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Steve Hanson Wants You To Be Happy

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He wants to be able to quantify absolutely everything that goes on in his world. Each waiter is required to fill out a report after every shift, discussing whether customers liked the specials and whether the kitchen delivered promptly, and even answering a personal question -- How do you feel? -- by circling responses ranging from "Great" to "Depressed." (Why is it somehow not surprising to discover that one of Hanson's good friends is Mr. How-Am-I-Doing himself, former mayor Ed Koch, who enthuses that Hanson is "heading for the top of the food pyramid" in New York?)

Does anyone actually ever admit to being depressed? "They're actors, they're full of drama," says Jon LoPresti, chef at Ocean Grill, with a laugh. "They'll tell you." Anyone who checks off "Depressed" several times is likely to wind up having a how-can-we-help chat with management.

For a man who has deliberately deluged himself with paper, Hanson appears almost comically disorganized. Step into his cluttered warren of second-floor offices, right above his restaurant Park Avalon, on Park Avenue South, and you need to hopscotch around the piles of paper on the floor to get to a chair. "I know where everything is," he insists, and he triumphantly comes up with a document he wants to show me, the weekly breakdown of every meal ordered at his restaurants. At Ocean Grill, 686 people ordered the blackened swordfish, 643 ordered the bass with risotto, and -- hold the presses -- only 446 people ordered the salmon, usually one of the most popular dishes. "Mr. Salmon ought to be knocking Mr. Swordfish out," he exclaims, noting that LoPresti has been trying out a new recipe, and either the menu description or the dish itself will have to be changed.

Instead of relying on his hostesses to remember the names and faces of the regulars, Hanson has programmed his computers to do the job: Each time someone calls for a reservation at, say, Coconut Grill or Isabella's and his phone number is logged in, his NV (number of visits) pops up. Hanson uses those numbers to further build loyalty: giving VIP preference for reservations on busy nights, passing out restaurant-logo baseball caps, free drinks, or dessert.

His regulars tend to show up at his restaurants during the week, avoiding the weekend crowds. And here's another intriguing factlet: Saturday-night diners are the most adventurous eaters, going a little wild and crazy in honor of the fact that it's not a school night. As Hanson says, "They're willing to try something new because they're relaxed."

Hanson has been obsessed with the nuances of restaurant life ever since he first began working at the ultimate Manhattan singles bar of the seventies, T.G.I. Friday's, while attending New York University. Michael Whiteman, a restaurateur who with the late Joseph Baum operated the Rainbow Room until recently, says, "If you go to dinner with Steve, he'll want to discuss what the headwaiter said and how do the guests feel about it." Not to mention whether the rolls are too chewy or leave too many crumbs. Hanson once arranged to drive Michael Weinstein, the restaurateur who owns Bryant Park Grill and Ernie's, to work for the privilege of asking questions en route. "He'd even stand next to me at the treadmill at the gym so we could talk," recalls Weinstein.

At Ruby Foo's, Hanson bounds cheerfully up the handsome black curving stairs that separate the upstairs and downstairs dining areas. "I call this my Fred Astaire staircase," he says. Today he's unshaven and wearing sweats, his tousled hair standing on end (his other mode is the full slick Calvin Klein look). Gesturing about Ruby Foo's, Hanson is eager to explain the people-pleasing theory behind the architectural design. A dramatic skylight has been cut between the two floors, which reduces the potential number of tables. But the payoff is great views from all angles, with a focus on the striking wall of Asian artifacts by the staircase. Better to have 350 happy diners than jam in an extra 20 more who are miserable. "Instead of people demanding 'Where are you seating me, Siberia?' when a hostess takes them upstairs," Hanson says, "they're gonna wanna climb." (Sure enough, on a recent Saturday night, Diane Sawyer, Mike Nichols, and Anna Deavere Smith were sharing a table at Ruby Foo's . . . upstairs.)

Nothing makes New Yorkers crazier than feeling that somebody else has an edge -- a better table, a better life -- so Hanson tries to orchestrate a dining experience that is democratically welcoming. The 800 waiters, hostesses, and busboys employed by B.R. Guest are virtually brainwashed into doing the ultimate non-New York thing -- being really, really nice. 'No Attitude' signs are posted in the kitchen area of his restaurants. The waiter's training manual urges the staff: "Be cheerful! Be sincere! No one is too cool to not smile -- NOT HERE." "Steve's attitude is that getting through the day in New York is so difficult," says Chris Giarraputo, the company's executive chef, who's been with Hanson for twelve years, "that it shouldn't be difficult going to our restaurants."


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