A legendary restaurateur taught me to use constant, gentle pressure to manage my growing company.
By: Danny Meyer Published October 2006
During one of his uncannily well-timed impromptu visits to my restaurant, Union Square Cafe, Pat Cetta taught me how to manage people. Pat was the owner of a storied New York City steakhouse called Sparks, and by that time, he was an old pro at running a fine restaurant. By contrast, I was still in my twenties and unsure of how to lead my business, which was growing fast. Sitting at a table with Pat, 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 was–were continually testing me and pushing the limits, and this was driving me crazy.
“If you choose to get upset about this, you are missing the boat, luvah,” Pat said with reassuring calm and an indelible New York accent. Then he gave me a demonstration that has become integral to the way I view management. He pointed to the set table next to us. “First,” he said, “I want you to take everything off that table except for the saltshaker. 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 six inches off center, again asking, “Now where do you want it?”
I slid it back. Then he explained his point. “Listen, luvah. 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 pissed off 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. 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 f—in’ restaurant!”
That center point of the table, Pat was saying, represented the core of excellence. Every other point on the table was, to some degree, a measure of mediocrity or even failure. But his powerful lesson also taught me to preserve my energy and not waste it getting upset about a basic, ongoing fact of life: “Shit happens, luvah!”
Understanding the “saltshaker theory” has helped me develop and teach a managerial style I now call constant, gentle pressure–it’s the way I return the saltshaker to the center each time life moves it. At a busy restaurant, of course, it doesn’t take much to move our saltshaker off center. All it takes is for one guest to be late, having taken longer than expected to send that last e-mail from the office, to kiss the kids good night, or to get a taxi in the rain or cold. One party’s tardiness may cause us to be as much as 20 minutes behind for the next reservation. If two or more tables are running late, we may end up with a pileup at the front door–causing our standards to appear less than excellent. My staff’s job is to adjust to circumstances with technical precision and artful grace so that every patron has a wonderful experience.
Leave any one element out-constant, gentle, or pressure-and you are far less effective.
It’s my job, and consequently the job of every other leader in my company, to teach everyone who works for us to distinguish center from off center and always to set things right. I send my managers an unequivocal message: I’m going to be extremely specific as to where every component on that tabletop belongs. I anticipate that outside forces, including you, will conspire to change the table setting. Every time that happens, I’m going to move everything back to the way it should be. That’s the constant aspect. I’ll never recenter the saltshaker in a way that denies you your dignity. That’s the gentle aspect. But standards are standards, and I’m constantly watching every table and pushing back on every saltshaker that’s moved because excellent performance is paramount. That’s the pressure.
Constant, gentle pressure is my preferred technique for leadership, guidance, and coaching. It’s the job of any business owner to be clear about the company’s nonnegotiable core values. They’re the riverbanks that help guide us as we refine and improve on performance and excellence. A lack of riverbanks creates estuaries and cloudy waters that are confusing to navigate. I want a crystal-clear, swiftly flowing stream. Riverbanks need not hinder creativity, and in fact I leave plenty of room between the riverbanks for individual expression and personal style.
Every business needs a core strategy to be what I call always on the improve, and for us it’s constant, gentle pressure. The name for this management style came to me from another restaurateur, who was using it to describe his view of our company. I was in Aspen for one of my annual summer appearances as a speaker at the Food & Wine Classic. My partner at Union Square Cafe, Paul Bolles-Beaven, and I had returned to town following an appearance on Good Morning America at the crack of dawn, and we stopped for breakfast at the Ajax Tavern.
We got to talking with Michael Chiarello, who was then the chef and co-owner of Ajax and who was holding court at the bar. This was in June 1998, a few months before we were to double the size of our company by launching two new restaurants in New York City, and we were looking for all the strategic advice we could get. Michael was in a growth mode himself, with restaurants in California and Colorado and a big idea for a mail-order company to be called NapaStyle. We asked him a lot of questions about how he managed his time with so many businesses to run, how he delegated, and to whom. After sharing a number of valuable insights, he said, “There are some things I could learn from you guys as well.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“Well, the word on the street is that you’ve got the single best management style of any restaurant company,” he said.
“It’s nice of you to say that,” I said. “But what do you mean?”
“I’d call it constant, gentle pressure,” Michael said, and then described precisely what we had been doing.
That morning was the first time I ever stopped to think about this important aspect of my own business style, which so far had been intuitive. Michael Chiarello had given us a great gift by providing language that would allow us and our managers to share and teach a business philosophy. It helped me understand that we needed all three words–constant, gentle, and pressure–working at once to push our business forward. Leave any one element out, and management is far less effective. If you are constantly gentle but fail to apply pressure when needed, your business won’t grow or improve: Your team will lack the drive and passion for excellence. If you exert gentle pressure but not constantly, both your staff and your guests will get a mixed message depending on what day it is and probably won’t believe that excellence truly matters to you. If you exert constant pressure that isn’t gentle, employees may burn out, quit, or lose their graciousness–and you will probably cease to attract good employees. Leaders must identify which of the three elements (constant, gentle, or pressure) plays to their greatest natural strengths and, when necessary, they must compensate for their natural weaknesses. For example, over the years I’ve learned that constant and gentle are my natural instincts, and so I’ve had to focus on developing ease at applying pressure.
Ultimately, of course, the purpose of constant, gentle pressure is less to eliminate problems than to create a staff that is expert at finding imaginative solutions to address your business’s problems–creating a system that can anticipate and accommodate the patron who arrives late for a reservation, for example. Lasting solutions rely on giving appropriate team members a voice, as well as responsibility for making decisions. There is definitely an art to this inclusive type of leadership. It can take a lot more time than leadership based on “my way or the highway.” It demands dialogue, compromise, and a willingness to share power.
Two keys to building consensus for problem solving are coaching and communication. Coaching is correction with dignity. It’s helping people refine skills, showing how to get the job done, and truly wanting employees to reach their peak potential. Communication is at the root of all
business strengths–and weaknesses. When things go wrong and employees become upset, whether at a restaurant or some other kind of business, nine times out of ten the justifiable complaint is, “We need to communicate better.”
I admit that for many years, I didn’t really know what this meant. I had no problem standing up in front of a group to give a talk. I thought I was a pretty good communicator, but then it dawned on me: Communicating has as much to do with context as it does content. Understanding who needs to know what, when people need to know it, and why–and then presenting that information in an entirely comprehensible way–is a sine qua non of great leadership. Clear, appropriate, timely communication is the key to applying constant, gentle pressure.
This article is adapted from Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business by Danny Meyer (copyright ©2006 by Danny Meyer), and published by arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers.