The Welcome Conference came to Chicago on the first day of Fall, a prescient new start for the hospitality conference’s first occurrence outside of New York. The brainchild of restaurant gurus Will Guidara and Anthony Rudolf, Welcome is unlike most industry conferences, focusing on the front-of-the-house and the real lives of people behind one of the toughest, most rewarding businesses out there.
Kevin Boehm of Boka Group and Donnie Madia of One Off Hospitality, like Guidara and Rudolf during their days at Eleven Madison Park and Per Se, respectively, were fierce competitors until one morning they decided it’d be a lot easier to come together as friends than keep up the charade—so they did. And as newly-minted collaborators and leaders of the Chicago restaurant community, they approached the New York founders with the idea of bringing the Welcome show on the road to Chicago.
“Our hope today is that you take an idea, a thought, a soundbite home,” said Donnie in his joint introduction with Kevin. “If you do, you’ll score incredibly—because I know you care so much about your restaurants, staff, and taking care of your guests.”
The star-studded line up included local figures in the restaurant community like Kevin Brown of Lettuce Entertain You and Phil Vittel, longtime Chicago Tribune restaurant critic, along with national icons like Bizarre Foods’ Andrew Zimmern and Union Square Hospitality Group’s Danny Meyer. With moving stories of the ups and downs of partnership (Missy Robbins and Sean Feaney) to those of overcoming personal obstacles on and off the job (Ken Frederickson and Mindy Segal, to name a couple), each person spoke with heart and candor, welcoming all experiences and perspectives to the table in one of the most meaningful industry gatherings of the season.
While there were so many valuable nuggets, here are a few themes we brought home with us.
Down with the Ego
Hospitality, in its most basic definition, refers to the art of treating others as a guest—which can present conflicts for you, yourself, and you. The themes of managing ego it midst the pressures of service and offering the ultimate hospitality were alluded to throughout a number of talks.
“Finding joy in being kind.” – Will Guidara, on his hospitality philosophy in introduction to the conference, and why he and Anthony founded the program.
“Being right too often gets in the way of being generous.” – Danny Meyer, on how to keep yourself in check while focusing on offering the best customer experience possible.
“We left that day [Welcome Conference, NYC] with a new appreciation for the irrelevancy of being right.” – Kevin Boehm and Donnie Madia, reflecting on a humbling experience at Welcome NYC in their talk about why they’ve brought the conference to their hometown of Chicago.
“A great mentor and leader takes the time to teach their team everything – together, we rise.” – Belinda Chang, who spoke about the importance of mentorship throughout her career, charting how each individual contributed to her growth and development.
“How do you create this atmosphere of grace with people on a daily basis with people whom you might only intersect with for minutes?” – Andrew Zimmern, posing the fundamental question of hospitality in his talk, which shared a set of lessons from his personal experience.
“When we’re actually engaging with other human beings and entering in to a more selfless contract with them, we are not human beings but human doings, being mindful of those other folks out there not being shadows.” – Andrew Zimmern
Balance Yes + No
Ironically, saying yes and saying no were both hot topics at Welcome Chicago. Danny Meyer suggested that we all need to say more no’s in order to carve space to entertain the opportunities that will change the course of our careers. Ken Frederickson took a slightly different stance, honing in on how how saying yes had propelled his career to where he is now. Both approaches agree that saying yes to the right things is the only way to stay sane.
“Create a set of rules that serve as a filter – learn what to say no to.” – Will Guidara
“I only want to work with people that I love and am inspired by.” – Danny Meyer
“When we say yes to everything, it’s not a bad thing – but we’re not always saying yes to the right thing. Saying yes the right way and yes where it’s needed.” – Ken Frederickson
Write a New Script
In an experience-driven business where food, drink, space, light, and sound rule, we can’t overlook the importance of language in the culture of restaurants. Kevin Boehm put forth the idea that creating a shared language within your restaurant group breeds loyalty and connection, and Miley Carpenter spoke about knowing your brand and the words you use to describe it.
“Giving the people in your company their own language increases loyalty and makes them feel like they’re part of something bigger in a job.” – Kevin, on the many acronyms that float around BOKA and how he chooses his words wisely.
“In this current landscape where words and truth are often devalued, use words that speak your truth, sell your intention, and make a world of language that’s your own.” – Boehm, proposing a more deliberate use of language and words.
When you are presenting your brand in any form, think about the words you use – they matter!” – Miley Carpenter, on the fundamentals of building a strong brand through content and communication.
“Do think about if you are you speaking your customer’s language or are you speaking your own?” – Miley Carpenter, encouraging the audience to think more about what characterizes their restaurant brand lexicon.
Change Is Constant
The Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, maintained: “the only thing that is constant is change”—and ain’t that the truth. Throughout the Welcome content, numerous speakers alluded to the importance of remaining nimble and flexible as change will come in any number of formats to your business, at unforeseen times. It’s less about the change itself, and more about how you handle it. Here’s their take.
“For us, the only constant is change, with 137 restaurants with a full pipeline, 65 different concepts and operations in 12 states.” – Kevin Brown, whose leadership of Lettuce Entertain You powerful has seen rapid and widespread growth since its inception in 1971
“Darwinian dining – [it’s] the point at which a dining room gets so impossibly backed up, that the loudest diners get seated fastest.” – Phil Vittel, longtime Chicago Tribune restaurant critic, on how the advent of online booking and restaurant discovery tools changed the landscape of dining out in Chicago (and elsewhere)
“Imagine a world without Yelp — now everything’s been accelerated, so we no longer have the luxury of time.” – Phil Vittel, reflecting on how review sites have changed the pace of the restaurant industry by giving diners the opportunity to review a restaurant from the day it opens.
Want more Welcome Chicago? Watch the full day of speeches and presentations below.
Image courtesy of Welcome Conference Instagram