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It was 2010 and Will Guidara was in the middle of a busy lunch rush at Eleven Madison Park, a Michelin-starred restaurant in New York City. In the dining room, Guidara overheard a table of four foodies discussing their travels. Of all the fine restaurants they visited during their stay, they regretted one thing: not eating a classic, New York City hot dog.
Guidara, who co-owned and operated the restaurant at the time, ran outside to a hot dog stand. He convinced his chef — who was used to plating four-star dishes — to cut this hot dog into four and add some Michelin-level garnishes. Guidara brought the plates to the travelers. Their reaction, he recalled recently, was unlike any he had received before.
”I had served tens of thousands of people plates of food: wagyu beef, lobster, caviar, foie gras,” Guidara said at Johnson & Wales University’s College of Food Innovation & Technology Symposium earlier this month. “I had never seen anyone react to anything I had served them like that table reacted to that $2 hot dog.”
For the travelers, that $2 hot dog was the highlight of their trip. But for Guidara, it made him rethink the business of hospitality.
Up until that moment, Guidara told me, he had been so focused on excellence and technical details that he had not realized something that has since become his core belief: while food, service, and beverages make up the dining experience, there’s a sacredness to the table.
“It’s one of the few places where we are invited to come together,” he said. “Where we should be closer in the end than we were in the beginning of the meal.”
He hired a “dreamweaver” at Eleven Madison Park to create experiences for tables that were over-the-top. In one case, he recalled, the restaurant provided sleds and a chauffeur to a family from Spain so they could go sledding in Central Park. In another case, they transformed the upstairs into a mini-golf course for a man’s 70th birthday dinner.
“Unreasonable Hospitality,” as Guidara refers to it in his new book, is what crowned Eleven Madison Park No.1 in The World’s 50 Best Restaurant awards in 2017.
Creating memories and unique experiences, Guidara said, are more important than the traditional marketing techniques — especially coming out of the pandemic.
“I think this is even more valuable and important for someone just starting out,” Guidara said. “If a random restaurant did something cool and bespoke for you, you’re going to tell that story even more.”
But how could a business with a smaller budget compete with those elaborate experiences at Eleven Madison Park? Guidara points to Lambert’s, a small chain restaurant serving comfort food in Missouri and Alabama.
”Lambert’s is a normal place with fried chicken and cornbread. Except, every once in a while, someone pushes out a cart into the dining room and people start raising their hands,” Guidara recalled. “This guy, like John freaking Elway, just starts throwing bread to customers all over the restaurant.”
“That restaurant is packed all of the time because of that,” he emphasized. “Something so simple, and yet so out-of-the-box, can just work.”
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Alexa Gagosz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.