We’re very excited to attend this year’s Welcome Conference, heading to New York City along with hundreds of our industry peers to listen and join in discussions around restaurants, service, and hospitality. It’s an exciting and important time to be working in and around restaurants; and as we began to think about our industry and the potential impact that a conference like this can have, we began reflecting on collaboration. The way we see it, collaboration is increasingly crucial and will help to propel our industry forward.
We spoke with the creators of the Welcome Conference (WC), Anthony Rudolf, founder of Journee and former Director of Operations for the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, and Will Guidara, co-owner of Eleven Madison Park (EMP) and The NoMad hotel and restaurant, to talk a bit about the importance of a collaborative restaurant industry and business culture, and how their relationship has evolved over the last several years.
“Our goal with the Welcome Conference is to force and create an environment where dining room and hospitality professionals can come together and build a robust community. The thing that we’re really passionate about is the human connectedness,” says Anthony of the annual summit that launched in June of 2014. He and Will noticed a major gap in places for front of house, service-focused people to connect. “There’s an absence of communication and community for the dining room, its not really happening as much for service and hospitality. So the driving force for the WC is to show that we’re just as passionate about hospitality as chefs are about food. We have a responsibility to make sure we’re evolving our craft the same way that they are evolving theirs,” says Will. He continues, “We want people to look at the WC as, yes, a place to talk about hospitality – honestly, I think conversations around hospitality are an inevitability in our country – but also to say, hey, we can be friends with each other and we can inspire each other and in the end, we can all get better.”
Anthony and Will’s relationship has helped put them on this path towards creating a stronger industry community, but a true alliance didn’t form overnight. Back when Anthony was Maitre’D at Per Se and Will General Manager of Eleven Madison Park, they both knew of each other and saw one another as competition. It was fueled further by a contingent of guests and often in the online world: “There was a hard core Per Se camp and a hard core EMP camp. And they would fight it out about who does what better,” Anthony says. Then there was a fateful meeting at a Relais & Chateaux congress that helped both Will and Anthony take a fresh look at one another. “We were forced to face each other as human beings rather than the competitor we’re fighting with. And of course we hit it off because we have so much in common,” he says. “And the realization just came: Why are we doing this? Why aren’t we building a friendship?” Will reflects on that same meeting, “I found that I had a great deal of pride in sharing the things that I think make us good instead of holding them back like dirty little secrets.” From there, they started meeting a few times per year and a friendship was founded. They say friendship has been crucial to their ability for professional collaboration. Why? Will says, “It starts as mutual respect and it leads to collaboration, and that is best when it becomes a friendship first.”
Collaboration built on a foundation of respect, trust, and friendship can also work inside restaurants between front and back of house. “I have a pretty unique relationship with Daniel Humm, the chef and my business partner,” Will says. Together, they operate on the philosophy that no one area of the restaurant takes precedent over another. We may currently be in the era of chef-driven restaurants but not so long ago people only went to restaurants to see and be seen and it wasn’t really about the food, Will says. At Eleven Madison Park, both parts are equal. “Our belief system is that we let the pendulum shift to swing somewhere in the middle because the end result is that much greater when we can achieve true, pure collaboration.” Through this, they help mitigate the limitations in collaboration that are inherent if one person’s ego takes control.
For both Will and Anthony, collaboration has led to innovation in their professional lives. At Eleven Madison Park, Will makes collaboration a team sport with ideas for service coming from all levels of employees. “We had the realization that we have some unbelievably intelligent people working with us. The thought that all of the good ideas would come from just the two of us was absolutely ridiculous.” The result? The staff feels “much more connected and like they truly do have a voice for the direction of the place they work,” he says. “It leads to a much prouder team and a much more inspired list of ideas.” Now imagine these employees as the next generation of leaders in the restaurant industry; they are already so well poised for greatness.
We also believe idea generation and implementation needs to become a team sport in order for an industry that is fragmented in nature to achieve its maximum potential. Studies show that teams composed of people who come from varied background and skill levels outperform teams of a homogenous nature, even when all are exceptionally adept.
Anthony has taken this same set of beliefs to the macro-industry level. His latest endeavor is called Journee, a community of restaurant professionals, by restaurant professionals to collaborate, share, and learn, available in person and online. “Historically, the path or access to new knowledge has been very limited. You’d have to work for somebody to get a new perspective. You actually have to quit your job and go work for somebody else. And that is a little mind boggling to me,” Anthony says. Sharing knowledge, however, requires a massive investment of time both in the creation of tools and materials and in the teaching itself. Anthony is hoping to ease these barriers with his new project. “Ultimately, it saves on employee turnover and improves guest experience. Better training equals a better company. I think people want to share more, it’s just very challenging.” However, he believes, that if we were more open to collaborating as an industry, we could start to save that time. “While I don’t think we are ever going to work less – a part of that is just in our DNA to want to be there – there are so many processes in which we continually reinvent the wheel without the necessary skills to do so.” With just a little more collaboration and openness to sharing knowledge, the industry could see some great improvements in process efficiencies, employee management, and business performance.
We’re challenging ourselves to be open to meeting new people and sharing ideas both in attendance of the Welcome Conference and far beyond. The next time you’re out for a drink or dinner with a peer, look for opportunities to collaborate; they may not be obvious, but they are always there. And if you start feeling brave, ask someone you’ve always seen as a competitor out to coffee. You might end up changing the face of our industry while making a life long friend.
You can follow along with the Welcome Conference this Monday, June 15 through their livestream at http://www.thewelcomeconference.com/live