How’d you react if you were served a $2 hot dog at a fine dining restaurant?
It happened to four guests at Eleven Madison Park in the heart of New York City.
“They freaked out,” said Will Guidara, the restaurant’s former co-owner and author of Unreasonable Hospitality.
“I had given away thousands of dishes, and many, many thousands of dollars’ worth of food, and yet I can confidently say that nobody had ever responded the way that table responded to that hot dog. Before they left, each person at the table told me it was the highlight not only of the meal, but of their trip to New York. They’d be telling the story for the rest of their lives.”
Here’s why. Even though he was the general manager, Guidara routinely bussed tables and he’d eavesdropped on the foursome. They’d eaten everywhere and everything except a hot dog from a street vendor. Once their meal was done, they were off to the airport.
“If you’d been in the dining room that day, you’d have seen an animated bulb appear over my head, like in a cartoon. I dropped the dirty dishes off in the kitchen and ran out to buy a hot dog from Abraham, who manned the Sabrett’s cart on our corner.”
Guidara brought the hot dog back to the kitchen and asked chef Daniel Humm to plate it. “He looked at me like I’d gone crazy. I was always trying to push the boundaries, but serving what New Yorkers call a dirty-water dog at a four star restaurant? I held my ground and told him to trust me – that it was important to me – and he finally agreed to cut the hot dog into four perfect pieces, adding a swoosh of mustard, a swoosh of ketchup and perfect quenelles of sauerkraut and relish to each plate.”
Guidara told the foursome he’d overheard their conversation and didn’t want them flying home with culinary regrets. Servers then brought out the artistically plated hot dog.
It’s wasn’t just $2 hotdogs delighting guests. When couples got engaged at Eleven Madison Park, they got complimentary glasses of champagne like every other restaurant. But the champagne was served in crystal flutes from Tiffany’s that went home with the newly engaged couples in robin’s-egg blue gift boxes.
Guidara introduced a Dreamweavers program with full-time staff to deliver improvisational and unreasonable hospitality on unsuspecting guests. That hospitality, together with exceptional food and service, would earn Eleven Madison Park three Michelin stars and top spot in the annual ranking of the world’s 50 best restaurants.
Every business is in the hospitality businesss and gifts are how you can stand out, says Guidara.
“Gifts to me are deeply meaningful, which is why I get so mad when a business gives me a cheap tote with a branded USB drive. Try harder! Do better!
“Gifts are a way to tell people you saw, heard and recognized them – that you cared enough to listen, and to do something with what you heard. A gift transforms an interaction, taking it from transactional to relational; there is no better way than a gift to demonstrate that someone is more than a customer or a line item on a spreadsheet. And the right one can help to extend your hospitality all the way into someone’s life.”
But what if you’re not a fine dining restaurant in the heart of New York City, serving meals that cost as much as month’s worth of groceries?
First, it’s the thought that counts more than the value of the gift.
You should also follow Guidara’s 95 / 5 rule. “Manage 95 per cent of your business down to the penny; spend the last five per cent foolishly. It sounds irresponsible; in fact, it’s anything but. Because that last five per cent has an outsize impact on the guest experience, it’s some of the smartest money you’ll ever spend.”
And be sure to shower some of that five per cent on your team. Give them more than they expect and they’ll do the same with your customers, clients and guests.
Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999. Photo courtesy of Pablo de la Fuente on UnSplash.