How to Create a Fine-Dining Experience: 4 Tips From Will Guidara

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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What does it take to create a fine-dining experience for customers? How did Eleven Madison Park become a four-star restaurant?

Along with Daniel Humm, Will Guidara wanted to create a fine-dining experience that was also modern and inclusive. To do that, Eleven Madison Park needed to become a four-star restaurant.

These are the lessons Guidara learned on the journey toward providing an outstanding fine-dining experience.

#1: Re-evaluate Your Policies 

Some of Guidara’s successes at EMP stemmed from his willingness to push back against long-standing policies that prevented EMP from upholding the fine-dining experience. For example, all of Meyer’s restaurants closed on Thanksgiving to allow employees to spend time with their families. But in 2007, Guidara proposed that they open on the holiday, pointing out that most of EMP’s employees’ families lived far away, so they couldn’t spend the holiday with them anyway. Meyer agreed—and so EMP opened on Thanksgiving Day. Not only did Thanksgiving become a popular day at EMP, but the profits also allowed the restaurant to close for a few days in January so employees could go home to visit their families.   

(Shortform note: Business experts agree that you should change policies if they’re not working in the way that you want them to. However, rather than wait for someone to notice that a policy isn’t working—the way Guidara did when he realized that keeping EMP open wouldn’t allow employees to spend time with their families—they recommend scheduling regular time every few years to re-evaluate all your policies and change the ones that are no longer useful. Remember to prioritize what you and your employees care about; for example, restaurant owners and employees often enjoy opening on Thanksgiving, while retailers tend to close in part because they worry that their employees will quit if forced to work.)

#2: Take Care of Your People 

Keeping EMP open on Thanksgiving Day didn’t just make the restaurant more money; Guidara used it as an opportunity to create a new tradition that brought the team together by serving the staff a traditional Thanksgiving meal after the restaurant closed. By doing so, Guidara created a space where the staff could connect on a deeper level with each other—and so become a stronger team.

(Shortform note: Cultivating regular events that bring the team together may be particularly important for remote-first companies. These companies tend to prioritize regularly bringing their employees together so that they can improve their relationships by bonding in person. For best results, experts recommend not packing these events with activities; providing your employees with bursts of free time allows them more opportunities to meet and get to know each other.)

In addition to creating traditions, Guidara took care of and brought together his team in two more notable ways. First, he systematized asking for help. At EMP, a server who was struggling could touch her lapel and immediately receive assistance from somebody who noticed this distress call. Guidara contends that introducing this code made it easier to ask for help—and so made it more likely that the employees who needed help would actually ask for it, which reduced overwhelm and potential burnout. 

(Shortform note: Many people struggle to ask for help because they fear that doing so will make them come across as inconsiderate. But at EMP, creating a non-verbal system of asking for assistance helped tackle this fear. Not only did employees have an easy time asking for help, but employees were also easily able to offer help—and employees who felt inconsiderate asking for help felt less inconsiderate if they regularly helped others.) 

Second, he learned how to convey criticism. Guidara argues that criticism is a necessary part of managing people, as it demonstrates that you care about how well they do. But not all criticism is created equal. People receive criticism in different ways; some people need to be yelled at, some need a rational explanation, and some need a gentle rebuke. As a manager, it’s up to you to personalize how you deliver criticism in the way that your team member is most amenable to it. 

(Shortform note: In The Culture Map, Erin Meyer also highlights the necessity of delivering negative feedback in a way the listener understands. She explains that in some countries (like the United States), people tend to deliver negative feedback directly and explicitly. But in other countries, they tend to deliver negative feedback indirectly, often couching these messages in positive affirmations and mitigating language. Understanding your feedback-receiver’s type is crucial: If you deliver indirect feedback to someone who’s used to direct feedback, they may not realize you’re criticizing them. Conversely, delivering direct feedback to someone who’s used to indirect feedback may make you seem cruel.)

#3: Highlight Your People 

In 2008, EMP decided to apply to join Relais & Châteaux, a prestigious restaurant organization, but the restaurant missed the application deadline. Boulud offered to ask the group to consider EMP anyway, and he brought in two rock star chefs—Thomas Keller and Patrick O’Connell—so that all three could ask together. Guidara noticed how awestruck his team was at these chefs’ presence and realized how much this validation boosted their morale. (The chefs loved the restaurant, and EMP was accepted into Relais & Châteaux). 

(Shortform note: In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell argues that people who succeed earlier in life have an advantage, as these early opportunities tend to snowball into larger advantages. EMP’s addition to Relais & Châteaux may be an example: Had Guidara not met and befriended Boulud while at Cornell, he may not have had the connection necessary to apply to the organization even though they’d missed the deadline, and he might not have seen the validating impact that bringing in Keller and O’Connell had on his team.) 

As a result, Guidara started to share external praise of his team members with the team member in question. This included having media personalities speak with the most relevant team members—even if that wasn’t Guidara. These actions helped his team members gain recognition and further supported their growth.

(Shortform note: In Extreme Ownership, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin elaborate on why you should pass on praise to the relevant team members. By directing praise to your team, you set the tone for everyone on the team that success is achieved as a unit, creating a culture that’s focused on the good of the team.) 

#4: Find the Silver Lining

In November 2008, the world plunged into a financial crisis—and took EMP along with it. Due to the shaky economy, EMP’s usual customers cut back on expensive meals. The restaurant survived only because EMP owned Shake Shack, a casual fast-food USHG restaurant that exploded in popularity because it was now a cheaper option in the area.

However, Guidara learned to find the silver lining in these financially challenging times. For example, EMP started a $29 lunch special. This allowed young people who couldn’t previously afford EMP to eat at the restaurant—and in later years, many of these people became more financially successful and continued patronizing the restaurant. 

What You Can Learn From How EMP Survived the Financial Crisis 

Guidara doesn’t detail just how badly EMP was doing financially during this time. The restaurant’s struggles after the 2008 crash were amplified by the fact that EMP had undergone a several-hundred-thousand-dollar renovation shortly before the financial crisis hit, and despite Shake Shack’s support, EMP was still losing money in 2009.

However, EMP knew that to get four stars, the Times’ food critic had to think the restaurant was doing well. So they didn’t just rely on attracting customers with a budget lunch special; the restaurant staff packed the dining room with friends on nights they suspected the critic might appear. So if you’re struggling as an entrepreneur, consider relying on your friends. Even if they can’t help you financially, they can provide essential moral support during tough times. And take a cue from EMP and focus on developing relationships, since most of your business will come from repeat customers, who tend to spend more per visit.
How to Create a Fine-Dining Experience: 4 Tips From Will Guidara

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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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