Food is Love. Libraries are Community. Why Librarians Should Take Lessons from the Restaurant Business to Heart.

In his 2008 book, Setting the Table, wildly successful restaurateur Danny Meyer shares his favorite quote: “It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and intertwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others” (Kennedy Fisher, 1943, as quoted in Meyer, loc. 2023).  What does that have to do with libraries? Just as restaurants are about more than menus, libraries are about more than books. In the end, both restaurants and libraries are about people. Setting the Table offers customer service lessons that are directly relevant to libraries seeking to develop a deep sense of community.  Danny Meyer is an expert in creating positive outcomes for his patrons by ensuring they feel like they belong there. Two of Meyer’s key concepts: hospitality and context can be mapped to one of the most exciting and important trends affecting libraries today: participatory service. In fact, Meyer’s unique take on what it means to be hospitable, expressed through a set of coherent, hard-nosed yet deeply personal lessons are applicable to all libraries everywhere- not only those aiming for excellence, but even those that are simply trying to stay afloat during a time in which disruptive technologies are demanding the creative evolution of libraries.

The big kahuna of disruption is, of course, the World Wide Web. In its wake we find a changed socio-technical landscape in which a web-enabled read/write participatory culture expects information to be ubiquitous, easy to find, highly personal and interactive. These expectations are driving libraries to morph from information gatekeepers into learning platforms, resulting in deep user participation and wider community development. In this scenario, libraries focus on developing meaningful dialogues with their community and on finding the right context for value-added services. This reimagined library can be understood as the participatory library and it is nothing if not user-driven. It turns out, the participatory library is not unlike a well-run restaurant.

I’m on Your Side! Hospitality as a Customer Service Tool


Hospitality: The Playbook
Hospitality: The Playbook

The term customer service is about as dry as a boneless, skinless chicken breast cooked on the grill.  Yet, in the hands of Danny Meyer, it becomes succulent. For Meyer, taking good care of customers boils down one inescapable, essential and even innate factor: the generous extension of hospitality.  Meyer has a unique brand of hospitality that results in the unmistakable feeling that the restaurant and it’s employees are “on your side” (Meyer, 2008, loc. 188).  Not only do they recognize you and want to serve you, but they want you to win. For example, in Meyer’s restaurants reservationists are prized because they are the initial point of customer contact and are trained to be “agents vs. gatekeepers”; their purpose is to “make things happen” for the client (Meyer, 2008, loc. 3818).  A Zagat Survey participant reports, “The reservationists even feel badly when they can’t accommodate you” (Meyer, 2008, loc. 3830).  All of Meyer’s employees are tasked with “figur[ing] out whatever it takes to make the guests feel and understand that we are in their corner” (Meyer, 2008, loc. 1069). There are stories of waitstaff who extended no-questions-asked credit to a woman who left her wallet and cell phone in a taxicab, (while she enjoyed her meal, the staff traveled all the way uptown to retrieve her belongings); of a staff member offering to return to a patron’s home in order to transfer a forgotten bottle of champagne from the fridge to the freezer before it had a chance to explode (and leaving behind  a box of chocolates and a handwritten note wishing the couple a happy anniversary); of creating a dessert that a patron had merely mentioned in conversation and presenting it at the end of the night. These stories are sensational in order to illustrate the concept. But the reality is that this kind of upgraded hospitality has been institutionalized across all of Meyer’s restaurants and is truly the source of his success. His employees do this in their sleep. In fact, they were born to do this- Meyer’s strategy from the get go was to to pick the right people and then empower them to shine.


Be the Girl Who Does Stuff: Hospitality in the Library

It’s easy to imagine how far the concept of “making things happen” could take a library. Librarians who are truly “on your side” are outcome-focused, not format-focused. They take the long view. So, yes, they want to solve your immediate problem, such as locating the “story about a girl who does stuff”, but they know that their ultimate goal is to somehow enable that young patron to be the girl who does stuff (McKinney, 2014). These kinds of librarians, including our own @mollymckinney, are not gatekeepers, they are agents. And they belong in the participatory library.

Like Meyer’s restaurants, the participatory library is first and foremost a place where people gather. “A business that doesn’t understand its raison d’etre as fostering community will inevitably underperform” warns Meyer (Meyer, 2008, loc. 2111).  Hence, the “stuff” of a library, like the food in Meyer’s restaurants, can be seen as secondary to the community it engenders, the ideas it fosters, and the opportunities it enables. Participatory libraries, a la DOK Delft (aka “Library Concept Center”) and The Human Library
where you can check out a person, are places where people- patrons and employees- participate to make things happen. This kind of library becomes a platform for action, dialogue and outcomes, not a container for “stuff” (Schmidt, 2010).  As David Weinberger puts it, “libraries as platforms [focus] our attention away from the provisioning of resources to the foment those resources engender. A library as platform would give rise to messy, rich networks of people and ideas, continuously sparked and maintained by the library’s resources. A library as platform is more how than where, more hyperlinks than container, more hubbub than hub” (Weinberger, 2012). In order to evolve beyond the container model towards a more participatory, library-as-platform model, libraries must heed Meyer’s warning: it’s about the community, stupid.

Hospitality in the Right Context

To create a deep sense of belonging, Meyer advocates an active, conscious, and genuine form of hospitality.  But for this to work, context is crucial. Having the right context is about a restaurant, or a library, or a business, or even a piece of architecture that is for and of it’s community; it is not imposed on it, but rather indistinguishable from it. Thus, achieving the right context necessarily involves ongoing, lively, purposeful communication between an institution and its constituents.  It won’t do to say, “Here is your library.” That’s a monologue. Instead, we might ask “What do you want your library to be?” That is a dialogue.

Once again, Meyer’s take on things is helpful: he differentiates service, which he sees as the technical delivery of product (and essentially a monologue), from hospitality, which he says can be thought of as a dialogue (Meyer, 2008, loc. 1042).  As Meyer found out on a fly fishing trip, trout only bite on something that resembles what is actually hatching (Meyer, 2008, loc. 1234). Hooking, or engaging customers in a dialogue, involves spending a lot of time, through a number of different and perhaps unexpected channels, taking genuine interest in discovering what they actually want, what they like, and ultimately where they’re trying to go in life. Explains Meyers,  “When we take an active interest in the guests at our restaurants, we create a sense of community and a feeling of shared ownership” (Meyer, 2008, loc. 1240). This, I think, is the cornerstone of the participatory library model. When patrons are invited to participate with library employees and each other:

  • through interior design that promotes sharing and transparency;

  • via technologies that break down barriers to access and enhance communication;

  • through user-defined programs that address real needs through collective action;

  • by adding their own user-generated content to a library’s permanent collection;

  • by taking part in regular assessment of the library’s value proposition

there will be a sense of shared ownership. And as the saying goes: together, we can move mountains.

In case you’re not convinced that a restaurateur understands the heartbeat of a library, consider playing this simple word game in which you take the author’s core message, replacing his restaurant words with your own library words, and see if it still hits the nail on the head:
“…beyond [cooking your food] and [doing the dishes], a [restaurant] must provide a public social environment that distinguishes it from the experience of [eating at home] (Meyer, 2008, loc. 3855).
Here’s my take: “…beyond [providing free access to books and computers], a [library] must provide a public social environment that distinguishes it from the experience of [using your computer at home].

What’s yours?


McKinney, M. (2014, February 9). A Story About A Girl Who Does Stuff [Web log post]. Retrieved from
Meyer, D.  (2008) Setting the table. [Kindle version]. Retrieved from
Schmidt, A. (2010, October 25). Services before content [Web log post].Walking Paper (Reprinted from Library Journal, June 11, 2010). Retrieved from
Weinberger, D. (2012).  Library as platform. Library Journal, 137(18), 34-36.  Retrieved from



19 thoughts on “Food is Love. Libraries are Community. Why Librarians Should Take Lessons from the Restaurant Business to Heart.

    1. Any time you’re confused about what’s going on in a web page, a good troubleshooting trick is to view the source code. When I right click your page and select “View page source” (that is the wording in Chrome, it might be slightly different in other browsers), and then search for References, I see that for some reason, your references are all surrounded by tags. I’m not sure how that happened, but you probably want to use instead. You can change that directly while using your post editor in WordPress. There are two tabs at the top right of the editing screen, Visual and Text. Select Text, and you should be able to see and edit all the tags in the post.

      1. Ha, the comments for WordPress don’t show tags when you type them with the surrounding brackets. Corrected version: your references are all surrounded by div tags. You probably want to use p tags instead.

      2. Many thanks @wderman…I’m just now getting back online after a busy (but fun!) weekend. I will look into the div tags using the text editing tab. I probably cut and paste some of the references into my post, which may have something to do with it. I keep promising myself that I’m going to get more savvy with the html / text editing stuff… I did, however, give my self a tiny pat on the back for figuring out how to get my ‘smartart’ (the first graphic in my post) into wordpress; it was a lot less straightforward than I expected 🙂

    1. Thanks @michael , I’m glad to hear that! Also, a big thank you for the opportunity to be blogging for this course. I really love the format; a breath of fresh air from the more formal papers. Not that it’s necessarily ‘easier’…in fact, my new personal goal is to be more concise and aim for a 200-500 word post, which I think suits the medium better.

  1. I love the difference between the monologue and the dialogue. What a great example to show the difference between the two mindsets. Great post!

    1. Thank you @queenborg, and way to go getting your post up while on ‘vacation’ with 2 little ones and a husband away at work. Sounds like you’ll be needing a real vacation now!

  2. Hi, Tracy!
    Thanks for a great commentary on what sounds like a great book. The emphasis on establishing and nurturing relationship with patrons reminds me of the common teaching adage that you teach kids, not math. This concept was driven home for me this week. I volunteer at a public library, teaching basic, one-on-one computer skills classes. Getting “off topic” with my students this week really deepened my connection with them. One told me he was a vet who is now homeless and needed help applying for a job. The other was an older man who immigrated from Venezuela; he told me about some of the cultural and linguistic challenges he’s had here. He was so happy to hear I speak some Spanish, and he said that we’d have class in Spanish so I could be learning something while he’s learning about computers. When I helped him find some videos on chess in Spanish, he turned to me and said, clearly moved, that he never would have been able to do that without my help. What all this shows me fits with your remarks about Meyer’s book: it’s not about teaching a particular tech skill or fixing a problem but about developing a relationship with people and helping them both to get beyond the fear of breaking something or looking ignorant and to gain the confidence to explore new possibilities. Your comments really helped consolidate those ideas for me. Thank you!

  3. And thank you, @darren, for sharing your own experiences. What a cool thing to have helped that guy. It’s interesting because the author of that book (Danny Meyer) now runs something like 6 or 7 restaurants and also a consulting business helping big-name, non-restaurant-business operations like banks, universities and medical centers be more successful- and it’s all based on this basic premise of treating others with respect and genuine interest.

  4. Love the “agents vs. gatekeepers” concept! The stereotype of the mean old librarian who shushes you is more in the gatekeeper mode–someone who guards access to whatever it is you want, instead of being your guide to help you find it (In the restaurant world, now I’m think of Patrick Stewart’s obnoxious but hilarious maitre-de in LA Story (you cannot have ze duck!)).

    Here’s mine: Here’s my take: “…beyond [providing free access to books and computers], a [library] must provide a public social environment that distinguishes it from the experience of [how easy it is to buy books on Amazon!]. a la the cartoon why DRM doesn’t work–you should want to go to the library (or to the maitre-de of your favorite restaurant) because you feel like they are your ally, and not your obstacle.

    Also, so thrilled to be cited! 🙂

  5. re: “Librarians who are truly ‘on your side’ are outcome-focused, not format-focused.”

    I think this is a great quote and it seems like the perfect tagline for this class. I think that the hyperlinked library model REQUIRES that librarians be outcome-focused, not format-focused. Being format-focused is the traditional “libraries=books” ideology but it shouldn’t be that way.

  6. Totally inspiring post, Tracy! My grandfather is a chef and works for extremely high end events, but I never would have thought about how to take the principles he talks about and demonstrates around restaurant and food service and apply them to libraries. There really are a lot of similarities. It seems as though in both cases, the end result should be to deliver service that demonstrates genuine concern, caring, and interest in the customer/user’s needs (and ideally to take the time to really figure out precisely what each individual’s unique needs are and really go the extra mile to satisfy them).

  7. I think I’ve mentioned elsewhere that library scholarship can be pretty insular, so I’m always happy to read reports from other perspectives. Hospitality vs. service is an interesting take on things, and it ties in nicely with our course. I don’t associate the word “hospitality” with libraries, but I should.

    Just curious, since you seem to be a food person, are you a fan of Anthony Bourdain?

  8. @robert, yes, I am indeed a food person. I can’t remember how I originally came across Anthony Bourdain, but I remember being super excited to watch his show (can’t remember the name of it). He traveled to all these great places to explore the local food culture- right up my alley. However, I have to admit that I was pretty underwhelmed with the show. I liked all the food- related stuff, but I didn’t really take to his hosting style. He seemed tired and a little bit jaded; somehow bored with the whole enterprise. I don’t know, maybe I just had too high of expectations. Maybe it just wasn’t his thing to be on TV. Perhaps he should have stuck to the kitchen/restaurant. Actually, that’s something that I really appreciated about Danny Meyer- in his book, he points out that his success was as much about the projects and deals he declined as it was about the ones he decided to go forward with. Sometimes you just have to say no if it doesn’t fit. For me, I feel like maybe Anthony Bourdain should have given the TV show a pass. How about you?

    1. @tmicka The last Bourdain show I watched was Parts Unknown on CNN. I couldn’t get into it for whatever reason, even though it’s essentially the same as his Travel Network show No Reservations, which I do like. I think I enjoy his weary, cynical take on things. It feels more like I how might experience an actual vacation: being enamored with some things, bored with others. I find most travel and cooking shows to be too chipper and cheery, so I think I’m his demographic. I could see why he wouldn’t appeal to everyone.

  9. What a wonderful take on the experience of a library seen with a foodie’s appreciative eye. I admire your creative and metaphorical thinking. Here’s my response to your prompt: “beyond finding information and sources for your homework, a school library must provide a public social environment that distinguishes itself from the experience of looking it all up on your smartphone.”

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