The Many Uses of Danny Meyer's Saltshaker Theory


Danny Meyer is a superstar in the restaurant world. Starting with Union Square Cafe in 1985, Meyer's stable of restaurants now includes well-known names like Gramercy Tavern, The Modern and Shake Shack. But success wasn't always guaranteed for Meyer. In his outstanding memoir Setting The Table, he recalls early struggles in his twenties to manage his staff at Union Square Cafe. Complaining to his mentor Pat Cetta, Meyer "bemoaned the fact that [he] was failing to get any kind of consistent message across to [his] staff members regarding standards of excellence." Cetta proceeded to give Meyer an invaluable lesson in management.

Pat pointed to the set table next to us. "First," he said, "I want you to take everything off that table except for the saltshaker. Go ahead! Get rid of the plates, the silverware, the napkins, even the pepper mill. I just want you to leave the saltshaker by itself in the middle." I did as he said, and he asked, "Where is the saltshaker now?"

"Right where you told me, in the center of the table."

"Are you sure that's where you want it?" I looked closely. The shaker was actually about a quarter of an inch off center. "Go ahead. Put it where you really want," he said. I moved it very slightly to what looked to be smack-dab in the center. As soon as I removed my hand, Pat pushed the saltshaker three inches off of center.

"Now put it back where you want it," he said. I returned it to dead center. This time he moved the shaker another six inches off center, again asking, "Now where do you want it?"

I slid it back. Then he explained his point. "Listen, luvah. Your staff and your guests are always moving your saltshaker off center. That's their job. It is the job of life. It's the law of entropy! Until you understand that, you're going to get pissed off every time someone moves the saltshaker off center. It is not your job to get upset. You just need to understand: that's what they do. Your job is just to move the shaker back each time and let them know exactly what you stand for. Let them know what excellence looks like to you. And if you're ever willing to let them decide where the center is, then I want you to give them the keys to the store. Just give away the fuckin' restaurant!"

Wherever your center lies, know it, name it, stick to it, and believe in it.

Meyer goes on to explain that understanding the "saltshaker theory" helped him develop a managerial style he calls constant, gentle pressure. By this, he means that he's unequivocal about setting high standards, promises to correct employees with kindness when they don't meet those standards, but is utterly clear that those standards must be maintained.

This simple metaphor effectively illustrates a management style that resonates deeply with me. Complacency often creeps in when companies have been successful, with standards of performance being compromised. But even more insidious is ethical slippage in dealing with stakeholders. This is a particular challenge when short-term concerns and financial results dominate long-term thinking about a business's sustainable competitive advantage.

The saltshaker theory is just as valuable for individuals. Other people's actions and external circumstances are out of our control, but we can respond every day by returning the saltshaker to the center of our metaphorical table. This feels particularly pertinent today. For some, it seems that liberal values of universal good feeling and cooperation have lost out to fear - fear of a changing economy, of immigrants, and of the loss of status. There's no denying that it's an uncertain world out there. And changing ourselves and the world around us makes the restaurant business look like child's play. But that's the challenge ahead of us: individually and collectively, we need to figure out where dead center is, and move our salt shakers to that place, no matter how hard that may be.