobiography. Koch told the story of one business traveler, who signed his very first deal at Claridge’s: “He was vulnerable and we took care of him.” The guest returned to the hotel repeatedly, and has remained successful—he’s since modeled the interiors of his private jet after the hotel.

5. Glory Can Be Shared        
Daniel Humm, of Eleven Madison Park and the Nomad, was the first-ever chef to speak at the hospitality conference. Here he talked about the emphasis his company (co-founded with general manager Will Guidara) places on both food and service. “Food is an art, and all I do is think about food,” says Humm. “But service is an art as well, and it takes a lifetime to perfect it.” As a chef (a profession not quite known for tiny egos), does he mind only getting partial credit? “I would rather receive half of the attention, if the restaurant is twice as good.”

6. Everyone Has a Superpower
Twenty-nine-year-old restaurateur Tim Harris, who was born with Down Syndrome and has owned Tim’s Place in Albuquerque since 2010, dances his way to work every morning. His advice was simple: work hard, believe in yourself and others, and be happy and show it. “Use your superpower,” he adds—his include giving hugs (President Obama was one lucky recipient), and giving back in the form of his nonprofit, Tim’s Big Heart Foundation, which supports entrepreneurs with disabilities.

7. Stop Wasting Energy on Being Right
“Being right used to be the ultimate pinnacle of knowledge,” says Danny Meyer. Then Google and smartphones showed up, making everyone an expert in everything. Now, says Meyer, there’s no excuse to run a business without getting things right—bringing out the right food, serving it at the right temperature, and the right time. The mark of a truly hospitality individual, he adds, is generosity. Instead of starting a feud over a corkage fee—which has actually happened at Gramercy Tavern—the hospitality king firmly believes that “being right should not get in the way of being generous.”

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