The Salt Shaker Theory of Leadership

Paul Stansik
4 min readJul 29, 2023
Photo by Lachlan on Unsplash

Amongst the most successful restaurateurs of the last 50 years, one stands out: Danny Meyer. Danny conceived of, built, and reinvented world-famous venues like Gramercy Tavern, The Modern, and my own personal favorite (and a frequent lunch stop just down the street from my office in Chicago), Shake Shack.

Danny’s path to success was anything but linear. In his exceptional memoir, Setting The Table, Meyer recounts his struggles in his twenties as he attempted to manage his staff at his first NYC restaurant, Union Square Cafe.

Complaining to his mentor Pat Cetta, Danny “bemoaned the fact that [he] was failing to get any kind of consistent message across to [his] staff members regarding standards of excellence.” His staff was consistently missing the mark, and Meyer’s patience was starting to wear thin. It was starting to show — to his staff, his family, and to Pat.

As they discussed all the little misses in execution that seemed to pile up around him, Cetta smiled at Danny, and said in a thick New York accent: “If you choose to get upset about this, you are missing the boat, luvah”

He then proceeded to illustrate his point. As Danny tells it:

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

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

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

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

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

Pat has just given one of the most successful young restauranteurs in New York a serious wakeup call. His demonstration of the art and importance of reminding changed Meyer’s view on what good leadership is all about: Often, it’s simply about nudging people — over and over, in simple, straightforward ways — back towards the standard you expect.

This “saltshaker theory of leadership” became a cornerstone of Meyer’s managerial style, a style he now describes as “constant, gentle pressure.” Constant, gentle pressure is about setting high standards, holding team members accountable, and correcting them — repeatedly, enthusiastically, and with kindness — when they start to drift from those standards. It’s also about accepting the infinite nature of this work. If you lead a team, this nudging and reminding literally never ends.

And that’s ok. That’s the job. Meyer believes that his job — his identity as leader, owner, and standard-setter of his restaurants — is first to let his team know exactly what he stands for and what he expects of them. And then it’s about conjuring up an environment that reminds people of the bar they are expected to meet. The bar that their success depends on. This takes a lot of reminding.

Sure, Danny is there to operate a great restaurant — manage reservations, fill the seats, prepare great food, and turn the tables.

But his second, more important job, is to create and maintain this high-performance atmosphere, in which the signals of what it means to work at Union Square Cafe — and what’s expected as a member of the team — are impossible to escape. As Meyer puts it in his book: “Wherever your center lies, know it, name it, stick to it, and believe in it.”

What’s the takeaway? If you’re a leader, you’ve got two jobs to do.

(1) Run the business.

(2) Remind the team.

Don’t forget about that second job.

If you want to read more about how you can use the art of reminding to change your team for the better, I think you’ll enjoy my series on The Chief Reminding Officer. Click on that link to check it out.

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Paul Stansik

Partner at ParkerGale Capital. Lives in Chicago. Writes about sales, marketing, growth, and how to be a better leader. Views my own. Not investment advice.