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Book notes: Unreasonable hospitality

Book notes: Unreasonable hospitality


I don’t read book summaries. Neither should you. The following are mostly notes to myself, and are my interpretations.

Years ago, I attended a talk by Kapil Chopra where he spoke about key tenets of hospitality in services. I've written about it here. I've ever been fond of that mindset and try to contribute my part in improving Urban Company services along with hundreds others. This book — Unreasonable Hospitality was recently gifted to me by Varun (Co-founder, Urban Company) as we were discussing around the topics of services and hospitality; how we can deliver exceptionally delightful services at UC at scale; bit by bit.

TL;DR: If you're interested in the topic of services and hospitality, skip the post and buy the book. I'll definitely keep revisiting the book at least once a year.

The book is a narrative by Will Guidara who talks about the journey of making Eleven Madison Park the best restaurant in the world and how the team at EMP just thought customers backwards to make it happen.

  • First mindset change is, "you're not a services company, you're a hospitality company"

  • Service is black and white; hospitality is colour: Black and white means you're doing your job with competence and efficiency; colour means you make people feel great about the job you're doing for them. Getting the right plate (in restaurant context) to the right person at the right table is service. But genuinely engaging with the person you're serving, so you can make an authentic connection — that's hospitality.

On interviews/ hiring/ team building

  • The best interview technique is no technique at all. Simply have enough of a conversation that you can get to know the person a little bit. Do they seem curious and passionate about what we're trying to build? Do they have integrity; are they someone I can respect? Is this someone I can imagine myself — and my team — happily spending a lot of time with?

  • Keep asking yourself: How do you make the people who work for you and the people you serve feel seen and valued? How do you give them a sense of belonging? How do you make them feel part of something bigger than themselves? How do you make them feel welcome?

  • Hire great people, treat them well, and invest deeply into their personal and professional growth, and they would take great care of the customers.

  • By putting some corporate systems in place, we're not stealing creativity from folks; we were returning them to it. At UC, we have a strict policy of not breaking the design system. It took a while for designers to realise it's not curbing their creativity, but giving back time to spend with customers and solve better problems.

  • Monitor 95% (budget, resources, bandwidth) closely down to the penny. Spend 5% bandwidth or work foolishly. In the design team, I monitor the annual offsite budget closely and spend the last 5% on a gift that leaves them supremely happy. I monitor their work sprints tightly, but use 5% of bandwidth every 6 months to do a fun hackathon!

  • A leader's responsibility is to identify the strengths of the people on their team, no matter how buried those strengths might be.

  • Criticise behaviour, not the person. Praise in public; criticise in private. Praise with emotion, criticise without emotion. Honestly, I keep reminding myself of this.

  • Establish a regular rhythm for giving praise.

  • Whether criticism or praise, it's a leader's job to give their team feedback all the time. But every person on the team should be hearing more about what they did well than what they could do better, or they're going to feel deflated and unmotivated. And if you can't find more compliments to deliver than criticism, that's a failure in leadership — either you're not coaching the person sufficiently, or you've tried and it's not working, which means they should no longer be on the team.

  • Thirty minutes were our time to celebrate the wins, even the small ones, a time to publicly acknowledge when someone on the team was crushing it

  • One of manager's biggest responsibility is to make sure people who are trying and working hard have what they need to succeed.

  • The first time someone comes to you with an idea, listen closely, because how you handle it will dictate how they choose to contribute in the future.

  • People usually want to be heard more than they want to be agreed with.

  • Praise is affirmation, but criticism is investment.

  • If you always push back or insist on justifying your mistakes, people are eventually going to stop coming to you with notes. You've made it too unpleasant for them to continue, and they're going to stop investing in you — and you're going to stop growing as a result.


  • People will forget what you do; they'll forget what you said. But they'll never forget how you made them feel. Applicable at work, in relationships… everywhere.

  • Drink your best bottle not on your best day but on your worst.

  • Run toward what you want, as opposed to away from what you don't want. Similar as habit building. Instead of trying to kill bad ones, add new better habits.

  • They way you do one thing is the way you do everything. One of my favourites.

  • Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.


  • Use the product yourself. Identify problems & build opinions.

  • E.g. The host at the restaurant would ask guests, "How'd you get here tonight?" If they responded, "Oh, we drove," he'd follow up with, "Cool! Where'd you park?" If they told him they were by a meter on the street, he asked which car was theirs so one of us could run out and drop a couple of quarters into the box while they were dining. A simple gift — worth fifty cents — blew people's minds.

  • "Constant, gentle pressure" was Danny's version of the Japanese phrase kaizen, the idea that everyone in the organization should always be improving, getting a little better all the time.

  • Cult is short for culture (I didn't know that)

  • The five love languages: acts of service, gift-giving, physical touch, quality time, and words of affirmation.

  • If you've corrected a guest because you don't what them to think you've made a mistake, you've made a much bigger mistake. Recently, someone got on a call with me to get feedback on their product. As I was explaining my problems, they started explaining how they were factually correct. I gradually brought the conversation to end.

  • "We may not be saving people's lives, but we do have the ability to make their lives better by creating a magical world they can escape to — and I see that not as an opportunity, but as a responsibility, and a reason for pride."

  • When I encounter someone who thinks their work doesn't matter, it's usually because they haven't dug deep enough to recognise the importance of the role they play.

  • You must be able to name for yourself why your work matters.

  • E.g. Overheard a party coming to the restaurants, who didn't try the New York hot dog. They got one and served with well-done plating. Athletes go to the tape when they've had a bad game, to see what they can fix. They don't often go to the tape when they've had a great game — but that's how you celebrate and hold on to what you did well. What had made the gift so good? And what about it could we systemise? (I'd typically read the 3-stars and below reviews, now I go through all; something great might come up)

  • The book has numerous examples of just genuine guests observation and how the restaurant captured those, reacted and made it memorable for the guests!

  • Identify moments that recur in your business, and build a tool kit your team can deploy without too much effort. Make these "experience +1" cards for each moment.

  • The value of a gift isn't about what went into giving it, but how the person receiving it feels.

  • Luxury means just giving more; hospitality means being more thoughtful.

A dialogue from the book, which I used at a time of addressing the design team at Urban Company,

"We're going to make this restaurant one of the best restaurants in New York. It's not going to be easy, because being the best is never easy, but we are going to try to make it fun. If that's not right for you, I totally get it; we'll help you find a better fit. But if the idea of working at one of the most exciting restaurants in New York gets you fired up, then I hope you stick around, because we're about to take off.

I promise I'll try to be consistent, to do what's fair and what's right. I'm also clear about what my job is, which is to do what's best for the restaurant, not to do what's best for any of you. More often than not, what's best for the restaurant will include doing what's best for you. But the only way I can take care of all of you as individuals is by always putting the restaurant first. We're going to make the kind of place we want to eat at; we're going to create the four-star restaurant for the next generation. That's where we're going. Will you come?"

Recommended next reads from this book

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© Copyright 2024, I guess.