June 13th, 2014
06:00 PM ET
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Can a person learn the art of hospitality?

That’s the question the organizers of the first Welcome Conference want to pose to participants both within and outside the restaurant industry. This sold-out, service-focused event will be held in New York City on June 17, and the team behind it hopes their message will spread.

“Service is black and white, hospitality is color,” says Will Guidara, one of the organizers. He’s the co-owner and restaurateur of Eleven Madison Park and The NoMad in New York; the former most recently earned the No. 4 spot on San Pellegrino’s notably buzzworthy World’s 50 Best Restaurants List.

What he’s talking about is the somewhat recent trend of restaurants extending beyond traditional service and taking extra measures - like Googling guests or handling special occasions - to make their diners feel like active and unique participants in their own experience.

will guidara and anthony rudolf
Will Guidara, left, and Anthony Rudolf

For the event, Guidara teamed up with Anthony Rudolf, the former director of operations for Thomas Keller Restaurant Group and former general manager of Per Se, also in New York.

The message Guidara hopes to convey through the conference is simple. “By saying that hospitality is a learnable or teachable thing and taking it out of the restaurant world, you’re saying: ‘Can we teach other people to be nice to each other?’”

Teach? No, says Rudolf. Learn? "Unequivocally yes." A teacher isn't anything without a receptive learner.

A quick glance through some Internet comments can teach you enough about that, but both his and Rudolf’s glasses are half-full.

“The service aspects aside, it (hospitality) is about emotion, and connecting with human emotion,” Rudolf says. “I can’t teach you what care feels like for another human, or the visceral response you get when you make someone else happy.”

But, what they want to teach: the ability to take a beat, chill out and respond graciously.

The duo say they devised the event after noticing a wave of educational conferences for chefs like the MAD Symposium in Copenhagen - deemed the “food world’s G-20 summit” by the Wall Street Journal - that put emphasis on the mindfulness of cooking, rather than just the hottest new trends and techniques.

But for the people who actually bring that thoughtful food to the table and act as liaison between the kitchen and dining room, there was no forum to share new thinking about hospitality, except by getting together informally, (for, say, a post-shift drink) with their peers from other restaurants.

It might sound a little trite, Rudolf says, but being on the vulnerable side of an interaction is a “very humbling experience.”

This re-framing of the customer-server interaction is a business concept that one of the indisputable OGs of hospitality, Danny Meyer, is often credited with.

Meyer, who owns Union Square Hospitality Group and institutions of varying degrees of formality from the casual Shake Shack to fine dining stalwart Gramercy Tavern, touched on it in his book, “Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business.”

He says hospitality “is how the delivery of that product makes its recipient feel.”

Guidara, who considers Meyer a mentor, says service industry professionals should ask themselves a simple question: “What’s your reason for being here and doing what you’re doing? Is it to teach someone or make them feel good? I do enjoy educating people, but that is secondary to making them feel good.”

What’s not part of their role is deciding if customers are “right” – a sentiment some restaurateurs are reconsidering.

“I think the word ‘right’ is a dangerous word,” Guidara says. It’s about understanding what they need (i.e. fireworks for a date, deal), he says.

And if service workers are hung up on who is right and who is wrong, Guidara says they are “focusing on the wrong things.”

The conference comes at an interesting time, as conversations around tipping are tallying up nationwide. Cities like Seattle and states like Michigan recently voted to raise the minimum wage. Some restaurants, like Packhouse Meats in Newport, Kentucky, and New York’s Sushi Yasuda and Restaurant Riki, have opted out of merit-based wages all together.

According to a 2013 report on minimum wage workers by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than half of all workers paid at or below the federal minimum wage were employed in the hospitality industry - the vast majority of them in food service settings and supplemented by gratuity-based income.

Meanwhile, the service industries (which includes restaurants of any caliber) account for a staggering 68% of the U.S. GDP and four out of five U.S. jobs, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

Guidara and Rudolf want to find the middle ground between institutions that project a stuffy air of the diners being the lucky ones and those that seem as if the staff would rather be anywhere else - like a casting call.

“It feels good to be taken care of,” Guidara says.

He notes that the dining room often gets blamed for things that are out of their control, but they also get honored with things they had nothing to do with. But getting feedback is one part of a server’s role.

“You learn to be confident enough to humble yourself and subordinate yourself to another person. And to have someone yell at you and not take it personally and just take it in, learn what you can and respond with graciousness,” Guidara says.

Rudolf paraphrases Charles Masson, formerly of New York's decades-old La Grenouille and one of the speakers at the conference, on the importance of bottom-of-the-totem-pole roles.

“In America, there is a struggle with being an insubordinate - but that’s where all the leverage is. From the physics standpoint, it’s easier to push someone up when you’re below them than it is to pull them up if you’re above them.”

"It’s one of the very few places where expectations of being a human to another human are not only expected, but compensated for," Rudolf says.

“Hospitality is a choice,” he adds.

No matter which side of the table you’re on.

soundoff (40 Responses)
  1. Anh

    I don't know. Do we have to work in hospitality to learn all this? Are you suggesting that the rest of the world who don't work in service industry simply are not capable to learn those basics on their own?

    January 20, 2015 at 11:13 am |
  2. Woohoooo!

    I just posted to be posting.

    October 8, 2014 at 10:29 am |
  3. Haystacks

    I find working in the service industry, it is very easy to tell who has worked in a "real job" (minimum wage, on your feet, ext. Not that other jobs aren't real.). They are more patient, calmer in the face of issues that might come up, and tip a lot better.

    I can also tell when someone has never in their lives been on the other side of the table. They are more likely to be entitled, condescending, and give lousy tips. The truth is, if you have never worked in retail, service or waiting tables, you have no idea of what it is like to work hard for very little, and be subordinate to absolute strangers (some who have no problem with being abusive to you), all with a surprisingly high amount of stress.

    Does working in service make you nicer? I don't know, but it certainly makes you a much better customer.

    August 20, 2014 at 1:25 pm |
  4. Johnny

    HAHA no

    June 18, 2014 at 6:39 pm |
  5. jonp

    I hate food servers. When are we going to replace them with robots?

    June 17, 2014 at 4:25 pm |
    • Thinking things through

      Probably about when you as a diner gets replaced with a robot. But, robots don't need food.

      June 17, 2014 at 7:14 pm |
  6. BC

    I'm not sure it makes you nicer, but working in food service or working retail helps you understand what it takes to serve the public. Serving others tends to make you more understanding of those serving you. The entitled, who have never served, are far more likely to be a PITA.

    June 17, 2014 at 4:12 pm |
    • Binny

      I have always said that everyone should have to work retail at the holidays at least once in their life- it would make many think twice about how they treat others. Of course there are always those who won't ever learn that lesson!

      July 4, 2014 at 9:29 pm |
  7. Richard

    I have found that many (not all)rich people are the rudest and most condesending. Body language(Mostly facial -rolling eyes or scowl and tone of voice) and then they are the lowball tippers as well..... literally to the penny... if that. I can always tell those who neve served anybody and those who have.

    June 17, 2014 at 2:52 pm |
  8. Frank Tillery

    One of my favorite jobs while in high school was as a waiter/room service server. I got a chance to meet so many different people and because of the location of the hotel in which I worked, there would be travelers from around the world. It does give one an appreciation of people from all walks of life. I am sure it helped me to be nicer and more tolerant of people I meet. Not a bad job...

    June 17, 2014 at 2:06 pm |
  9. marc

    I don't know how it could make anyone nicer. You hear these people carrying on with their servers about the pettiest thngs. Some people are so particular that they need to cook at home to get the food compliant with their 2 dozen requirements. And, those are generally the ones who don't want to tip after all the aggravation. Another interesting survey would be if flight attendant's get nicer after taking their jobs. Many are as endearing as rabid dogs. Not sure if it's low pay and dealing with aggravating people, the power trip that comes with the ability to have the authorities arrest any passenger for any infraction, or something else.

    June 17, 2014 at 12:13 pm |
    • JellyBean

      Interesting suggestion. I have not flown a lot but have noticed the rude, obnoxious fliers are drunks.

      June 17, 2014 at 1:09 pm |
  10. JellyBean

    Worked three years as a restaurant manager. Did not make me nicer but sure as heck made miles more patient.

    June 17, 2014 at 11:26 am |
    • Amen

      Capeche. I worked for 3 years in fast food then 2 years ringing up PITA's in a grocery store. I'm definitely more tolerant & patient towards the general public as a result.

      June 17, 2014 at 12:08 pm |
  11. Mike

    I waited tables for about 5 years in my early twenties. It made me hate people even more than I already did. Of course there were exceptions but it was just a terrible job. I tip 20-25% now as I know how hard they work. Always be friendly to your server people. You're 30k office job does not give you the right to be cheap and rude.

    June 17, 2014 at 11:23 am |
    • Mike


      June 17, 2014 at 11:26 am |
      • Kapnkaos

        Did that make you feel better?

        June 17, 2014 at 7:06 pm |
    • Jan

      I had an almost identical experience, but rather than being made to dislike people, my 5 years waitressing in a busy coffee shop taught me both to tip (both better and more people in more positions) and that a serious problem with jobs that rely on tips is that they make us start judging people based more on what they pay us than by who they really are, how they treat us, and how they treat others. I didn't like that change in myself of how I responded to people based on if I expected them to reward me well or not, and that was part of my leaving waitress work.

      June 17, 2014 at 11:41 am |
    • Really? @Mike

      I get the feeling that you are just a hateful person, no matter what your employment background.

      June 17, 2014 at 11:51 am |
      • Fake-ley@Really

        You must have stopped reading half-way thru his post. Lighten up Francis.

        June 17, 2014 at 12:06 pm |
    • emma

      I waitressed throughout high school and university and learned that rude, demanding people were generally very insecure and needed to push someone whom they perceived as less important around to feel better about themselves. Those people come from every background, all ages and both sexes. Ironically, they only made themselves look petty, small and ill-bred. One rotten person could ruin your day but one very nice person is someone you would remember a long time. I learned what type of person I wanted to be. I am grateful for that.

      June 19, 2014 at 10:26 am |
  12. Thinking things through

    As with anything, I suspect some people get nicer, and some get meaner.

    June 17, 2014 at 8:18 am |
  13. Intense1984

    Working in a restaurant doesn't have anything to do with your personality. It's a job, plain and simple. I used to work for a fast food chain; stayed about 6 months before I was able to find a phone customer service related job. There was this one guy among us that was really nice and professional to customers but when it came to us, his workmates, he was pretty much an arrogant dick. So, no, working at a restaurant or any job related to serving stuff to people won't make you nice or anything. You're nice if you're nice and you're a jerk if you're a jerk.

    June 17, 2014 at 3:38 am |
  14. Michael

    Instead of a draft, the US should require that all newly minted adults wait on tables for at least 2 years. It will teach coordination, courtesy, people skills, math, customer service and most of all, the world will turn just a tad more smoothly. Only then will some people appreciate the science of proper table service. Customer service, learned and performed properly, is the very best prerequisite for life.

    June 16, 2014 at 7:07 pm |
    • Really?

      While in theory, servers should have mastered all of those skills, the sad reality is that most servers today fall far short.

      June 16, 2014 at 8:06 pm |
    • No way

      Michael, I would rather HAVE a draft in the military than work for a restaurant or retail chain. I support any organization that wants to end both industries.

      June 17, 2014 at 11:20 am |
  15. KAS

    I once was at a place where our order kept getting delayed. Repeatedly. This went on for approximately 20 minutes but during that time our server kept coming back and apologizing and after a while gave us, for free, some small appetizers.

    At the end of the meal (when it finally arrived), I left a very big tip for them, around 25%. The person couldn't believe it and wanted to make sure I had meant it. I told them that they had done everything humanly possible to get our meal to us short of cooking it themselves. As I had worked in their line of work in the past, I knew where the problem lay and it wasn't with them.

    I guess in my case, having worked in restaurants before, it did make me nicer.

    June 16, 2014 at 3:44 pm |
  16. toodark

    Totally agree. All customer service can help in that way but there's something about being responsible for a person's food face to face that takes it to another level. Although, I have seen it go the other way. I've known a couple of people who only ever worked at a high end restaurant who were demanding beasts when they were judging someone waiting on them.

    June 16, 2014 at 2:12 pm |
  17. moiraesfate

    Working in customer service makes you nicer to service industry professionals, yes. It's NOT just working as a server in a restaurant. People are RUDE to CS staff. Really really RUDE. So much so that I'm surprised more people don't get punched in the face for the way they talk to CS staff.

    June 15, 2014 at 12:22 pm |
    • brilligmark1

      Absolutely. I worked in customer service while putting myself through college. It is horrible; terrible hours, terrible job security, working most holidays, and the general public uses you as a whipping boy. The worst was working at Block Buster as a shift manager while they were still charging late fees.

      June 15, 2014 at 2:00 pm |
    • me

      I worked at the 2nd largest home security service until I found a REAL JOB and would have welcomed a job flipping hamburgers after working there. The public acts like total aholes to a person who has on their computer screen your name, address and phone number and is taking your credit card info to pay your bill. If the calls hadn't been taped I would have liked to have told every one of those jerks who treated me like crap what I thought of them. I was never so glad to leave a job in my life and would not recommend a job like that to anyone unless they are into S &M or torture.

      June 15, 2014 at 10:09 pm |
  18. John

    This is a great article but how about an article posting out the extremely abusive nature of chefs in these types of restaurants and the expected tolerance of such abuse placed on the employee by the industry. I have heard countless stories from former employess of daniel humm raging and screaming, throwing plates and stuffing the food in employess faces. no current employees would ever speak out against such activities out of a forced sense of "loyalty" which makes it hard to put an end to such activites, but the abusive and violent nature of high profile chef's should certainly be addressed

    June 14, 2014 at 11:15 pm |
  19. Steve Chernick

    Me personally, my ideal restaurant experience involves excellent food and drink, and a waiter that does his job in the most minimalist way possible. Polite but not swooning, honest answers on the menu, etc. However, I'm in the minority. As a 10 year service industry veteran, I've found most people really like being treated like royalty, and for me its just about the food. I honestly have trouble understanding people who go out and count the service aspect with more relevance than the food itself. I mean, as long as the waiter isn't rude or forgetful, what more could I ask for? But, alas, I'll reiterate, I'm in the minority.

    June 14, 2014 at 9:21 pm |
  20. maxine

    I love working in restaurants and try to treat people like they are in my home.
    sadly a lot of customers are terribly rude.

    June 14, 2014 at 6:25 pm |
    • di

      I try to be nice to my servers, they have a hard job to do, they have to put up with the cooks & customers. I know I was one for about 1 week. You have to really like it–some people are good at it, and keep it up..like you. Some know its not for them.
      Dealing with "the customer is always right' in any job is hard at times, because customers are not always in the right.
      Just remember what comes around goes around.

      June 16, 2014 at 11:57 am |
  21. kcanderson2014

    Not just a restaurant. Retail as well. I believe in less Government, but every young person on the country, say between 17 and 22 should mandated to spend at last 6 months waitressing or working retail, especially big box store cashier. People would certainly be a bit more considerate and less dismissive of "the help" once they've been there themselves.

    June 14, 2014 at 12:52 am |
    • Sandy

      I agree wholeheartedly–but without the age limit. There are plenty of folks older than 22 who would benefit greatly from being on the other side of the counter and being subjected to all that entails. A customer once told one of my cashiers, "You remind me of my daughter, except she has a 'real' job." I bit my tongue to keep from explaining what a REAL job it can be to work with the public.

      June 14, 2014 at 2:33 pm |
    • Mel

      I'm 100% with you! I waited tables for a little over a year during college, and it was the best experience of my life. It definitely shaped the way I deal with people, as I would never want to be the type of person that I dealt with many times. I still work in a customer service oriented job, and I have said over and over that it would be so helpful if everybody was required to work a restaurant or retail job for at least 6 months right out of high school. Once you have, you will never be the annoying or obnoxious customer again.

      June 16, 2014 at 1:50 pm |
    • Carn E. Vore

      I think that's ridiculous. You want to force people to support the consumer culture by working in service jobs? If you're going to force people into labor, why not force them into working on road crews repairing our crumbling infrastructure? Or working in a soup kitchen? Or in a VA hospital? Or if you want people to be more considerate, how about smacking the schiesse out of the parents the day they have kids and let them behave rudely?
      Mandated retail work in order to make people more considerate may be the dumbest thing posted on the internet today.

      June 19, 2014 at 11:13 am |
      • Sgt Hulks

        Dang Carn. Who peed in your corn flakes? You know what I'm gonna say next, right?

        Lighten up Francis.

        June 19, 2014 at 12:05 pm |
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