There’s an inherent flaw in the saying that the customer is always right, says Will Guidara, celebrated New York restaurateur and Founder of transformational hospitality agency Thank You.
"It’s not about the customer or the business being right," he says. "I believe hospitality is a dialogue, not a monologue. Both parties should lean into one another."
At age 26, Guidara began working at Eleven Madison Park in New York. Together with chef Daniel Humm, Guidara transformed Eleven Madison Park’s stagnating fortunes and in just a few years, made it one of the best restaurants in the world, all through the power of what he calls "unreasonable hospitality".
"We prioritized hospitality at a level beyond which other restaurants were."
"I talk a lot about unreasonable hospitality, which is about pursuing relationships with creativity and intention," Guidara tells The CEO Magazine.
"You have to create the right conditions for the people who interact with your business to feel a profound connection to you and to each other because of it. It’s about creating a meaningful exchange."
Listening and learning
Today’s customer experience strategies have to go beyond mere flamboyance and showing off, he says.
"There are plenty of restaurants serving crazy dishes and doing all these theatrics, but I believe the most profound moments come through specific and thoughtful gestures that demonstrate that the restaurant cares enough to listen to what you say and then to do something with what they’ve heard," he says.
At Eleven Madison Park, these moments have become the restaurant’s signature.
"I overheard a table lamenting that the one thing they hadn’t been able to try on their culinary trip to New York was a $2 street hot dog," Guidara recalls.
"So I served them a humble street hot dog, and it had more of an impact on their experience than any crazy, over-the-top meal because it was specific to them."
Moreover, the gesture had a massive impact on Eleven Madison Park.
"It started a whole new way of thinking within my restaurant," he says. "Eventually we had an entire position called the Dream Weaver, whose only responsibility was to help everyone else in the team bring their ideas to life."
Guidara believes that total dedication was the reason Eleven Madison Park became so successful.
"We prioritized hospitality at a level beyond which other restaurants were," he says.
Focus on hospitality
That philosophy permeates Guidara’s 2022 book, Unreasonable Hospitality: The Remarkable Power of Giving People More Than They Expect, which details his approach to hospitality and the lessons other industries can take away from his success.
"You start putting hospitality at the center of every decision, prioritizing people – and how you make them feel – as much as prioritizing product," he says.
"You can’t be a hospitality business without also being an experience business, but I think you can be an experience industry without being a hospitality business."
"You have to give your people the permission and resources to bring their own creativity to the experience."
What that means in practical terms is reassessing the balance between control and empowerment.
"I think you need to exert a certain amount of control to be the best, but you have to give your people the permission and resources to bring their own creativity to the experience," he says. "Otherwise they won’t ever bring their most fully realized selves to the table."
Guidara cites United States Navy Captain David Marquet, who says that in most organizations, the people at the top have all the authority and none of the information, while the people on the frontline have all the information and none of the authority.
"I believe the best approach is to level that out the best you can," Guidara says. "Give authority down and try to encourage information to come up."
In November, Guidara will take his lessons and wisdom of the hospitality sector to the World Business Forum event in New York.
There, he’ll take the stage alongside business gurus including optimist Simon Sinek, executive coach Marshall Goldsmith, strategy expert Marcus Collins and digital futurist Peter Diamandis.
"The more industries that make the choice to also be in the hospitality business, the better off the world will be," Guidara says.
"So getting to share my ideas and the lessons I’ve learned, either myself or from the many amazing mentors I’ve gotten to know over the course of my career, is something I’m really excited for."
"You can’t control what life throws at you, but you can control how you react to it, how you allow it to motivate you and how you use it to make you grow."
Guidara says his greatest mentor is his father, also a lifelong restaurateur.
"I’ve learned so many lessons from him," he says. "But one that resonates with me in this moment is that adversity is a terrible thing to waste. You can’t control what life throws at you, but you can control how you react to it, how you allow it to motivate you and how you use it to make you grow."
The elder Guidara also taught his son much about integrity.
"One of my favorite quotes from him is, ‘When you’re faced with challenging seasons in life, ask yourself what right looks like and just do that.’"
It’s wisdom, like so many lessons learned in the kitchen, that has the power to transcend industries and even business itself.
"So many decisions feel impossible as you’re navigating through the web of life, both personally and professionally," Guidara says. "But if you lean on that one simple question – what does right look like? – suddenly the right answer feels pretty clear."
Will Guidara will appear at the World Business Forum in New York on 15–16 November 2023.