Book Review: Will Guidara’s ‘Unreasonable Hospitality’

Back in the 1980s a music business anecdote that made the rounds was that arena rock band Van Halen had rather detailed requirements listed for each tour stop. This included a demand that there be no brown M&Ms in the M&M bowls backstage. At the time, those aware of the rumor (truth, it turns out) marveled, including yours truly. What power Van Halen had, but also how idiosyncratic musicians are. Naturally I and others missed the point.

Van Halen’s requirement was rooted in safety. The nitpicky demand about the color of M&Ms was a way to ensure that those the band contracted with read the contracts closely. Given the acrobatics taking place on stage, it was important that everything in the arena set-up be done right. Odd demands not met were potentially a dangerous “tell.”

A long-forgotten piece of Van Halen trivia came to mind while reading Will Guidara’s excellent new book, Unreasonable Hospitality: The Remarkable Power of Giving People More Than They Expect. While Guidara was GM of New York Times Four Star restaurant Eleven Madison Park, he recalled that “We trained the people setting the dining room to place every plate so that if a guest flipped it over to see who had made it, the Limoges stamp would be facing them, right side up.” Why? Why such a focus on minute details that Guidara himself acknowledged would be noticed by exceedingly few customers? Think back to Van Halen. Guidara went on to write that “By asking the person setting the dining room to place each plate with total concentration and focus, we were asking them to set the tone for how they’d do everything over the course of the service, how they’d greet our guests, walk through the dining room, communicate with their colleagues, pour the champagne to begin a meal and the cup of coffee to end it.” Absolutely. Sloppiness, or non-attention to detail has a way of spreading. Guidara plainly understands this truth innately.

He was born to the business through his father Frank Guidara who, among other things, ran Restaurant Associates. Will learned a great deal from Frank (some will be discussed in this review), but also notably came up under Danny Meyer. Unreasonable Hospitality is Guidara’s very insightful and persuasive case for always, always, always over-delivering to guests, and it’s largely told through Guidara and Chef Daniel Humm’s transformation of Eleven Madison Park (EMP) from a very well-regarded New York Times Three Star, to one of just a handful of Four Stars in what is arguably the world’s foremost restaurant city.

There is so much to say about this remarkable book. Probably the best place to start is with an example that might offend Guidara. Simon Senek, the head of Optimism Press (his publisher) observed in the book’s Foreword that Guidara recognized “if he wanted his frontline teams to obsess about how they made customers feel, he had to obsess about how he made his employees feel.” It brought to mind the remarkable entrepreneurial endeavor that has been Uber. Guidara surely remembers how it used to be; that on a rainy day in New York City the hailing of a taxi was a nightmarish, often fruitless process. If snow, forget about it. Why then, are Uber drivers always on the road? They are given the business’s recognition that drivers must feel well taken care of and properly compensated in return for taking care of passengers. Surge pricing is a lure for drivers who logically stayed home under the old taxi cartel system that for the most part treated driver labor without regard to road conditions, traffic, and passengers. The comparison to Guidara’s “unreasonable hospitality” is far from exact, the use and accession of Uber can at times be nightmarish too, but whatever complaints we may have about it logically vanish when we stop and think of how bad things used to be. The view here is that a major driver of the improvement has been an implicit recognition of the needs of employees.

How did Guidara make his employees feel seen, and great about what they were doing? Some are perhaps going to speculate here about all sorts of feel-good things, but my read is that Guidara made them feel great and seen partially via a pursuit of what he described as “hospitality so bespoke, so over the top,” that “it can be described only as unreasonable.” Guidara intuited only to discover his intuition to be true that “it feels great to make other people feel good,” which means “hospitality is a selfish pleasure.” Amen. Arguably the most important passage in a very important book. Indeed, it’s too often forgotten that people who really love their chosen line of work do the “work” for themselves.

Applied to restaurants, people want an amazing experience. It’s no insight to say this is particularly true at the high-end restaurants. Guidara observed about the before of EMP that “we’d have a real shot at greatness,” but it should be said Guidara’s pursuit of greatness was rooted in a powerful obsession within him about his employees. If we’re being realistic, it’s unkind to employees to pursue anything but greatness in recognition of what Guidara knows to be true: “it feels great to make other people feel good.”

Crucial about all this is that it’s not solely about the pursuit of greatness that animates employees. They have to want to be great in the first place, at which point it’s the job of the manager, GM, President, or CEO to discover what’s unique about those in their employ. Here Guidara tells the story of EMP employee Eliazar Cervantes. Managers complained about him as someone who “didn’t care,” and who “wasn’t particularly interested in learning about the food.”

Who knows why Guidara spent time with Cervantes over firing him, but in getting to know him he found someone who was “incredibly organized and a natural leader,” only for Cervantes to be shifted to an “expeditor” role in the kitchen. An expeditor is the person charged with telling the cooks “when to start preparing the food and makes sure each dish gets to the right person at the right table in a timely fashion.” Keep in mind what Guidara discovered about Cervantes, that he was “incredibly organized.” Not interested in the food, Guidara reports that “he might be holding thirty different tables in his head at any moment.” Yes! Guidara found Cervantes’s specialty only for a once indifferent employee to become a genius employee who “conducts a symphony every night.”

In my 2018 book, The End of Work, a book that referenced Danny Meyer’s excellent Setting the Table with great frequency, I made a case that work for more and more people is an expression of passion, of individuals getting to showcase their unique skills and genius on the job. This rising passion about work is a certain consequence of globalized cooperation among workers and machines that makes it more and more possible for individuals to specialize in all sorts of ways they couldn’t have in the past. In other words, the unsung genius of soaring economic growth and – yes – inequality, is that growing numbers of us get to be stars on the job.

I mention all this because Guidara’s expressed management style embodies the above truths. It’s referenced in The End of Work that EMP has a Coffee Concierge whose sole job is to divine remarkable post-meal coffee concepts. What a great country we live in! Think about it. It turns out Guidara was behind this. At EMP he didn’t just have chefs, pastry chefs, and sommeliers in his employ, he also had an individual solely in charge of EMP’s beer program. Stop and think about this. Everyone is good at something. There are no dumb and lazy people, but in a stationary or declining economy there are lots of dumb and lazy people simply because the range of jobs that elevate all manner of skills is very small. In rich, wildly unequal New York City, the range of work options is endless. This includes beer experts. Notable here is that after Guidara ultimately purchased EMP from Meyer ahead of expanding the Guidara footprint to NoMad (a high-end Manhattan hotel), he eventually handed over the GM reins at EMP to Kirk Kelewae, the head of EMP’s beer program.

Bringing all of this back to hospitality and why it feels so great to be hospitable, it cannot be stressed enough that a major catalyst of “unreasonable hospitality” at EMP had to do with employees who weren’t just in pursuit of overall greatness, but who crucially were doing the kind of work that in many ways wasn’t work to them. It’s quite simply exhilarating doing for oneself. Guidara was facilitating just that.

All of which explains why Guidara’s impact on service and hospitality (hospitality is “color,” and it means “you make people feel great about the job you’re doing for them”) has and will continue to be felt well beyond restaurants and hotels. Evidence supporting the previous claim concerns the Welcome Conference that Guidara founded in 2014 with an eye on getting restaurant types together to discuss best practices. He reports that soon enough executives from all walks of life were attending.

Guidara makes an essential case that whatever you do, “you can choose to be in the hospitality business.” Good service is a given, or should be. But as Guidara sees it, the latter is “black and white.” Hospitality is so much more. It’s yet again “color.” Bright colors. At Tabla, one of the Meyer restaurants at which Guidara worked before EMP, guests would be asked how they got there. If they’d driven and parked on the street, Tabla employees would ask the make of their car so that they could feed the meter for them.

Guidara would thrill at seeing a customer arrive at EMP with suitcase in hand for it signaling the restaurant he was running was the last stop for the customer or customers before leaving town. One time, Guidara heard customers saying they’d eaten lots of great meals, but hadn’t gotten around to eating a New York City hot dog. Guidara went outside EMP, bought a hot dog from the sidewalk vendor, took it to the kitchen so that the chefs could cut it up and dress with up with mustard and relish, then brought it to the table. Again, hospitality is color. Any restaurant can bring glasses of champagne to customers who’ve just gotten engaged, but at EMP the special Tiffany glasses would be placed up in a beautiful Tiffany box for the engaged. With aforementioned specialization in mind, Guidara eventually created a full-time “unreasonable hospitality” position at EMP charged with searching full-time for ways to well exceed the needs of customers, including knowing their names upon arrival.

Everything about the culture of EMP was constant improvement. It came from up top, as in it wasn’t just Guidara who believed deeply in an endless pursuit of greatness. Guidara quotes Meyer as saying “Always be improving, getting a little better all the time.” There’s a Nick Saban and Pete Carroll quality to this that Guidara may or may not be aware of. Saban is firm that his annual goals or in-season goals aren’t pursuit of a national championship. So while there’s a bit of doth protest too much in Saban’s description of his approach, it ultimately makes enormous sense. A focus on ends causes players and coaches to look ahead, to prepare for the big game while overlooking the one ahead. All of this explains why Saban can be seen yelling even amid blowouts. Players must be always improving, must always be winning plays within games. Guidara and Meyer seem to agree.

Where this is vivified best in Unreasonable Hospitality concerns the relentless pursuit of Michelin stars, Relais & Chateaux designations, and seemingly most important of all, Four Stars in the New York Times. About the Times and restaurant critics more broadly, Guidara makes the crucial point that “it doesn’t matter if you recognize the critic.” This is important because some have worn disguises, while others (the Washington Post’s wildly entertaining food critic, Tom Sietsema) book reservations under a different name. There’s really no need. As Guidara explains it, “you can’t be a mediocre restaurant three hundred and sixty-four days a year, then transform into a great one the day the critic happens to come in.” Precisely. Per Meyer, Saban, Carroll, Guidara and other high achievers, success is born of constant improvement. It can’t just happen the day the critic comes in. In which case, please step out of the shadows, announce yourselves, and all that. Goodness, a Google search cuts images of Sietsema off at the chest.

Greatness is plainly a consequence of vision, constant improvement over near-term wins (see above), understanding the skills of employees so that they can be doing what most elevates their unique skills and intelligence, plus it involves allowing the markets to work. To the ending of the previous sentence, some will say it doesn’t fit. While free markets and the freedom to be creative most certainly foster the atmospheres necessary to restaurant success, that’s not the point being made here. It’s instead an argument for mining the genius of combined knowledge. In Guidara’s words, “no matter how ambitious and innovative we [Guidara and Chef Daniel Humm] were, we could never hope to match the combined brainpower of our entire staff.” Yes! Guidara may or may not know it, but his short sentence explains why free markets always result in much greater outcomes than those planned by experts working from the proverbial Commanding Heights of the state. It’s not that the former Soviet Union lacked experts, and it’s not that Cuba and North Korea lack experts now. The problem, as expressed by Guidara, is that the vast knowledge of one or many never comes close to the “combined brainpower” of a city, state, or country’s population. What’s true in countries is also true in restaurants. The “people” are the market. Always.

Which brings us to the lockdowns in 2020. The expressed view at the time from me in countless columns, and also the one expressed in my 2021 book, When Politicians Panicked, was that the coronavirus’s lethality (or lack thereof) called for freedom first and foremost. Freedom is the ultimate virtue for one, but beyond that it cannot be stressed enough that free people produce information. Again, the people are the market. Their combined brainpower is staggering. When you suffocate the creators of information by locking them in their homes, crisis is the logical and tragic result.

Guidara cites colleague Richard Coraine as saying that “One size fits one.” Precisely. Yet this truth was completely forgotten in 2020 on the way to tens of millions Americans put out of work, millions of businesses destroyed or impaired, not to mention the hundreds of millions around the world who were pushed toward starvation and beyond as a consequence of politicians and experts substituting their narrow knowledge for that of the people.

Taking this further, please keep in mind the title of Guidara’s book. From there, please contemplate the mass closing of restaurants in cities like New York whereby Coraine’s repeated saying was wholly ignored. Then ask yourself the question: would an evangelist for “unreasonable hospitality” not do backflips amid a spreading virus to make sure his customers felt safe in his place of business? Would this same person come up with infinitely more innovative ways to look after his customers than politicians yet again pursuing one-size-fits-all? Hopefully these questions answer themselves.

Amid the lockdowns, I wrote a column about how Chicago’s Alinea, and how insulting it must have been for Grant Achatz et al to have their genius wrapped in plastic. Alinea owner Nick Kokonas very nicely and respectfully engaged me on Twitter only to say that Alinea was improving on the fly in order to work within the virus rules. His expressed view was that the restaurant’s staff wasn’t bothered by all the political decrees, nor was he. Kind as he was, I didn’t believe him. I don’t know Guidara’s viewpoint on what transpired not too long ago, but reading his remarkable book I can say that I would trust him and his hospitality ethos exponentially more than Bill De Blasio, Eric Adams, Rudy Giuliani, or anyone in the Mayor’s office to look after me amid a spreading virus.

All of which brings us to Frank Guidara. There’s so much in Unreasonable Hospitality about him, and with good reason. My favorite anecdote concerns what he told Will in 2008 amid the economic contraction. “Adversity is a terrible thing to waste.” In seven words, Frank Guidara expertly revealed the horrifying folly of politicians “fighting” recessions. In those same seven words, Frank Guidara similarly explained why “recessions” left alone are a wildly bullish signal of recovery.  

Indeed, it’s during the difficult times that we fix what we’re doing wrong, and improve how we do things. Guidara cites Meyer’s business partner Paul Bolles-Beaven as saying “Raindrops makes oceans,” and so Will Guidara went to work in 2008 applying his father’s pithy comment to a restaurant (EMP) that, because it was so high-end, was most imperiled by the economic contraction. There were not so visible luxuries like two linen cloths in the restaurant’s pass where there could have been one, more careful usage of cleaning chemicals, but also lunch specials meant to lure customers whose expense accounts weren’t as generous. Recessions improve us. They can be agony, but much worse than the agony is not learning from it.

Which is why bailouts and other redistribution of wealth during downturns always results in a worse economic outcome. To shower the individuals and businesses suffering from economic decline is to blind them to how they can and must improve during troubled times. Translated, when governments “fight” recessions they rob us of essential knowledge and improvement. To fight recessions is to once again fight recovery. Guidara, encouraged by his father, chose to learn from the horrors of 2008.

There’s so much more in this excellent book that could be mentioned, but to do so would be to shrink the book. Rather than continue, this will be my review of Unreasonable Hospitality, but it will be mentioned quite a bit in future columns. In other words, this isn’t the last time those who read me will read about Will Guidara and Unreasonable Hospitality. What a read. What a lesson in business and economics.