Going for gold


Danny Meyer, owner of Union Square Hospitality Group and recent James Beard Award Winner for Outstanding Restaurant of the Year has much more to offer than good food. When asked what made his restaurant the best, his answer was simple. “I hire good humans.” This gave me pause. He continued by saying that within seconds of being born, if we are raised in a loving environment, we are given eye contact, affection and nourishment. As silly or elementary as it may sound, he tries to make his customers feel valued the second they step into any of his restaurants and to do that, he must hire good humans to create a “gold standard” experience in any of his restaurants.

This begs the question: what makes a good human? Are the qualities required in good wait staff, or any service person for that matter, that much different than what we would hope to create within ourselves and our children?

Mr. Meyer has studied this extensively and in the hiring process, he works from a formula that has rarely failed him. The interview is all about finding a “51-percenter.” This is someone who has innate emotional skills including genuine warmth, kindness, curiosity, a strong work ethic and empathy. These qualities are crucial to creating an outstanding hospitality environment. Emotional aptitude can be cultivated, but if a worker simply has no internal sense ofthis, it is much more difficult to teach than the remaining 49 percent of the technical skills needed for the jobs he offers.

So how do we foster these “emotional skills?” And do we even give our kids the time to do such a thing?  In our country, it seems, we are all about the technical skills. As the newest crop of college students graduate, I wonder what kind of humans will hit the streets. These are the kids who have grown up without pick-up games of baseball, spontaneous water gun fights, and time to make a lemonade stand just for the fun of it. Instead, they have lived heavily-scheduled lives full of technology and the pressure to “succeed” with mom or dad monitoring their behavior—out of genuine fear and concern. They have been taught to “go for their dreams” without being given any time to think about them and any practice at navigating the practical skills of life on their own. Pick-up games and water gun fights without hovering parents teach some of those emotional skills Mr. Meyer deems essential to a good worker. In all the scheduled activities and well-meaning parenting, did creating an environment of hospitality make it onto their itinerary?

I am not the only one to worry about this. David Brooks, author of The Social Animal and New York Times columnist, recently suggested in his column “It’s Not About You” that perhaps, while well-meaning, the wrong message has been given to our young people. Yes, it is important to do what you love. But, more importantly, it’s important to do out of love because that, in the end, is what makes this whole stint on our planet worthwhile. To see a need and try to fill it or identify a problem and try to fix it brings meaning and serves purpose to everyone and not just you. According to Brooks, people are most successful when they feel they have served someone other than themselves. 

This leads me to my own summer plans. I have been fretting over what my kids should “do.” In my dreams, they frolic outdoors all day long with the neighbor kids, and play imaginary games where my involvement is not desired. I get to write and cook to my heart’s content and keep the pantry stocked when they come in for nourishment.

This is only a dream. Most neighbor kids are in child care or so scheduled that no one is home. I have two choices. I can jump on the bandwagon and start scheduling them myself, or let them get bored and out of desperation, start playing with each other. This would be the equivalent of hitting rock bottom for both of them, but might there be value in this? Might the opportunity for freedom to create and structure their own day and negotiate with each other day in and day out be one step toward creating those “good humans” that both Meyer and Brookes refer to?

I have witnessed many young adults out and about in various service industries and it  seems quite clear that some are far more adept at problem-solving and utilizing those elusive “people” skills than others. Some of them had mothers who insisted on good phone etiquette and eye contact. Apparent, too, are kids who must have been given time and encouragement to solve problems and create solutions by their willingness to seek answers to questions for those they are helping. Too often, I see covert texting and blank stares when I have a question. When I began my first stint in the fast food industry years ago, my manager told me this, “Do not become someone’s bad story of the day.” I took this to heart. Even though it was a dead-end job, I still learned that I was serving and it meant something to someone. Maybe I would not be remembered for my smile and willingness to help, but more importantly, I would not be remembered for bad manners and what I did not know.

How any of this fits into my family summer plans is not yet clear, but certainly I will be working on raising a few good humans. I will aim for middle-ground in terms of scheduling; it is my default in times of parental uncertainty. And like Meyer, I will keep the 51 percent at the forefront of my mind and go for gold.