Salt Shaker Theory

Early in his management career, restauranteur Danny Meyer was exposed to a concept he calls the “Salt Shaker Theory.” A mentor taught it to him like this:

First, he removed everything from a restaurant table but a salt shaker. Next, he told Meyer to put the salt shaker in the exact center of the table, which Meyer did. Then he moved it off a few inches and told him to put it back again. He explained, “that’s what they do.” Employees, customers, etc., they move the salt shaker and it’s our job to put it back.

The act of putting the salt shaker back in the center is how we set standards. We accept that it will get moved, but it’s non-negotiable that we are going to move it back to the center no matter what. The center is also easily recognized once pointed out as the place where the salt shaker goes. Putting the salt shaker back publicly is how we “show and tell” our standards and values.

His mentor went on: If we don’t want the responsibility of moving the salt shaker we might as well toss the keys to someone else and walk away. If we disregard the center, if we lack defined standards or values, then we are not in control of the business. Setting and resetting the salt shaker back to center is the core of any long-lasting, resilient business.

To apply the Salt Shaker Theory to any job, Meyer says we have to apply “constant, gentle pressure.” Constant meaning consistent, gentle meaning not too forceful, and pressure meaning ever-present. In practice, applying constant, gentle pressure is how we show and tell our values to those we work with and for over time.

Scale, from working in and on our businesses, comes as more people understand what it means to keep the salt shaker where it belongs. Coworkers with shared values and complimentary skills can help us move the salt shaker back to center. Clients can see the value of setting the table as a key aspect of why they choose to work with us.

Never underestimate the value of properly setting and maintaining the tables.

Read more about Danny Meyer:

How Culture Built A Multi-Million Dollar Hotdog Stand

When Fast Casual Disrupts Finance

Water Into Wine? How About A Beetle Into A Beatle? A Danny Meyer Story

These stories and more are in Meyer’s book “Setting the Table.”

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