Gary Muller, Chef and Co-owner, The Mill House Inn
True Hospitality in the Hamptons – Lessons on Listening, and the Art of Yes and No, with Gary Muller
A life in the Hamptons, running a picturesque inn perched at the end of Long Island, sharing fine food and drink with visitors from around the world. Sounds like a version of heaven to many.
Without a doubt, Gary Muller — chef and co-owner with his wife Sylvia of the high-end bed and breakfast The Mill House Inn — certainly does enjoy his work. But for Muller, it’s the joy of the business and the people he gets to interact with that truly make him happy. Hearing Muller talk about his work, it’s unmistakable how much he loves taking care of people.
“The only reason they’re coming back isn’t the room. It isn’t the accommodations. It’s because there’s people there who care about them,” Muller says of his guests. That attitude is a necessity in this line of entrepreneurship.
That’s because, as anyone who has worked in hospitality, even as a server or a line cook will tell you, it can be an extremely difficult business, as challenging and chaotic as it is rewarding. It can be a life of wax and wane, feast and famine, fortune and misfortune.
While there are certainly aspects of running an inn in the Hamptons that are unique to that line of work, at the end of the day, the business lessons Muller has learned are universal. He’s navigated the rough waters of entrepreneurship with a mix of confidence in his craft, quick-but-prudent decision-making, and perhaps most of all, good listening. Muller has learned the most important lesson, and it applies to any business.
“I think it’s all people. I don’t think I ever sold food, and I know I certainly don’t sell rooms right now. But I know the one thing that’s for sure — it’s people. It’s all about the people. The only real asset you ever have is your team, your staff. You fail immediately without them and you succeed so well with them.”
His approach has paid off. The Mill House Inn and its smaller offshoot the Graybarn Cottage have been cited as among the best in the Hamptons. The Inn has been recognized by Travel + Leisure and the Travel Channel, highly rated by Zagats, named in the top 10 Hampton inns by New York Magazine, and on and on. Muller’s breakfast has gained a reputation as one of the finest and most indulgent in town, with offerings like lobster frittata and egg nog brioche French toast. They’ve welcomed celebrities (he’ll never tell), titans of industry, and folks who’ve traveled from across the globe to experience the lavish-but-cozy setting.
Of course, it’s not always been scotch and cigars for Muller. Although he’ll tell you that he’s got restaurant work in his blood, with his grandparents operating taverns in New Jersey post-Depression. “I’ve been in the hospitality business since I was just about old enough to hold up a knife and walk around in a kitchen. It’s 50 years.”
Prior to moving out to East Hampton to open the inn, he made much of his livelihood “feeding Wall Street” as a chef, restaurateur, and caterer serving primarily workers in the financial industry. Surprisingly similar to the startup world (although with much heavier brick and mortar costs) his career has been punctuated with risk and reward — jumping on opportunities as they arise, pouring his life into his work, and knowing when to move on.
His first restaurant was four blocks from Wall Street in Manhattan in the early 1980s, when he was still pretty green and undercapitalized. He did OK, but like so many restaurants, it didn’t last too long. Muller spent a couple of years working and then saw his next big opportunity, this time across the Hudson in Jersey City. It was around this time that Jersey City was turning into “Wall Street West” as financial institutions were taking advantage of affordable real estate and turning it into a major banking center.
So Muller did what would become a running theme in his work — he saw a need and moved to fill it, but with tremendous zeal and care for quality service and product.
“We listened. We listened to the brokers, what did they want, what did they need. There weren’t enough restaurants, there wasn’t enough for them. And certainly the big catering firms that would normally take care of Wall Street, they didn’t want to come over there. They saw it as an imposition … which flabbergasted me at the moment,” Muller says. “I said, sure, we can feed you.”
What started as a restaurant became multiple restaurants, catering, and a food service business that would prepare high-quality food on site to brokers, serving right on the trading floor. It was a unique set up, but again, he carefully watched how his clientele operated, listened to what they needed, and came up with the best way that he could deliver, landing him some large contracts in the following years.
It took a lot of hustle. He describes the lean years of debt (“My credit cards were not pretty, that’s to say the very least”) and tough negotiations. There were times when he was sure they were going to go down. He once traded lunches for new suits that he could wear in meetings. Muller recalls catching up on paperwork on the weekends when the city was a ghost town; he worked weekdays starting at 4 a.m. and often wrapping up at 11:30 p.m. “That’s the restaurant business.”
During his 10-year stint in Jersey City, he also learned some valuable lessons about helping and connecting with people. He started working with charities, helping with food pantries and developing a program that would teach cooking skills to at-risk kids. Muller ended up taking many of those kids in and putting them to work himself.
“As cooks we train, we teach. It’s what we love to do. We like to take somebody who likes food and say, come in the kitchen. You’re going to work really hard, and I’m going to teach you everything you need to know.”
He found that taking the time to invest in people, taking care of them, and teaching them actually made his business stronger, building loyalty and opening up business opportunities. But you can also tell that it sincerely brings Muller joy. He has a warm demeanor about him, and clearly loves talking to people.
“Without the people there is no business whatsoever, I don’t care what you do. Even if you’re a solo entrepreneur, there’s people you need to talk to. There’s people that are in your world, and they’re important. They’re more important than the actual thing you do, because your thing will not succeed without their input, without their help, without them taking you forward.”
He also made sure to listen to people he admired, and learned from everyone he could. Throughout his career, he’s been able to share a cigar with Lee Iacocca, and chat with former Ritz-Carlton President Horst Schulze, who told him just one piece of advice: “Nothing can be broken. No defects, ever. Always has to work.”
Muller had a good run in Jersey City, but all good things come to an end, and in this case it was a slowing financial industry that was depleting his base of customers. He had at one point been considering opening up brewpubs modeled after those in the UK, but had to scrap the plan because the timing wasn’t right.
“Sometimes you gotta know when to say no.”
He started downsizing, which included spending hours calling around and finding jobs for his staff. Around this time, his wife Sylvia, who had been working in media, had fallen victim to downsizing herself.
But the Mullers had learned that in times of adversity, you have to look for the next opportunity, which led them to the purchase of the Mill House Inn. They had always wanted to run a bed and breakfast, and the couple saw the perfect place up for sale. They pounced, drew up a business plan fast, and in a matter of months closed on the place. Of course, now they needed to make it work, and pretty quickly.
The Mullers’ strategy for making the Mill House what it is today sounds deceptively simple — they took out everything they didn’t like, and added everything they did. Muller said he had to make it feel like him, even if that meant losing some of the doily decor B&Bs are known for. They added exquisite food and drink, and a rare level of customer service.
“My GM always says it. As long as it’s not illegal, it’s done immediately. If it’s impossible, I’ll get to it tomorrow. But that’s hospitality. That’s what the mentors taught me.”
And just like with the brokers, he listened carefully. What did people want? What were they not getting other places? What makes a visit special? He takes a long view of customer service. If he can see a family’s kids return when they’re grown, that’s success. If he can point a family with young children to a kid-friendly beach, and see them become ocean enthusiasts over time, that’s amazing. Nothing made him happier than getting a call from someone in Germany who said he was planning a trip to New York on advice from a friend, just to stay at the Inn. “I almost fell off the seat in my office.”
So what wisdom does Gary Muller have to share with entrepreneurs?
As we mentioned before, it’s all about your team. And that means taking care of them. Don’t skimp on the food, breaks, etc. Make them love the product. Make them love the business, and it will show. They’ll get to the point where they keep a pad and paper at home to write down new ideas in the middle of the night. And that kind of loyalty can’t be achieved with money. Only with caring. Learn the birthdays, the anniversaries, the kids’ birthdays. Don’t bog them down with paperwork.
Another important tip, crucial in a business with such a high failure rate: do your homework before you “pull the pin.” No matter how good you are, the wrong decision will end in failure. A great restaurant in a bad location will tank. So prepare in advance. “Do that analysis of tactics and planning, then go do the work and just keep working.”
But his best piece of advice is to learn the power of yes and no. In hospitality, to your client, the answer is always yes. But to distractions, indulgences, and other side business opportunities that will come up — learn to say no.
“Do the business you’re doing. You don’t want 10. You want one that’s so mind-bogglingly great that everybody talks about you. Then you might think about two.”
Gary Muller’s Advice on Cooking Great Food
We couldn’t write about a chef and restauranteur without a few cooking tips, now could we? Well fortunately for you utensil-impaired, Muller’s advice is simpler than you might expect. Granted, you might not make it into Zagat’s like the Mill House Inn’s famed breakfast, but you can create a fine meal with just a few important tips:
1. Buy “really, seriously good food.” It might seem obvious, but ingredients matter.
2. “Take care of that food.” If it’s a piece of fish, take care of it, clean it, dry it, put it on ice until it’s time to cook.
3. “When you cook it, don’t do much to it. Because that piece of fish will be perfect.”
There you have it, a master chef on how to make high-quality food in just three sentences.
- Gary’s amazing insights on what he has learnt from some of the most successful business man and women that have stayed at his B&B
- His fascinating journey on developing one of the top bed and breakfasts in the hamptons
- What it means to truly care about your customer
- Hospitality 101
- How create an experience that will last with you forever
Full Transcript of Podcast with Gary Muller
Nathan: What up, Team Foundr? I had to just change that, you know, the first thing I said because I was getting sick of saying just “What up, guys? My name is Nathan Chan, and I am your host of the ‘Foundr Podcast.'” So just had to mix that up, break the cycle.
Hope you’re all having a great day. Really, really pumped for 2015. By the time you listen to this episode, we will just probably hit just 2015. So yeah, I’m really excited, really excited where we’re going with the podcast and the Foundr brand.
A little bit about today’s guest, Gary Muller. This is a little bit longer than our usual, our length interviews. But it was such a pleasure speaking with Gary and this was such a fun conversation, we just couldn’t stop talking pretty much.
A little bit about Gary, he runs one of the most successful bed and breakfasts in the Hamptons, it’s called the Mill House Inn. And he does an amazing story about his journey as an entrepreneur; how he started, his struggles,
and his biggest takeaways, and what you can learn from him. And yeah, really what it takes to develop next-level customer service. And what it means to really care about your customers and develop a relationship and go beyond what it means to help somebody. Gary is just one of the nicest guys…I can’t speak highly of him enough.
How’s this for a cool story? After we jumped off this interview, he personally invited me to stay at his bed and breakfast in the Hamptons. And I’m gonna take him up on that offer, because who wouldn’t, you know?
It’s gonna be so much fun, I’m looking forward to meeting him. And that’s just the kind of guy he is. But I think you’re really gonna enjoy this one. It’s an interesting take. It’s an interview with somebody that you probably wouldn’t think that we’d feature in Foundr. So that’s what makes it interesting, I’m trying to mix things up. As always, trying to, you know, just provide you as much value as I can.
So if you are enjoying these episodes, please make sure you leave us a review. We need more reviews, it helps us get found. And yeah, if you have any questions at all, you know, I’m here to help. You can reach me at [email protected], I’d love to hear from you. And now, let’s jump into the show.
Today, I’m speaking with Gary Muller. He runs an upscale bed and breakfast in the Hamptons in New York called the Mill House Inn. And that’s about all I could find out about him on the internet. He came as a recommendation from Chris Brogan and they’re quite good friends. So Gary, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today.
Gary: It’s absolutely my pleasure, Nathan. I’m glad to be here.
Nathan: Awesome. I’m really interested to delve into your story and how you started the Mill House Inn, and your journey as an entrepreneur. So can you tell us, first of all, about how you got your job?
Gary: Certainly. My wife and I were living in Jersey City. I had, for the past 15 years, owned a bunch of different restaurants and catering businesses, and we were pretty much feeding Wall Street. She was working for the British Broadcasting Company in Manhattan at the time, and the world started to change a little bit. And I guess we were entering the recession of the mid-’90s.
And we started to look for options. And I always wanted to do a bed and breakfast. I dealt with so many great customers, and I always had this statement: “If I had a hotel, I’d get to keep them longer. In a restaurant,
they go home quicker.” Even though in my building with 4,000 people, I would often see a guest six, eight, ten times a week because they’d be in for coffee, lunch, in for dinner after the close of Wall Street.
So we looked around. And as I was downsizing, Sylvia was downsized. So there was a little adversity. And I guess that’s when you decide to do more things. So we looked and I had seen a place in the Hamptons that was for sale.
We were summering in Montauk in a nice little cottage on the beach, and an inn right in the village walking distance to everything came for sale. The owners had only been there about two years and I wrote to a friend who was a friend in Vermont, Bill Oates who’s always handled inns, and I said, “Bill, tell me the story.” And he told me the story, and I was actually on my way to Chicago to the hotel and restaurant show.
And while at Chicago, we wrote a letter of intent, a quick three-page business plan, contacted our local bank in Montauk, and said, “Look, I want to do this.” That was in May, as the restaurant show always is. And on the 31st of July of that year, we bought the Mill House Inn.
Nathan: Wow. And can we go back a little bit further? About…you mentioned that you’ve owned many different restaurants. How did that all start? Can we go further and lead up to how you’ve got running the Mill House Inn?
Gary: I had the luxury…my family was on and off in the restaurant business, and certainly my grandparents…and the odd thing, they were in Jersey City. Back in the day, during and post-Depression, my grandmother had taverns.
So it was odd that I wound up back there. My father sold in Manhattan to restaurants. So as a six, seven, eight, nine, ten-year-old as we all do, if we can, I went to work with my dad. So I’ve often said…I’m gonna be 57 in August, and that means I’ve been in the hospitality business since I was just about old enough to hold up a knife and walk around in a kitchen; it’s 50 years.
And I had opened my first restaurant in Manhattan…I guess it was ’83 or ’84. And being under-capitalized and not knowing the layout so well, it didn’t last too long. It did well; we were four blocks from Wall Street and it did pretty well. And I took a couple years off from that and worked for a while. And then an opportunity came back to walk back in, but it wasn’t in Manhattan downtown, it was in Jersey City downtown. And an odd thing was happening; the 15-year leases on the World Trade Center were turning over. And the big businesses that were there could get twice the space for half the price if they went to this beautiful downtown Jersey City where the Statue of Liberty was and overlooking Manhattan, I found a little brownstone, and the company needed a partner, and they wanted a corporate chef. And I walked into that, and I’ll make that story real short; over the course of ten years, that went to six restaurants, it went to a food manufacturing company. It went to a catering company where we catered Wall Street firms right on the floor of the trading firms. We called that Real Food because we were determined not to serve the standard, less-than-palatable that we observed stockbrokers eating, and actually cooked for them right on the trading floors.
So that was a ten-year stint in Jersey City. Everything was within six or seven blocks of it. By plan, I could walk back and forth. I moved there almost immediately because it was a dedication. Oddly enough in an environment where everything’s closed, obviously, on Saturday and Sunday, and certainly then, it turned into a ghost town on the weekends. The weekends were a time to go in the restaurant and do the paperwork because Monday to Friday, I was in at 4:00 in the morning, and it was not unusual to be finished at 11:30 at night. But that’s the restaurant business.
Nathan: This is fascinating. So how did you go about just starting more and more businesses?
Gary: I had a partner who was probably the oldest guy there. He had been in Jersey City since it was basically a parking lot. And the reason Jersey City existed was there was a PATH train that came up in the midst of the World Trade Center. And when it left New Jersey, it was in downtown Jersey City, and there were two sets of stockbrokers in America: those people who traveled east to go home, and those people who traveled west, predominantly. And if you were traveling west, you were coming up in Jersey City.
So real estate was inexpensive, which it is not now. And we listened. We listened to the brokers. What did they want? What did they need? There weren’t enough restaurants, there wasn’t enough for them. And certainly, the big catering firms that would normally take care of Wall Street, they didn’t want to come over there. They saw it as an imposition to take more money from a company they already serviced. Which flabbergasted me at the moment.
And I said, “Sure, we can feed you.”
And one of the neatest stories was we took over feeding for this one company, and basically, a large, big catering company said, “You know, you’re in transition. It’s not worth our time to feed your staff.” And they walked downstairs to our restaurant, which was brand-new; 6,000 square feet on the Hudson River. We were in debt above our heads. And they said, “Can you feed us?” And I said, “Yes, now? Or do I have a day?” And he said to me, he goes,
“Lunch would do for right now.” I said, “Come sit down, let’s have lunch, and let’s see what you need.”
And that led to the next day signing a contract on a piece of paper that said we would produce 300 breakfasts and 300 lunches a day, and eventually, we would do it upstairs in their kitchen. Because I said, “I don’t think that we want to bring foods here. I think we want to make food for you because it’s gonna be better, it’s gonna be healthier.”
And then we borrowed money, we eventually bought some real estate, we borrowed more money. One of the niche stories in the middle of it was I’d worked for the Mayor of Jersey City’s wife, Lynn Schundler, and did a lot of the food work for her charities. There were a bunch of food pantries, we started a cooking school for underprivileged kids, at-risk kids.
As my business was getting huge, I was running out of kitchen. So I went and looked for a big old warehouse. And I had no money. At that point, I was tapped out. Business was okay. And I said to Lynn Schundler, I said, “I need a loan,” but I said, “I have an idea. I was approached by a company in Vermont called RSVP to produce a pizza product. And what we’re doing in the cooking school, these at-risk kids, something that hadn’t done before, we’re teaching them to cook, but they need practical. I’m gonna take on producing the pizza because now, I can add a contingent to these kids’ education. We not only teach them to cook, but we give them money because they can actually produce a product. So we’re fulfilling at least two of the requirements of getting somebody from an at-risk situation into a healthy, wholesome environment where they make money.”
So good stuff came to me. She walked into the EDC in town with me in hand and said, “He needs a loan and he needs it tomorrow.” You know, the money came in, we paid the money back, we transfered it to a bank, but that project wouldn’t have happened, Nathan…not without doing good things for good people. And it paid us back because we were able to help these kids, we were able to serve our businesses in Wall Street better. Honestly, we hired…this was our hiring pool; these kids off the street that were hooligans and maybe on their way to jail, maybe not, they became our employees.
So we did good, I think, and good was done to us. And money is just…it’s the other part of the whole business. You do the business because you have this idea you want to do a good thing. And in the kitchen, we’re always teaching.
I’m by trade; I always say to Chris, “I’m just a cook. And I am still the cook.” And yeah, that’s a Steven Seagal for a movie and I always laugh and I love it.
But we are. And as cooks, we train. We teach. It’s what we love to do. We like to take somebody who likes food and say, “Come in the kitchen. You’re gonna work really, really hard, and I’m gonna teach you everything you need to know.”
Nathan: Okay, there’s a lot of stuff I’d like to unpack there because you mentioned that at one point, you had no money. How did you cope?
Gary: If you don’t get paid a lot, it’s a little bit easier. I was walking to work, so I didn’t need a car for a while. My credit cards were not pretty, that’s to say the very least. But the guests were there, and people were coming in the restaurants. We were always sort of making ends meet. And even in that little bubble that happened there…I’m just realizing, the last big restaurant, the leases were signed in ’89, and that was a huge issue with the economy right after that. And we made do. We utilized all the business tactics. I mean, I went back to the landlord at the time, it was a big insurance company, and I said, “Our rents were supposed to be based on an occupied building with high-end Wall Street types. Your building’s 50% unoccupied. I think we’re gonna go backwards to the original agreement until you can fill your building.”
They weren’t happy with the conversation, but for us, it was a make or break and eventually, they consented because we provided a great restaurant, people were happy with us. And we were fastidious about what we did, we purchased well, and we were careful with our staffing, and it’s always about the numbers, and it’s always about making it work, and we looked for other businesses. Without a doubt, that little bit with Wall Street and that other building is what pulled it all out for us. There was a moment there where I said, “Hmm, I think I need to figure out where I’m gonna work next because the business isn’t gonna be here and this is gonna be a terible set of tumbling dice.”
And then all of a sudden, three huge moneybrokering firms walked into Jersey City. I got to talk to all three of the physical managers of their floors. I got to talk to the CFO of one of the greatest companies, what a brilliant guy,
and he took me under his wing, and for five years, we had a fantastic relationship. He paid me, but I think I got more out of it from the education.
But the businesses, which I know certainly only came about and I never could have serviced them without that warehouse that came from doing the charitable thing, it never would have worked. We certainly would have fallen down. But those days when I thought it was all gonna down, I said, “You know what? We’re gonna go down smiling.” So we were actually using the kitchens in the restaurants to teach the kids on the weekends and in the evenings. Then they would go and they would learn the bookwork during the day up at the food pantries.
And it just magically happened. The economy got a little bit better and we paid attention to our guests. We picked up a couple of accounts in Manhattan, which was the big time, one of which was Cantor Fitzgerald. I was their largest off-premise caterer. I did a lot of events, 600, 700, 800 people, very highbrow, expensive events with a great bunch of guys. They taught me…just listening to them, working with them taught me.
So we made it through. The restaurant business is always about those high-end numbers. You’ve got your fixed costs, but the variables will kill you. And if your food is taken care of, you can keep your food costs down and present great food.
And you teach your team. We taught all of our staff that “You need to be fastidious. You need to be economical. You’re done…go help the dishwashers finish. Get everybody out of here. Keep the payroll down. Finish the day well.” And everybody was on the same team. I mean, I don’t…Nathan, I don’t know if there really is a business, any business…I think it’s all people. I don’t think I ever sold food, and I know I certainly don’t sell rooms right now. But I know the one thing that’s for sure: it’s people. It’s all about the people. It’s the only real asset you ever have is your team, your staff. You fail immediately without them and you succeed so well with them.
So they did it. Maybe I was an example, maybe it was because I was there before them every morning and I was still there when they went home at night. Maybe it was because I cared about their problems as much as I did about mine. Maybe it was because I lent them money when I didn’t even have any money myself when somebody was in a sticky widget. Or when I had a guy whose green card was failing and I took him over to a lawyer I knew who would help him. And that story goes on and on because, again, without the people, there is no business whatsoever. I don’t care what you do. Even if you’re a solo entrepreneur, there’s people you need to talk to.
There’s people that are in your world and they’re important. They’re more important than the actual thing you do. Because your thing will not succeed without their input, without their help, without them taking you forward.
Nathan: That was a really captivating story, Gary.
Gary: the house.
Nathan: What’s that? Sorry?
Gary: And I didn’t have a good suit, which when I needed to go to a meeting, one of my clients was a tailor in the adjacent mall, and I traded off a bunch of lunches for a couple of suits. Because I said, “I’m not really gonna go into these meetings in my whites,” although it would have been okay as a chef. But I said, “I think these Wall Street guys are gonna have a little bit more respect for me if I know how to put a tie on.”
Nathan: That’s funny. Well, yeah, look, by the sounds of it, you’ve gone through thick and thin. And that’s the real story of an entrepreneur’s journey. Often, we just see the end product. So you mentioned about business tactics. You said you use standard business tactics to get through. Can you tell me a bit more about some of those?
Gary: Again, you have to work the numbers. I mean, one of the most important things in business is always those people you don’t want to talk to, being your accountant and your lawyer. But I kept them tight and close. They eat in restaurants all the time, they were local. They became friends, they became investors whether they wanted to or not because I didn’t pay them. Eventually, I did, but for the most part, it was in “Everybody’s children get married.
Well, that wedding is free. Now it’s gonna cost me bigger.”
But if you don’t make backwards steps, if you don’t make mistakes in your business, if you can actually concentrate on the thing you do…so I always say to my lawyer, and I just a got new one; actually, Rachel Rodgers from Chris Brogan, and Rachel’s fantastic. And in getting to her, one of the things I said is “You’re always gonna hear from me before. I’m never gonna call you later after I’ve muddied the waters and ask you to get me out.” I think those are probably two of the best things.
We also always looked at what we were gonna do and said…we had a statement, “The day we sign that piece of paper is the day we either made or lost money. What we do with it afterwards, well, it’ll be because we’re good at what we do, we’ll do well. But if we made a bad decision when we committed, well, then we’re gonna fail. It doesn’t matter how good we are.” The best restaurant in the worst location, for whatever reason that location is bad, will fail.
If people don’t travel there, if you can’t get staff there.
So those are three principles. I mean, it’s always work with the professionals. It’s always quite simply “Make sure before you pull the pin that it’s correct. Do that analysis of tactics and planning ahead of time. Then go do the work and just keep working.” Restaurants, I mean…hey, I could tell you how to cook food really well in three sentences. Make sure you buy really, really, really seriously good food, then take care of that food. If it’s a piece of fish,
clean it, wash it, dry it. Pack it in plastic, pack it in ice, and keep it cold til you cook it. And when you cook it, don’t do much to it. Because that piece of fish will be perfect.
So I mean, basic tenets of cooking were always followed. We had a brigade; our cooks loved each other. Our staff ate whatever they wanted, it didn’t matter. Because they’re our staff. I can’t send a waiter on the floor if he hasn’t eaten a Dover sole. If he hasn’t had a Porterhouse ever, he’s never gonna tell you how good it is. Now, if I don’t put the best liquors behind the bar…I’m serving an “A” clientele. I’ve got to find the best things. And I’ve continually got to find the best things.
And hey, I listened. And what the clients told me was it’s not just the best, but it’s one-upmanship. So I want to see what’s new. What’s new and the best? And if you can be the guy who always shows them what’s new and the best in that specific environment…”Hey, this is a great new vodka.” “Hey, this is a fantastic new beer.” People like it. Your house? Well, you always keep your house clean. That’s important. I’ve always been in a brick and mortar world. So your facilities are important. They’re impeccable.
One of the guys that I respect so much in the hotel business is Horst Schulze. Started Ritz-Carlton, now Capella. Had the pleasure to sit and meet with him and talk with him for just a brief few seconds. But he only said one thing,
“No defects.” And we followed that in the restaurant. Nothing can be broken. No defects, ever. It always has to work. The guests should really not even notice it.
I’ve got a great friend who’s in Disney who told me a story. He’s one of their corporate chefs and he said, “Watch the little kid spill his drink, and then of course, spill his popcorn.” Within 12 to 15 seconds, the popcorn and the drink were moved away, a new popcorn and drink were on its way, and another employee had a brand-new shirt that he handed to the mother and said, “Here, give him a shirt. He’ll feel better than with the wet one on.” And I’m like,
“Oh, invisible service.” And they’re customers forever. They’re certainly customers for life.
One of the things we’ve did with Wall Street. If you’ve ever looked at the stock markets on the day before or the day after Fourth of July, not much happens. Well, that’s because no one’s there. But there are employees. And those employees feel kind of bad because you’re working on a holiday; you’re not with your family. Well, we’d march upstairs with prime rib and lobster, things that weren’t paid for. I’d call the facilities manager and say, “How much beer can they have and at what time? You know, it’s an early day, the market might close at 1:15 or 1:00.” He said, “At 11:30, bring up cases of Heineken, it’s fine. Or whatever have you.”
We took care of them, and it made a difference. They were not the managing directors, they were the employees. But we cared. We cared that they smiled, too, that they had a good day. So yeah, listen to that single customer all the time and hear what he has to say. He’s gonna tell you the story. Write it down. As I said before, it was great writing down what I wanted to talk to you about, and I looked at my own notes, and I said, “Wow. I might never have written some of this down if not for wanting to talk to Nathan.”
Nathan: You strike me as someone that is really a people person, and just along the way, if you hadn’t have used your people skills…like, you know, and not intentionally befriending people, just befriending people because you never know where it may happen and what may happen. And you’re just being an overall really kind and giving person that’s led you to where you are today. Do you believe that that is a core element of that? That’s just what strikes me.
Gary: That’s absolutely key, Nathan. I’m gonna give you a little story from the old days when we first got into the inn. One thing that happened, which was ironic, we left Jersey City and we opened up the inn, and I was still going back and forth. I was still doing two or three days in Jersey City and four days in East Hampton. So obviously, I was working eight days a week. And Sylvia was manning the fort seven days a week at the inn.
But I walked outside on, like, the second or third day I was there, and I’m like, “Oh, this is funny.” There’s guests staying in the inn, which I obviously didn’t book them; I just bought the place. But I knew them, they were Wall Street guys. And they’re like, “What are you doing here?” “I’m like, “I just bought it.”
Well, just a little while later, a gentleman comes in and wants to book his wedding. He’s 60-some-odd years old, I don’t know who he is. And he fills the inn for later in that season, I think it was that October. Big wedding. South of the highway, further lane, big shots. And we don’t necessarily know who’s gonna check in.
But then we did. And in two of the rooms, one was Lee Iacocca and the other was George Frame, who at the time, was the head of the Jaguar division. And I was…”Okay, these are different kinds of important people.” I got to sit with them in the dining room and talked. And I’m a cigar guy; it was the first time anybody ever smoked a cigar or has since smoked a cigar in the inn because it’s no smoking. But when Lee wanted to smoke a cigar, I said, “We’re gonna continue this conversation on the porch and I will find a Cohiba.”
And we sat and talked. And George Frame looked at me and he said…and this is the point of the story, I guess. “What you do here is kind of like airline food.” And Lee looked him and he said, “Well, you know, we still have to be here for a couple more days, George. It’s not really good to insult them.” He goes, “No. Lee, you’re old. Remember the airlines first were there? When you got on the plane, there was no food except what you asked them to cook for you? So if you wanted fried eggs, Gaufrette potatoes, and filet mignon, that’s what they made you?” He goes, “That’s kind of what it’s like because they care. It’s like how we try to make a car because we care.”
And I go back to talking about the people. There’s an analogy that someone just gave me to me maybe a month ago and I don’t know where I got it, and I’ve been sharing it with everybody. “You are the six to ten people that are around you.” So the brigher, smarter, more intelligent, off-the-wall, odd, or in broken speak, the freaks with this new book, those people count. They all matter. They make you better just by associating. So what did we do? Well, we solved people’s problems when we fed them because they were used to getting bad food.
I’ll tell you a story about bad food. I walked into a big firm, 1,000 people or so. And I said, “I need a key card and I need access for a week.” “What are you gonna do for a week?” “Well, you’re not paying me and I’m not gonna eat your food. Don’t worry about it, I’m just gonna walk around.”
And three weeks later, I walked into the managing director, who was a partner, to his office, and I said, “Here’s two proposals for you.” I said, “That’s what it’s gonna cost you to have me feed you.” He goes, “That’s more than we’re paying.” And I said, “And that’s what you’re gonna save”. “Where did you get that number from?” “Well, every day, your food company brings in food and no one eats it. And then your thousand or so stockbrokers,
well, they run around and order food from outside. So the amenity that you gave your people, because you cared enough to feed them, they don’t like because it’s not good. They’re not gonna do that anymore. And the best part isn’t the money you save, because when you add the two, I’m cheaper. The best part is that their concentration’s going to be on their job. There might be a little hoo ha and hurray that we’re serving great stuff, and my team was always taught to listen,” so Nathan, if you said, “Hey, how come you don’t have fish and chips?” Somebody said, “We’ll figure out how to do that. Maybe not tomorrow, but the next day.” And it was on the food…it was on the menu, then.
But we listened. I walked around and I talked to a couple of hundred people, and I watched boxes of food come in, and I watched stuff go in the garbage can. And I said, “This is a no-brainer, this is easy. We make an amenity an amenity, we make people happy.” Those people were thrilled when we fed them. And they were thrilled until budgets got cut. Which sent us to East Hampton, but that’s the other part of the story.
Nathan: So can you tell us that other part of the story in a short, summarized way? What exactly happened?
Gary: I started selling off things because I just had this feeling. I had a really big project I wanted to do, and I’d spent, oh, I think about a year flying back and forth to most of the small little towns in the UK. We had this idea, and it wasn’t me and my partners, it was me and a couple of brokers. We were gonna create traditional brew pubs, and we were gonna bring our own cooperage in because we wanted real beer. Budweiser wasn’t cutting it for anybody.
We looked at food and I mean, I walked into the places like Guinness and sat and talked with people, and then John Courage, and all the small brewers that were even smaller than that. And I think we went to Scotland twice and we talked to some people about getting some scotches that they didn’t necessarily have enough to sell to the wholesalers.
Well, the economy, again, was not my friend, and these guys who were gonna invest couldn’t, and this was gonna be a big deal, and it was gonna be pretty special. But I said, “You know, sometimes, you’ve got to know when you say no.” There’s probably a great lesson for everybody in business, saying “No” is really important. And I said, “No, we’re not doing it.” So we started selling more things off, closing things. Most of our Wall Street accounts went away in a day.
One of the things I wanted to talk to you about is advice for people: never put all your apples in one basket and that’s so true. Because all of a sudden, when you lose everything…and the bad part wasn’t that, I was okay with losing it, and the businesses were structured well, I couldn’t keep everybody. That was the heartbreaker. I had to lay people off. I spent two weeks on the phone finding jobs for my key people and for anybody else I could. Just calling everybody I knew in Manhattan and everybody I knew in New Jersey and finding places for these talented guys to go who had helped me so well.
So Sylvia had always wanted to spend more time on the East End. It’s a beautiful place to take pictures, 270 degrees surrounded by water, pristine beaches. It’s not necessarily the Hamptons that you see on the news. The other part of the Hamptons is…and Nathan, when you come be my guest at the Mill House Inn and you will; anytime you’re in the United States, stay with me, please. I’ll take you on a busy weekend and I’ll show you empty beaches,
which is really cool when you need a four-wheel drive, but that’s fine. Sylvia said, “We could live out there.” And I said, “Okay.”
So at that point in time, I had a few pennies and still a few left, but not a lot. And I managed to buy a couple of pieces of real estate that weren’t very expensive and they were mortgaged to the helt. But then I looked back and I said,
“Wow, the economy has been kind to real estate. There is an adage. They are not making any more dirt.” And I said, “Let’s let them sit.”
And we borrowed, and I had found that piece of property with that inn that people had started. And fortunately for me, the couple that started the inn and renovated it a little bit decided they didn’t like people. So they really needed to leave yesterday. And we went through that whole thing that we talked about before and we walked in the door. And I said, “Okay, now I’m here. What do we do? How do we make it better? How do we take apart this business, because it’s not a restaurant, we serve breakfast.” And I said, “Well, we’re gonna take away everything that I don’t like. We’re gonna get rid of the chintz and the lace and the doilies. We’re gonna get rid of the communal shared tables,” which now, is back en vogue in restaurants. I just ate in a place in Newport, Rhode Island that was a fantastic oyster bar that had these big, long shared tables, but it also had regular tables. And we’re gonna take away that innkeeper who pronounces to you what they’ll do today. And we’re gonna create customer service. And we’re gonna make a breakfast that Zagat’s gave us a 28 for a couple of times. Because we’re gonna cook real food. And we’re not gonna limit to just breakfast stuff, and yeah, there’s gonna be lobster in there, and there’s gonna be tuna in there, and there’s gonna be sausages we make and bacon we get cured for us by somebody really special. And then we’re gonna start to redecorate…I guess what I figured out was if I wanted me to stay in the inn, I had to rebuild the inn for me. And I looked south of the highway and I said, “From the people I’ve met, I look at 10,000, 15,000-square foot homes with four bedrooms. Obviously, people come visit them, but they don’t have guestrooms.” So they need guestrooms for their guests.
So we started getting bigger. We started breaking down walls and making suites. We were lucky enough to buy the house behind us and build three rooms that were 1,000 square feet, 900 square feet, 800 square feet. And I bought that house and in three weeks with two friends, got it open for the season. Because if I didn’t get it open for the season, I had some financial woes coming to me that were gonna be big.
But we did. And it wasn’t finished as well as we wanted, but it was planned. It was planned. There were two tractor-trailers sitting outside with furniture and all the stuff that needed to go in. And we had the final plans drawn, and I had the intermediate plan drawn. And all the summer, proved to my bank that I could make it happen with the snap of my fingers if I needed to, even though I didn’t sleep for three weeks.
And guests raved. I mean, they absolutely raved. And we listened. We sat there and we listened. We didn’t talk. “What do you want?” “What I want is really, really big tubs and steam showers, and I want lots of TVs.” Inns don’t do those things. “And I want service that’s invisible, but always available.” “Well, that’s easy to do. We’re here all the time.” And I think I got a review that chastised me for somebody at my front desk not being right there. But then teh review said, “But the minute I needed something, someone showed up.” And I’m like, “Presto. That’s what we were working for. Because you might not necessarily want to talk to anybody. But when you need something, someone’s always available.”
And then we listened more. We ripped apart every square foot of 10,000 square feet over the course of about nine years. And mind you, they had done quite a decent job with the brick and mortar before, but the decor was not.
And we furnished it the way we would furnish our home.
One of the nice things somebody said…and I think it was Architectural Digest. Wow. They printed a picture and they said, “You’ve out-Ralph Laurened Ralph Lauren.” Because I designed a room and I called it “Beach Hampton,”
and it was white on white on white on white. And it was comfortable floors and faded out glass, and I just said, “I would stay there. That would make me comfortable.”
So that worked. And then we realized something about ten years into it, nine years into it. We were in our third expansion and I said, “We’re losing guests.” Sylvia’s like, “What do you mean?” I said, “Well, we’re losing guests.
They’re buying houses and they’re renting houses.” She goes, “Well, you can’t do anything about them buying a house.” I said, “I can make sure that anybody who comes to visit them stays with me.” She goes, “They already are.”
I said, “Okay, that one’s good.”
So we bought Graybarn Cottage. And I said, “I’m gonna build you a home in the Hamptons,” which was always our moniker from day one. That the Mill House Inn is your home in the Hamptons, and it’s gonna be like your home.We’re gonna worry about you the minute you call us on the phone. We’re not gonna take a reservation. We’re gonna care about your travels. And we’re gonna worry about you when you get home. That you got home safe, that if there was something you didn’t get to do or something you needed…did you want some lobsters flown in from Montauk? We’ll get them for you. Did your little girls…in Australia, we had a couple who went home and we’ve always had these big, beautiful black dogs that were monikered after our dog, Corey, who was a Gordon Setter, and they went home and the girls were crying. And the lady e-mailed me when she got home, they wanted those black dogs.
The next day, literally, as fast as the mail would get it for them, were posted to them. And she’s like, “What do I owe you?” I said, “A picture of your girls smiling would be great, and I promise not to put it on the internet.” Because it matters. And they’ve been back. And they’ve been back. And with Graybarn, it’s like, I’m not gonna tell you who’s staying there right now, but you’ve watched them on TV. I know you have. I know Chris has, too, and I won’t tell Chris, either, and he keeps asking me. But it’s something we don’t do. We never let our guests know.
But the first thing he said is, “Is it all gonna be safe and are we gonna be secure?” I said, “My general manager used to be the head of security for Swan and Dolphin, and I hired him for a reason: because you guys matter. You’re our guests. You absolutely matter.” The next morning, he woke up and there was a bottle of scotch and a really neat bottle of bourbon in there. And just a little bit of a note, and I haven’t been there in a while. But it was a note from me and I just said, “Thanks.” Because I’m thrilled that you wanted to stay with me.”
And they booked for a month, and they’re gonna be back. But the only reason they’re coming back isn’t the room, it’s not the accommodations. It’s because there’s people there who care about them. People that care about their kids, that their kids have great activities, that we know the right beaches to send them to. If your kids are three and four, the ocean beach is a little daunting. But I can send them to a bay beach where the water’s ten degrees warmer, set you up with a picnic, some water toys, and those waves aren’t present, and your kids get a great influx to the beach. And those same kids eight years later, when they stay with us again, are sitting there surfing in the ocean at Montauk at Ditch Plains. That’s tres cool. That makes me smile. That was our initial thing that I said earlier, we get to keep the guests for longer. Forever with some of them because I’ve got kids staying with me when their parents started with me 16 years ago. I’ve got a guy that could barely afford my cheapest room…16, 15 years ago when we first got there. Now, he rents out the whole house and rooms at the inn, so he brings his family. Because that’s the way he wants to entertain his family. Because he goes, “If they came to my apartment in Brooklyn, it would be a disaster. I can’t cook. I can’t entertain. But I bring everybody here and I look good.”
I said, “Dude, that’s our job. We’re supposed to make you look good.” And then he and I sit there and we have a scotch. And it’s not the way of the old B&B. It’s not that old kind of hospitality. We’re not having a scotch because I’m forcing him to. He’s asking me to. Just like Iacocca said, “You have to smoke a cigar with me.” “Okay. Okay, I will.”
So that’s pretty much the transgression. That’s kind of where we are, Nathan, right now. We’ve decided to always stay small. I’ve had so many offers to go other places and do other things. I actually wrote up something for another bunch of people, they’re Hollywood people who wanted to do something in Italy, and I said, “I’ll write it up for you. I don’t know if I want to do it, but I’ll help.” And they didn’t understand that. They said, “Why would you help?” I said,
“Well, come stay for free or something, I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. It’s not about the money. If you actually like what we do that you asked me, I may not want to be part of it because I’m 60 years old. I want to spend some time with my wife and I want to pay attention to my business.” But they couldn’t understand it and then all of a sudden, they got it. They said, “That’s what you do.” I said, “That’s exactly why.” It wouldn’t matter what a guest asked for,
if we were able to or capable of. And my GM always says it, he goes, “As long as it’s not illegal, it’s done immediately. If it’s impossible, I’ll get to it tomorrow.”
But that’s hospitality. I mean, that’s what the mentors taught me. You know, I talked about Horst Schulze before. I mean, just absolutely brilliant. I mean, the first guy that I ever listened to was Tony Robbins, and when I listened to him that many years, the first book, when Nightingale-Conant was there, and I said, “Okay. Yeah, you can do whatever you want. You absolutely can do whatever you choose to do. But you may not sleep a lot and there’s not gonna be a whole lot of extracurricular activities. There’s not gonna be a whole lot of fun in the other stuff. But if you love what you do, that’s the fun. Inc. Magazine said something just a little while ago, it was about a month ago. And it was…I don’t remember the whole thing, but it was about entrepreneurs and it said, “If you put them together in a room, you’re not gonna understand the conversation because they’re all gonna be talking about business stuff,
and you’re gonna think they’re working. And they’re gonna look at you and say, ‘This is what we do. We like this.'” I mean, I’m doing all the talking, so I’m gonna shut up for a while and let you talk.
Nathan: No, no, this is awesome. We’re channeling so much gold. Like, all the questions that I wanted to ask you, you just answered them. Like, you know, “What did have to sacrifice?” “How do you market your business?” Well,
it’s pretty obvious how you’re getting people through the door, and it’s how you always have. You care. You’ve told us all sorts of things.
So no, I’m really enjoying this conversation. And that’s…I guess, and you would probably attest to this, too, that’s a key to a great conversationalist, it’s what you don’t say.
Gary: True enough. True enough. There’s a lot about my business that doesn’t matter. You brought up a great point, and I didn’t write this one down, but this one is ever present in my mind. We never, ever sell a room. We never worry about the paint being right. We never worry about everything working. That’s a given. That’s just absolutely a given. And I don’t care what you do. If it’s in this blazingly, wonderful new world which I adore, where everybody…and I’m gonna quote them again, can be freaky. You can start your own business, and you don’t have to have a katrillion dollars to do it. Well, be damn good at the thing you do, I mean, examplary at the thing you do.
But then it’s a matter of your personal relationship with the people you want to serve. That’s gonna make the difference. Because there’s a lot of other people that are doing what you do real well. It doesn’t matter who you are.
I’m comfortable talking to you, Nathan. There’s not many people that make me this comfortable. It’s a great conversation. So yeah, you’re good at what you do, your magazine’s great, but you’re a pleasure to speak with. And that matters. And that’s what they can all do.
This is an old, old, story, too. These were the days when Sylvia and I went to work at 7:00 in the morning and we finished at 11:00 at night every day. And I got a phone call, and it was a guest, he was from Germany. He hadn’t stayed with us before. And as I normally did, and against all hotel selling principles, I always said, “So why are you traveling and how can I help you?” And after a 20-minute conversation about what he wanted to do and such and I explained to him what he could do, and I said, “You didn’t answer my first question, though. Why are you traveling?” “Oh, a friend of mine said ‘Stay at the Mill House Inn.'” “Well, that’s really nice. You were traveling to New York so you decided to stay with us.” He goes, “No, you have it wrong. I’m traveling to New York from Germany to stay in your inn.”
Well, I almost fell off the seat in the office because we were brand-new. We didn’t know if our shtick was working quite well yet. And I smiled over the phone so much and I said, “You know something? You made my year. Actually,
you made the first 28 or 29 months I’ve been here just by saying that. I’m gonna be smiling the minute you walk in the door just as much as I smile with everybody. But thank you so much. And for whoever recommended us that well that you’re traveling that far, thank them, too. Because it shows that when we care, it makes a difference.”
We got a new statement, Nathan, that we’ve been making. And it’s funny, I get all these social media things, and I read them all, and they come from al the hotels and all the bloggers on hotels and on what you should do, and our hospitality marketing firm that we don’t think does such a great job anymore because they’re falling behind times. But it was talking about rewards programs. And I’m like, “Well, we started one a year and a half ago,
it’s called Lux Cards, and it’s not a rewards program, it’s an awards programs.” And we give out these beautiful cards from a company called Moo, M-O-O. Super thick, beautiful paper, crafted in an old Adirondack factory, and they’re worth 100 bucks. Tell me how many you want. I’ll send you a thousand tomorrow. Give them out. I’m giving you an award for wanting to stay with us, for wanting to recommend us because it matters. There’s no caveat.
There’s no rules, there’s no regulations. You don’t have to punch a card. You don’t have to tell me I’m the only place you’re gonna stay. You don’t have to do anything.
I mean, that’s the kind of thing that we do that makes a difference. And our front desk agents…I don’t have a good name for them yet, but we’re working on it. We stole Horse for a while and we called them “personal assistants,”
but we’re gonna come up with a better name. But you might be there with your kids and find out that you’re going to dinner. And one night out of your five nights, you’d really like a babysitter. And one of my girls that’s at the desk is gonna say, “I’ll take care of it because you know me already.” But she’s gonna ask your children what they like to eat, and she’s gonna go out and buy dinner, and I’ve seen them do it out of their own pocketbook. For which I scolded them and said, “We’ll certainly give you the money.”
But they brought the kids’ dinner in, and rented them a movie, put an Apple TV in the room, or an Amazon Fire right now, which is pretty cool, and watched the movie with them, and they paid attention to what the kids wanted. And the parents were blown away. “Did you make them do that?” I said, “No, that’s not in the manual because we don’t have a manual. We tell them to care. And if they figure out something…tell everybody else what they figured out,
because that would help. And yeah, we’ll eventually write it all down.” Which is something they’re doing right now, they’re writing down a list of everything we do. Because we’re not quite sure of how many things we do.
But it makes a difference. You’ve got your dogs in your room, we always take pets, we always take dogs. Always have. And if your dog barks…and people are so attracted to their animals. Your dog barks? Somebody will go back and rescue them for their room and bring them up to the office, and hang out with them until you come back. We’re not gonna tell you we do that. We just do it; we make it work. We make your trip special. We know the beach where you can take your dog, too. So he has fun, too, and he’s not stuck on an ocean beach with people saying, “You don’t belong here.”
Nathan: Yeah, I can definitely see how you’ve got to where you are today. And anybody listening to this, it’s quite evident. I’m curious around your team building. You know, we have to work towards wrapping things up, but I have a couple more questions still.
Nathan: And you mentioned that you wouldn’t be where you are today if it wasn’t for the people, and that essentially is your business: people. So I’m curious, when you look to hire and build teams, what are some core elements that you can tell me about that you believe builds a good team, and what do you look for in people?
Gary: I’m gonna talk about the current situation because, again, as you said, it’s getting late, and you have me as long as you want, Nathan. I’m loving the conversation.
Nathan: So am I. So am I.
Gary: East Hampton is a bit different than Jersey City. Because we’re at the end of an island and it has a huge, huge high cost of living. The population of people who are gonna work in a hotel, not a lot. And we let them know that they matter. But I don’t hire people based on what they know how to do or where they’ve been. When I talked about Jay before and the fact that he worked at Swan and Dolphin, that wasn’t why he was hired. Jay was hired because we had a very long conversation, and at the end of the conversation, he goes, “I was interviewing you and you passed.” And I looked at him and I said, “Well, thank you very much. I’m glad I passed the audition. The Beatles said that,
too, didn’t they?” I said, “So can you start tomorrow? Do me a favor, lose the tie. Put on a pair of shorts and a nice shirt and some sneakers and come on in and we’ll start making people change the way they think about hotels.”
And we do it with everybody. I mean, his wife is now our assistant general manager. Why? Well, Courtney said to me one day, she goes, “I want to have a baby, but I don’t know how I can do it in my business. Because they won’t ever let me have time.” And I said, “Come work for me.” “Well, how does that change everything?” I said, “I don’t know. Do whatever you want. Literally, do whatever you want.” I said, “Your husband matters to me. You matter to me. I love you guys, so you can have a child,” and they do. And they have time for their child. They schedule it whenever they need to because it makes a difference.
And dedication, I couldn’t buy the dedication with money. There’s no way. I buy it by caring. I mean, I remember every birthday and every anniversary. I remember every slip and fall and every sprain. I remember every kid’s birthday. It’s in my calendar, it’s important. Not to give something of worth, but to show that I actually care because I do.
I delve into healthcare audaciously because I’m like, “These people need to have this and it needs to be better. They can’t be stuck with ‘acceptable.'” When I feed our people…I mean, I look at my chefs and I say, “They come first, actually. This staff comes first. Sure, we feed the customers. We love our guests, they’re our family, too. But these people here, some of them, that’s the best meal they’re gonna get of the day because you guys are professional cooks. They don’t get to go out to a restaurant. Make sure it’s really good.” And at one time, someone said, “Do you have a food cost?” “No, there’s no food cost. There’s no food cost for the guests and there’s no food cost for the staff.”
And in fact, once every couple of months, circulate a piece of paper around and ask them what they like to eat and include it. Because it matters. And pay them for their breaks and pay them far better than even for a housekeeper. Establish a very high minimum wage for that job. And then teach. And we don’t look for people who are in hospitality, it doesn’t matter. Have we gotten excellent housemen and housekeepers because they’ve worked elsewhere? Well, they hired themselves.
I have a completely new team over the last 12 months and they all hired themselves, because they called their friends and said, “This is a nice place to work.” And they’re working harder. My office staff? They’re like family. I mean, people come back and they cook dinner for themselves at night when we don’t serve any food, and they hang out in the office and have dinner, and they talk hotel. Not the business part, they talk the guest part,
which is what counts. “How do we do something more cool.?”
So yeah, I hire from the inside. I don’t care what you don’t know how to do. I’ve always said, “My job is one thing. Beyond the owner’s position…” I’m quoting Brogan again. “But beyond the owner’s position, my job is to do what everybody else can’t or won’t.” I won’t chastise an employee for not getting something. Because if I realize they just can’t, I’ll do it. It’s okay. I’ll come back and teach you later. But if it’s something that you’re not gonna be good at,
or you just don’t like it, it just became my job. Because I work for you. I work to make you better every day. That’s my job. Not to sit there and look at reports and count money in the bank, but to make sure that my staff has a great place to go, that they have a future to be there. And that their job is cool. And that they’re not bogged down doing BS reports and sending stuff in and filling things out. We don’t do much of that.
We know. We see the guests’ smiles. We know when we’re doing well. And yeah, do I do the other part? Of course. I’m never gonna tell anybody new or suggest to them that they shouldn’t pay attention to all those things that you need to do, yes you do. But your staff? Tony Hsieh says it really well, “Put them in a place where they are having such a damn good time, they’re gonna love it.” And then if I look at one of my favorite quotes in the entire world, just without a doubt, “If you can’t come in on Saturday, you don’t need to come in on Sunday, either.” That was Steve Jobs.
And I think what he meant wasn’t “I want you to work seven days a week.” What he meant was “I want you to care so damn much about it that you can’t put it down.” That doesn’t mean you have to be here. But it means that when you’re sitting home all of a sudden and literally everybody that works for me sits there with a piece of paper and a pencil by their bed. Because they wake up in the middle of the night and say, “Wow, I could do that,” and they write a note. And then they take a picture of the note. And we’ve had these back and forths at 2:00, 3:00, 4:00 in the morning where somebody woke up and thought of something and then texted it to everybody or e-mailed it to everybody. And everybody just chimed in. And then they’ve woken me up, and I’m saying, “Okay, now all of you go back to bed. Thank you very much for thinking.”
But yeah. Because they’re jazzed about it. They like the thing they do. So yeah, you don’t have a business. And I think I said before, even if you’re a solo entrepreneur…well, first off, you have an accountant and you have an attorney, you need to have them. Take care of those people. Learn from them. Ask them tons and tons and tons of questions before somebody sues you for copyright infringement, because it’d probably be a good thing. And then find six to 12 really smart people and contribute. Give.
I think one of the things that you and I had talked about in an e-mail was “What would I tell somebody else to do?” And I think I probably touched on that a lot, but I would also tell them to do is…when you print this, Nathan, put my e-mail address in there. E-mail me. I have time. I don’t need to sleep. You’ve got a question about business, if you’re thinking about something, even if it’s not hospitality, e-mail me. Because I’ll learn far more than the value I’ll give you back in an answer, but I’ll give you a great answer: I’ll pick up the phone and call you. Because I like business. I mean, business is really, really cool. Especially when it’s done on this level. Not the corporate level, because that one,
I don’t understand. This one, I think, is genuine. It’s real, it’s loving emotional. It doesn’t matter what you do; whether you publish a magazine, whether you have an inn or a restaurant. Restaurants are so cool for the social aspect of talking to everybody out there.
You can build a whole restaurant with Twitter. You can guarantee the success of an entire restaurant with Twitter. And I watched people do it. I’m in Provincetown now. And I watched these three young guys, and they just opened a place. And I watched one guy go over there and tweeting back and forth between guests, and guests coming in, and telling them that lobsters just came in off the boat, and clams are coming in in an hour. And I’ve watched these guys’ place for four days. It’s full all day, from breakfast to the end of dinner. It’s little, it’s special, and all three of those guys care so much about their guests. And their smiles are ear to ear.
Nathan: Yeah, no, I think the underlying message I’m getting…look, I’m gonna take my customer service to a whole new level after speaking to you.
Gary: Well, I’ve talked about that at length. And I always wondered, “What do I want to do when I grow up? And what’s the next thing?” Well…again, I keep mentioning him, but Mr. Brogan told me to write a book. And he named it for me at one of his owner’s sessions, he called it “Hospitality Without Borders.” And I said, “I want to take it further.” I said, “I want to offer, like, effectual, cheap consulting to explain to people that hospitality is part of every business.
It’s how you treat those people. It’s how you make them feel comfortable and at home.” Because you can provide the same services a number of different ways. But when they’re done in such a way that you’ve told your client that they matter, that they’re important…whether it’s just a change in a brick and mortar place in the greeting room for a lawyer or an accountant.
I was in the city at my accountant’s office and I said, “Put in an espresso bar. Put in some really cool couches, some big TVs. It’s gonna matter. It’s gonna change the way your people feel.” He didn’t get it at first, and then he e-mailed me back about a week later and he goes, “Help us buy the stuff.” I said, “Okay.” “And get some, like, really cool blue bottle coffee there and Stumptown coffee. Make a difference.”
So yeah, I want to help other people take hospitality into their businesses when they’re not necessarily a specific restaurant, hotel, bed and breakfast in…it’s how you write a letter. It’s how you don’t have rules and regulations,
but yes, you can do all these things. “Oh, and yeah, there’s another thing, and if you need it, there’s a PDF, and I’m sorry we had to write it.” Which is exactly what we’ll tell people. “We’re sorry we wrote that. But there needs to be some rules for some things. Because there is commerce going on here and it’s legal. But for the most part, no, we don’t really want to do that. What we want to do is anything you ask.”
Nathan: I can really feel that. Look, we have to work towards wrapping things up. So I have one last question, Gary. And that is what’s the best piece of advice that you’ve ever been given that you would like to share in a final note?
Gary: You have to learn the power of yes and no. They’re the two most important words. And they’re easily allocated to your client. Every time, say “Yes.” Even if there’s a caveat. And as I said earlier, “If it’s impossible, it’s gonna take me a little longer.” Or “That’s really expensive, but we’ll do it for you.” And then, learn the power of “No.” And by that, I simply mean concentrate on your business. All kinds of distractions are gonna show up. Whether it’s your buddies wanting to go to the park or out to the pub. Or somebody saying, “You should do this business.” No, do the business you’re doing. You don’t want ten. You want one that’s so mind boggling great that everybody talks about you. Then you might think about two. So the power of yes and no is so important.
Nathan: That was brilliant. Look, I’ve had an absolute blast speaking with you, Gary. I could talk to you all day, man. We just had…yeah, I just wanted to thank you so much for taking your time to speak with me. I’ve had an absolute blast.
Gary: Absolutely my pleasure. And I’m gonna send you off some directions from where you are so far away so you can find the Mill House Inn and you’re gonna come visit us. Let me know when you are in the States anywhere. Because obviously what Tony Robbins would have is “I have to walk my talk.” So I’ve got to prove to you that we do this.
Nathan: I do plan to come to the States. So yeah, no, thank you so much. I will definitely…I would love to.
Gary: My pleasure. I look forward to it.
Key Resources From Our Interview With Gary Muller
- Learn more about the Mill House Inn
- Follow Gary Muller on Linkedin
- Follow the Mill House Inn on Twitter