Thoughts on Unreasonable Hospitality

About a month ago, I (Allison) picked up a book by Will Guidara, former co-owner of the incredibly highly celebrated restaurant, Eleven Madison Park. I love reading about restaurant culture, so the odds were good that I’d enjoy the read. But I wasn’t prepared to love this book—to immediately send it to my team members and tell everyone I know to read it. I was surprised that a book about a restaurant could radically transform the way I thought about doing business—but it did.

And here’s why…

The book is based on the premise of “Unreasonable Hospitality” (which is also, conveniently, the title). Basically, how can you go above and beyond for the people you serve and the people on your team? 

In addition to recommending the entire book to you, there is one story that illuminates so many of the lessons I keep thinking about: 

A group of tourists came into Guidara’s (very very) fancy restaurant with their luggage, ready to enjoy their last meal in the city before they left New York. As the staff interacted with the table and brought them course after mind-blowing course, they overheard the guests making a comment that they had tried all of the food they wanted in NYC—the only thing they had missed was a classic hot dog. 

A lightbulb went off. Guidara went down to the corner, purchased a two-dollar hot dog, took it to his (very very) fancy chef, and plated the thing—then brought it out to the table. 

The guests erupted with joy. Guidara said that he had never, in his whole career, seen a group of diners that excited about a meal. 

Now, you probably don’t run a (very very) fancy restaurant. And a hot dog probably isn’t the key to your magic hospitality (though you never know…if you’re lucky, maybe we’ll share our own hot dog social story one day!). But here are the lessons that immediately jumped out to me: 

Pay attention. 

What do you know about your top donors? Your volunteers? Your coworkers? I’m not talking about their giving preferences or their work styles—I’m talking about them as people. Does John love Snickers bars? Is Mary super into opera music? Does Jane relax by reading thrillers? 

The only way Guidara was able to go above and beyond in a way that felt special and authentic was that he paid attention to the table. He listened. 

So here’s a challenge for you: Do you have time in your week where you get to know your team members (or donors or volunteers) as people? And are you using that time to actually listen and pay attention? 

Be intentional. 

Once you get to know people, you now have the opportunity to be intentional—which requires specific, particular, personalized action. 

In our work, it can be so easy to rely on systems—and systems can be wonderful. They allow us to work with large groups, provide consistent service, and streamline our efforts. They are necessary for a team to be productive, collaborative, and efficient. 

But the lesson of intentionality reminds me that sometimes, systems are meant to be broken. Did every table get a hot dog? No. Should every table have gotten a hot dog? Absolutely not. But doing that one thing for that one group made a huge difference in their experience. How can we do the same for one donor, one volunteer, or one team member? 

Be vulnerable.

Unreasonable hospitality requires risk. Doing the special, intentional thing might feel a little bit uncomfortable—and it almost always requires going first. 

Was Guidara certain that hot dog thing would go over well? I’m guessing not. It was a big risk to plate a street cart hot dog at a 4-star restaurant—but he decided it was a risk worth taking. 

As leaders, we think it’s our responsibility to mitigate risk, not create it. We think it’s our job to be strong (and, perhaps even more importantly, make it look like we are strong) instead of demonstrating vulnerability. We don’t want people to think we are uncertain, so we stop asking questions. We don’t want to look silly, so we stop taking risks. 

What if, instead, we were human? Vulnerable. Bold. Open with our teams, ready to learn, and constantly curious. What might our work—and our teams—look like then? 

Give agency. 

One of my favorite lessons from the book is that after Guidara had his hot dog experience and saw just how over the moon his guests were, we immediately wanted more. More paying attention. More intentionality. More vulnerability. 

And he knew the only way to scale unreasonable hospitality was to empower his team to practice it, too. So he gave them all agency to take their own risks—to give their own above-and-beyond service. 

Instead of feeling like it’s your responsibility to know every donor in your database so that you can surprise and delight them personally, empower your team to take their own action based on their experiences.

(Eventually, Guidara hired a whole team whose entire job was exactly this. They literally had a makeshift craft studio in the back of the restaurant to make any and all dreams come true!) 

Practice 95/5.

I know what you might be thinking…”We don’t have the time/money/human capital to do this!” And I get it. I really do. It feels like a nice to have, not a need to have—so it would be so easy to skip. But here’s the deal: the least expensive donor to acquire is one that you already have. And a retained donor who is obsessed with you because of the personal attention she has experienced is likely to be your best advocate. 

What if unreasonable hospitality was not an extra cost, but actually a great retention, acquisition, and marketing investment? 

For Guidara, his strategy was 95/5—manage 95% of your time, budget, and structures super strictly so that you can spend the other 5% on whatever whims you can imagine. The goal is not to break the bank or your schedule. The goal is simply to hold 5% of your time, energy, and resources to go above and beyond. 

Guidara’s hot dog cost $2 and 10 minutes. 

It paid dividends for years. 

Five percent of a standard 8-hour workday is about 20 minutes. That’s an hour a week to do something unreasonably hospitable, unexpected, and awesome. I hope you’re as excited as I am to get started.