Published: 3 years ago

Scooting the Saltshaker

Last week I revisited one of the better books on hospitality I’ve read in the last few years. Setting the Table by Danny Meyer is part autobiography, part how-to guide. Meyer is a crazy-successful restauranteur in New York City, and STT is the story of how it all came together and – more importantly – stays together.

Meyer recounted a time earlier in his career, when he was struggling to develop the skills he felt like he needed as a leader. Here’s his conversation with a mentor named Pat Cetta:

I bemoaned the fact that I was failing to get any kind of consistent message across to my staff members regarding standards of excellence. Waiters and managers (at least half of whom were older than I) were continually testing me and pushing the limits, and this was driving me crazy.

Pat pointed to the set table next to us. “First,” he said, “I want you to take everything off that table except for the saltshaker. Go ahead! Get rid of the plates, the silverware, the napkins, even the pepper mill. I just want you to leave the saltshaker by itself in the middle.” I did as he said, and he asked, “Where is the saltshaker now?”

“Right where you told me, in the center of the table.”

“Are you sure that’s where you want it?” I looked closely. The shaker was actually about a quarter of an inch off center. “Go ahead. Put it where you really want it,” he said. I moved it very slightly to what looked to be smack-dab in the center. As soon as I removed my hand, Pat pushed the saltshaker three inches off center.

“Now put it back where you want it,” he said. I returned it to dead center. This time he moved the shaker another six inches off center, again asking, “Now where do you want it?”

I slid it back. Then he explained his point. “Listen…your staff and your guests are always moving your saltshaker off center. That’s their job. It is the job of life. It’s the law of entropy! Until you understand that, you’re going to get [mad] every time someone moves the saltshaker off center. It is not your job to get upset. You just need to understand: that’s what they do. Your job is just to move the shaker back each time and let them know exactly what you stand for. Let them know what excellence looks like to you. And if you’re ever willing to let them decide where the center is, then I want you to give them the keys to the store. Just give away the…restaurant!”

Leader, I’m willing to bet that this weekend, someone moved your saltshaker. Maybe a guest bumped the table. Perhaps a volunteer felt like they knew better than you where it should go. Maybe your supervisor suggested that you move it, though he didn’t know the rationale behind why it was there in the first place.

It is not your job to get upset. Moving the saltshaker is what people do. Your job is to define center, set the standard for excellence, share that vision with everyone you can, and move on.

Scoot that saltshaker.


(click for photo credit)


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