How Culture Built A Multi-Billion Dollar Hot Dog Stand

Danny Meyer turned a hot dog stand into a multi-billion dollar company. Literally. The hot dog stand is currently known as Shake Shack. Whatever your feelings on burgers and fast-casual dining may be, Meyer’s awareness that the food was less important than the way you make your customers feel is worth studying in detail.

In a recent Masters of Scale interview, Meyer explained that it’s not what you do, but how you actually do it. Anyone can make and serve food. It’s not even that hard to make and serve good food. What is notoriously hard is to succeed in the restaurant business, especially in NYC, yet Meyer did it over, and over, and over again. He credits his success to what he calls “enlightened hospitality.”

People often confuse service and hospitality. Service is how things should work when done correctly, like making sure the food comes out the way people ordered it in a timely manner. Hospitality includes service but adds the mentality that the goal is always to figure out a way to make people feel at least a little bit better when they leave than how they felt when they came in. It doesn’t require anything grandiose, subtlety will work fine, but his teams are committed to making a measurable, positive impression on their customer’s day. He calls it “enlightened” because it requires everyone involved to actively participate in picking up on the signals the customer is giving off. Tiny gestures can make massive differences.

The finance industry was built on what Meyer calls technical transactions. Brokers, custodians, settlement agents – we have long provided services that matched parties in a marketplace and coordinated the record keeping. As more and more of our world becomes both digitized and commoditized, we need to increasingly focus on what he calls “emotional transactions”. While these have clearly always been present, the balance of emotional to technical transactions matters today more than ever. Meyer’s team aims to deliver an experience that is 49 parts performance and 51 parts hospitality. The extra points remind people that they still must deliver top notch service, but there is always a slight edge afforded to the emotional experience.

When we think about everything from regular service calls to our annual review processes, we have a lot to gain by keeping this emotional/technical balance in mind. Think about what happens when every person on a team aims for that simple, incremental emotional lift in every interaction. Amazing things can happen from the compounded results. If Danny Meyer could turn a hot dog stand into Shake Shack, we can certainly apply a few of his lessons into how we structure and scale our own businesses around the client experience.

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