Center The Salt Shaker: Key to High Performance Culture

My family and I took a trip to New York City a few years ago. After an exhausting day of touring the city, we went to a restaurant on 42nd Street.

We ordered our meals, waited for them to arrive, and were starving by the time they did. A few seconds after my daughter began eating her chicken and rice meal, she shrieked. I looked over and there was one grain of rice larger than all the others. In fact, it wasn’t rice at all.

It was a roach. I beckoned the waiter, explaining we’d prefer something different than…this.

Aghast, he ran to the Maitre D’ who came right over to see her plate. Upon examination, he explained that this was not their roach. As I sat there waiting for resolution, he walked away satisfied.

We couldn’t believe it!

Let’s compare that to a different day in NYC when we met an extraordinary man, Danny Meyer. He leads an organisation with multiple restaurants called Union Square Hospitality Group. Although they run a disparate group of restaurants, every single one seems to dominate in the market space. We wanted to understand what makes it so sustainably effective.

A story he shared embodies their key to success.

The day before, a woman rushed into one of their restaurants, Gramercy Tavern. She was late for her lunch reservation to meet a group of colleagues.

Flustered, she walked up to the Maitre D’, then cried,  “Oh my gosh!” She turned around, ran out the door, looked up and down the street.

When the Maitre D’ inquired about the problem, she replied, “ I left my purse, my cell phone, my wallet, everything in the cab that just dropped me off.”

Without hesitation, the Maitre D’ put his arm around her and said, “Let me escort you to your table. Your party is waiting. I’m sure your credit is good, we’ll settle up later to take care of your lunch responsibilities. By the way, what’s your mobile number?”

Unbeknownst to her, he had a colleague call the number over and over for the next 30 minutes. Finally, a dazed taxi driver answered. By this time, he’d gone to the Bronx —  about 20-30 miles from the restaurant.

The person from Union Square Hospitality Group asked, “Would you please drive back towards Gramercy Tavern? I’ll pay your fare and meet you halfway.” She jumped in a taxi, met him halfway, retrieved all of the woman’s belongings, and arrived back at the restaurant as woman completed her lunch.

To say the woman was relieved is an understatement. In fact, she even swore to name her first child after the Maitre D’ at Gramercy Tavern.

Were these employees following a “lost belongings” script?

Of course not.

They were just enacting the culture of Union Square Hospitality Group.

What’s remarkable about this culture is the same thing that’s unique about successful tech and financial organisations.

They all centre the salt shaker.

Let’s decode this language.

When I asked Danny Meyer, “What’s most important when establishing this kind of culture?” and he replied, “Centring the salt shaker.”

I was a little disappointed at first. Then, he explained.

“It’s a metaphor,” he said. “We want people to offer consistent, gentle pressure to their colleagues. It’s like the salt shaker. It belongs at a particular spot on the table, but it always creeps away.

“Our job at Union Square Hospitality Group is to apply gentle, consistent pressure to get it back to the centre. If I can create a culture where everyone holds everyone accountable, applying constant, gentle pressure, where they are honest and respectful, then the salt shaker is always in the centre of the table and things go the way they’re supposed to.”

While that sounds like an execution metaphor, it’s also at the heart of innovation.

What happened with the woman who left her purse in the taxi was novel. USHG doesn’t have a scripted response for that, but they do have a human system that responds to unique challenges in an incredibly effective way.

Why? Because they have a culture where people constantly challenge each other to live up to their values and vital behaviours.

Peter Drucker once said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” I think this sums it up perfectly.

What we have at the base of our pyramid is far more consequential to achieve our mission than picking the right strategy, product, or process that sits on top.

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