The magic of unreasonable hospitality

A photo with an orange background and pink text that reads how restaurants can save society

One of my Dad’s favorite quotes is “adversity is a terrible thing to waste.” He’s quick to remind me that we can’t control what life throws at us, but we can always control what we learn from it, how we let it push us, and how we react to it.

These days it feels like our world is facing some pretty hefty doses of adversity. Between pandemics, seemingly unprecedented political division, global conflicts, and so much more, there is an abundance of anxiety out in the world—and in the restaurant industry. But here’s the good news: All of us in restaurants can help take the lead in how we collectively react to it. We can all be a big part of the solution.

 For nearly a decade I was the co-owner of Eleven Madison Park in New York City. In my time there I would talk constantly to my teams about the beautiful opportunity we had to create our own little magical world in a world that needed more magic; how we could help people put the world on pause, whether to celebrate the great moments in their lives or to give them the grace to forget their most difficult ones.

The restaurateur Will Guidara standing at a restaurant in a black suit
Restaurateur Will Guidara explains his theory of unreasonable hospitality and how it has the ability to transform society. Photo credit: Will Guidara

Over the years I developed a strategy called “unreasonable hospitality” that helped us create that magical world for people. It also earned us the number-one spot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. The concept inspired my new book, Unreasonable Hospitality: The Remarkable Power of Giving People More Than They Expect. In short, unreasonable hospitality is being as relentlessly intentional about how you make people feel as you are in pursuit of the product you serve—and it’s something that can take not only our restaurants but also our society, to new and greater heights.

 I believe a great restaurant’s primary focus should be relationships. The food, the service, and the design are merely ingredients in the recipe of human connection; our reason for being is to make people feel seen, to give them a sense of belonging, and to make them feel welcome.

I’ve always believed if you do this with the people on your team, they pay it forward to your guests, who in turn pay it forward to other people in their lives. Because here’s the thing: Kindness is addictive. Once you know how good it feels to receive hospitality, you can’t help but want to give it to others. This is why I believe there is such profound nobility and importance to our word “hospitality.” We can make the world a nicer place simply by being really nice to everyone who walks through our doors.

 Hospitality isn’t the only thing that’s going to solve the world’s problems. But when you consider how many restaurants there are in America, how many people we collectively serve each day, and how many people those people connect with once they leave our dining rooms, you quickly start to see that the ripple effect we have is extraordinary. If as many of us as possible shifted our focus to hospitality, on creating our own little magical worlds, the impact it could have would be exponential.

A sign pasted in an uber showcasing how hospitality can transcend restaurants
Guidara writes about how an Uber drive cemented his theory on how unreasonable hospitality can transcend restaurants. Photo credit: Will Guidara

But it’s even more scalable than that! Because businesses far beyond restaurants have the opportunity to create their own little magical worlds; every business can make the choice to be in the hospitality industry. In fact, some out there already have. They are few and far between, but they exist. I was in the most unreasonably hospitable Uber recently that had a big sign that offered water, to play whatever music you’d like, and to drive any route. It said, “I’m here to help and will do everything I can to help make your time in my vehicle an efficient and enjoyable experience.” The driver created this little magical world where I was not in a great mood when I got in it, and by the time I got out of it I was.

Imagine if the graciousness we gave to people in our dining rooms not only inspired people to extend it to the people in their lives, but to make that the focus of their businesses as well? There is no limit to the number of people we can positively impact.

Unreasonable hospitality is something much bigger than restaurants, so all of us have this unbelievable opportunity—this responsibility—to be the industry that starts spreading it.

 Celebrated restaurateur Will Guidara is the former co-owner of Make It Nice, the hospitality group that included the acclaimed Eleven Madison Park, the NoMad restaurants, and Davies and Brook at Claridges Hotel in London. He is also co-founder of the Welcome Conference and the Independent Restaurant Coalition; he published his first book, Unreasonable Hospitality, in October; and his first television show, The Big Brunch, will air on HBO Max this month.

As told to Stefanie Tuder, senior content marketing manager at OpenTable.

Find your table for any occasion