Competition to Collaboration (Part 2)
Every restaurant is unique. No two chefs roast a chicken in the same way. And if you dare, dive into the financials of any restaurant — no payroll is organized in the same way. Although we may vary wildly in philosophy, cuisine, operations, let me remind you that we all share two fundamental commonalities. Below the surface of making people happy, every restaurant exists to nourish and nurture.
“Every restaurant exists to nourish and nurture.”
Just imagine what we could accomplish if we chose to focus on what we have in common, if we chose to collaborate rather than compete. When we harness our unique perspectives to build a united front, that’s when we can really evolve. That’s when we can really make changes that matter for all of us. Before you think about satisfying the consumer, it’s important to think about how your decisions and actions will affect the entire ecosystem. Find your community within the community and take care of your own first. We have more in common than we care to acknowledge. And we have so much to learn and gain from each other.
I know from experience. In 2009, I became the General Manager of Per Se. Now, as some of you may know, as you rise up the ranks and grow your career, your community gets smaller and smaller. And let me just say, it’s lonely at the top. As the recession ran its course and pressure mounted, all I wanted was to sit and talk to someone who was going through the same struggles. But rather than seek out new connections, I made the mistake of isolating myself. I was scared to expose my vulnerabilities.
This fear came to a head in the fall of that same year. There I was at the Relâis & Chateaux congress in Biarritz, France and Will Guidara, the General Manager of Eleven Madison Park, was seated to my right. My skin bristled at just the sight of him. I hated him. I hated his tie. I hated that his restaurant had just received four stars. And I hated the way his presence made me feel.
Granted, I knew nothing about him, but that was besides the point. He was my competitor, my arch nemesis, and here we were, flung together in a foreign country and surrounded by complete strangers with obvious language barriers.
I don’t remember which of us spoke to the other first. But I do remember that Will and I hit it off right away. It suddenly dawned on me that I had never attempted a real conversation with him before, all because I had let my fragile ego get in the way. We discovered that we had a lot in common and a lot to talk about. So once we got back the states, we started meeting regularly. We exchanged ideas. And as our relationship grew stronger, we even started introducing other General Managers into the mix.
It’s no coincidence that both Eleven Madison Park and Per Se do not have maître d’ stands. It was over coffee that Will and I first tossed this idea around. And the beautiful thing is, we each made it our own. Because as I like to quote, “Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.” We executed the idea in two very different ways that work in harmony with our unique restaurant flows.
Ultimately, my connection with Will grew into one of the things I am most proud of to date. Five years after that fateful first meeting in France, we launched the Welcome Conference. The perfect reflection of the collaborative relationship Will and I shared. A room full of peers sharing and talking, stripping down the walls, and being more vulnerable. Last year, the conference filled a room with 375 restaurant professionals from all over the world and nearly 2,000 watching online. And I am certain that that community is going to do big things for the evolution of our industry.
The simple act of letting go of our egos and false sense of competition eventually led us to think about what we could do if we were to do it together. And above and beyond that, Will has become one of my best friends.
My mission in life is to help others along the path of following their dreams. It was only after I defined that for myself that I was able to understand who was truly part of my community. This enabled me to move past my own vulnerabilities and design for a team that I formed with Will — someone I once considered a competitor. Together, Will and I built a conference for our industry. And ultimately, from this concentrated energy of sharing within a distinct community, consumers around the world have benefitted.
I know neither you nor I want to settle for the status quo. Today, we are both blessed and cursed to be living in a world of extreme connectivity. But we have a very distinct choice to make. We can chase after the fickle hearts of consumers, vying for the spotlight on the next big social stage, or we can work to strengthen the ties within our real community: EACH OTHER. The courage to do so doesn’t come from dismissing or shunning the consumer, it comes from putting aside our egos. We have to learn to embrace one of the core tenets of hospitality: Vulnerability. And any time you feel yourself lost or unhappy, go back to the beginning, work on your mission, and find people who believe what you do. Find your community.