Elite NYC restaurateur on why luxurious spending would not make folks pleased

Giving gifts can be a great way to show how good you are at hospitality. And if you think success depends on the amount spent, you risk failure, according to one of the world’s most renowned restaurateurs.

Will Guidara, former owner of elite restaurant Eleven Madison Park in New York City, thought his wife-to-be would love the Cartier necklace he bought her for their one-year anniversary. Instead, she pretended to like it and only wore it once. Seeing his wife’s disappointment that The New York Times was ending their sudoku-meets-crossword game Boxing, Guidara commissioned the game’s creator to create 50 more levels, which he printed out in a book for his wife. Guidara was surprised to see that his wife appreciated this gift much more than the thousands of dollars he spent on the necklace.

“There would have been no point in giving that ‘boxing match’ book to anyone else on this planet,” Guidara said in a conversation with Squawk Box co-host Becky Quick at the CNBC labor summit last week. “She felt seen, she felt loved, and she felt known,” he said.

The lesson, according to Guidare, is that the weight that money has on people is incomparable to the weight that time has on people. Money can be refunded, time cannot.

The unexpected is more valuable than the expensive

“When someone gives us time, when someone gives us energy, the feeling of that gift is absolutely overwhelming,” he said. And it shouldn’t even cost anything. Giving time and attention, “and listening, being there for someone … that’s the greatest gift we can give someone, and that’s what unreasonable hospitality is all about,” said Guidara, author of Unreasonable Hospitality.

This concept helped Guidara not only as a husband but also as a restaurateur. In 2006, he became general manager of Eleven Madison Park, where he worked with chef Daniel Humm to turn the ailing restaurant into one of the best in the world.

Daniel Humm (L) and Will Guidara celebrate with their trophies after winning the Worlds Best Restaurant award at the World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards April 5, 2017 in Melbourne.

Mal Fairclough | AFP | Getty Images

Under the Make it Nice hospitality group, the two opened NoMad New York, Nomad Bar, Made Nice, NoMad Los Angeles and NoMad Las Vegas. After Guidara sold his stake in the companies to Humm, he teamed up with Simon Sinek, New York Times bestselling author and publisher of Optimism Press, to publish his book.

“When an organization has a customer or client, there are lessons in improper hospitality that can absolutely be applied, and basically it all boils down to listening,” Sinek said at the CNBC Work Summit. “What Will does and what he trained his team to do was be totally present and listen for opportunities to surprise and delight someone with something unexpected,” Sinek said.

America is built on service relationships

America is a service economy. More than three quarters of GDP comes from the service industry.

“If you look at these services, whether it’s financial services, computer services, healthcare, insurance, or retail, anyone who does any of these things is doing the same thing as me for a living. We are all engaged in serving other people,” Guidara said.

Eleven Madison Park became the #1 restaurant in an influential world ranking not because its food was amazing or its service technically perfect, “but because we did things for our guests that went above and beyond,” Guidara said.

One night, Guidara recalled, he saw the children of a family from Spain, fascinated by the snow falling in front of his restaurant. By the time the family had finished eating, Guidara had bought sleds and left a car outside to take them sledding to Central Park. Another time, a couple showed up at Guidara’s restaurant depressed because their beach vacation was cancelled. At the end of the night, the private dining room turned into a beach for the couple to enjoy, with sand on the floor and a kids’ pool to dip their feet in.

Covid and problem solving as a hospitality model

Covid has changed the world, but Guidara and Sinek believe it hasn’t changed the value of inappropriate hospitality. In fact, being a source of kindness today can not only make someone feel good, it can ultimately make you feel good.

“Now that we’re all short-tempered and we’re all still grappling with the trauma of Covid, we now kind of have an expectation that others should look after us. What I’ve learned is that the right way to solve our own problems is actually to help others solve the same problem,” Sinek said.

“The current climate is no reason why this cannot work. It’s a reason why we should all focus on that very thing,” Guidara said.

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