Eleven Madison Park: Will Guidara’s 4 Lessons in Hospitality

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Unreasonable Hospitality" by Will Guidara. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How did Will Guidara come to work at Eleven Madison Park? What are the lessons he learned in hospitality from working at several restaurants?

Eleven Madison Park, Will Guidara’s restaurant for several years, is known as one of the best restaurants in the world. But, the journey wasn’t easy. To be a manager of a high-quality restaurant requires a special amount of patience, flexibility, and expertise.

Let’s look at lessons that Will Guidara learned in his career that he applied during his time at Eleven Madison Park.

Guidara’s Journey to Eleven Madison Park

Way before Eleven Madison Park, Will Guidara’s interest in restaurants was influenced by his father, who worked in the industry. This interest was bolstered by a fantastic experience in a restaurant on Guidara’s 12th birthday. He graduated from the restaurant management program at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration and spent years working at several restaurants before accepting the position at EMP. We’ll discuss the lessons Guidara learned from these experiences. 

(Shortform note: Guidara’s father knew that his son could be successful in the restaurant industry due to his own experience: The senior Guidara was the president of the dining management company Restaurant Associates (RA) before spending several years as the CEO of restaurant chains like Au Bon Pain and Pizzeria Uno. And by 2013, dining room jobs were in demand among Ivy League graduates (like those from Cornell), who could make up to $150,000 annually at restaurants like EMP.)

Lesson 1: Hospitality Matters

Thanks to a class he was taking at Cornell, Guidara made a connection with famed chef Daniel Boulud and even spent an evening partying with him and his team. This connection proved to be a great relief just a few months later when, soon after Guidara’s college graduation, his mother passed away. Shortly afterward, Guidara and his father happened to be in New York City—so Guidara emailed Boulud to ask if they could eat dinner at Boulud’s restaurant. Boulud gave them the most exclusive table available, served them a superb meal, and didn’t charge them a cent.

Although Guidara knew from a young age that he wanted to work in restaurants, this meal at Boulud’s restaurant taught him the true power of hospitality. His 12th birthday dinner taught him that hospitality can enthrall you on your best days. His meal with his father at Boulud’s restaurant during their season of grief showed him that great hospitality can also enchant you and provide comfort when you most need it.

(Shortform note: Although Guidara has only good things to say about his meal at Boulud’s restaurant, many people feel “happiness guilt”—a sense of discomfort with the happiness they feel when they are also in the middle of great pain. Adopting Guidara’s perspective can help you through these situations; experts argue that you should let yourself enjoy happy moments because they will provide the strength you need to endure difficult periods.) 

Lesson 2: Find the Balance of Control

After graduating from Cornell, Guidara began working as a manager at a restaurant owned by Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG).  Guidara quickly fell in love with the restaurant group’s “restaurant-smart” culture, which prioritized teamwork and cultivating trust in both the kitchen and the floor staff to do their jobs well. 

However, Guidara’s father warned him that he needed to work somewhere with a “corporate-smart” culture—a more business-like attitude to running restaurants that favored more controlled, corporate systems over on-the-ground staff autonomy. So Guidara joined RA, his father’s old company, first as their assistant purchaser and controller and then as assistant general manager and controller of Nick + Stef’s Steakhouse in Madison Square Garden.

Guidara’s time working at RA taught him that it’s essential to have some but not too much control over your employees. Sometimes, control can help your employees. For example, when RA noticed that the increased price of lobster was negatively affecting a restaurant’s profits, the controller banned their chefs from using the ingredient. The controller’s focus on the restaurant’s bottom line freed the chef to focus on serving great food without having to worry about serving a financially viable lobster dish.

That said, too much control can harm your employees. While working at Nick + Stef’s, Guidara fired a server who regularly disrupted the dinner service due to his unprofessional behavior. While USHG would have trusted Guidara’s decision, RA’s head office rehired the server, explaining to Guidara that this server made the company a lot of money because his customers loved him. Guidara was furious; he believed that the server’s profit potential didn’t outweigh the damage that he did to the rest of the dining team—damage that the head office couldn’t see because they weren’t in the dining room every evening. 

Lesson 3: Spend Wisely

Guidara eventually left RA when a chance encounter with Meyer led to a job as general manager for Meyer’s new casual-dining spaces at the MoMA. This gave him the opportunity to combine the lessons he’d learned at RA with Meyer’s vision. (Shortform note: The authors of Positioning recommend that you stay in touch with people outside your current organization because you’ll get most of your big opportunities through these contacts—as was the case with Guidara.) 

One way Guidara did so was by developing “The Rule of 95/5:” Cut costs as much as possible on 95% of your budget, but spend the last 5% extravagantly—as these extravagant touches will be the most memorable and will keep your guests coming back for more. Guidara created this rule when he added an ice cream cart to the museum’s sculpture garden and invested in expensive but artistic spoons. The memorable spoons drew praise from the guests, and the cart remained profitable despite the expense because Guidara had cut costs elsewhere. 

(Shortform note: At its core, the Rule of 95/5 reflects the idea that a small percentage of what you do has an outsize impact, and so you should focus on that small percentage. This idea is not original to Guidara. The Pareto Principle, or the 80/20 rule, states that 80% of your outputs stem from 20% of your inputs. As such, several business experts—such as The One Thing author Gary Keller—also advise finding the 20% of your actions that have the most impact and focusing on those. But it’s crucial to find the right 20%—and it’s not clear whether Guidara focused on the right 5%. Guidara doesn’t provide any empirical data to support his implication that the expensive spoons played a key role in maintaining the profitability of the ice cream cart.) 

Lesson 4: Be Flexible

Guidara loved working at the MoMA. His passion attracted the attention of Daniel Humm, who Meyer had recently hired as EMP’s executive chef after the restaurant received a disappointing two-star review from The New York Times. Humm suggested to Meyer that Guidara could help Meyer achieve his vision of turning EMP into the fine-dining jewel that Meyer envisioned. 

(Shortform note: in Setting the Table, Meyer provides further context regarding why he replaced both the chef and the general manager after this disappointing two-star review from the Times. Not only did the critic dislike most of EMP’s food, but he also thought that the service felt disingenuous, which threatened Meyer’s philosophy of hospitality.)   

Guidara initially hesitated to become EMP’s general manager. He’d never wanted to work in a fine-dining restaurant because he didn’t want to work in an establishment that prioritized the chef’s vision above all else. However, he agreed to speak with Humm—and after discovering that Humm also wanted to run a restaurant that equalized both the kitchen and the floor staff, Guidara agreed to try the job out for a year. This decision sparked a partnership that would lead to great success for both men—a partnership that would never have happened without Guidara’s willingness to be flexible and join EMP despite his earlier hesitation. 

Why You Should Be Flexible—but Not Too Flexible

Like Guidara, The World Is Flat author Thomas L. Friedman highlights the importance of being flexible in modern times; technology can change the world in an instant, so you must be willing to quickly adapt to keep up. Guidara’s willingness to be flexible may have rubbed off on Humm—even after their partnership, in 2021, Humm made headlines for turning EMP meals vegan in an effort to make the restaurant more sustainable—an effort that, despite some speed bumps, earned the restaurant three Michelin stars in 2022. 

However, too much flexibility can be dangerous as it could lead you to compromise your core purpose. For example, Humm appears to have strayed from his original vision of running a restaurant that didn’t prioritize the chef above all else. In 2022, Humm was plagued by reports that he was paying most EMP staff minimum wage while not letting them accept any tips.
Eleven Madison Park: Will Guidara’s 4 Lessons in Hospitality

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Here's what you'll find in our full Unreasonable Hospitality summary:

  • How Will Guidara turned Eleven Madison Park into the World's Best Restaurant
  • Why service-based businesses should go above and beyond for customers
  • Guidara's lessons he learned from each stage of his business journey

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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