Jack McGarry on the Books That Changed His Life

When you mention the name Jack McGarry, most people immediately think of his award-winning bar in New York City, Dead Rabbit. McGarry co-founded the spot with business partner Sean Muldoon in 2013. Since opening it’s taken home more than a dozen awards, including World’s Best Bar, World’s Best Cocktail Bar, and Best Bar in North America (four times, actually). McGarry was even named International Bartender of the Year.

But what people might not realize is that McGarry, in addition to being a savvy businessman, is an insatiable reader. If you follow him on Instagram, you’ll know he posts about as many photos of books as he does his son. Which is to say, he posts a lot of books. You’ll find glimpses of everything from business philosophy to the occasional recipe book on his feed, whatever he happens to be reading that day.

In 2020, he decided to leverage his interests by pursuing a Business Management degree. After that, he’ll move on to an MBA, a move he feels will help set him up for further success when it comes to scaling his businesses.

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McGarry is also a member of the Bar & Restaurant Expo (formerly Nightclub & Bar Show) Executive Council. He uses his position to advocate for interdisciplinary conference topics and more equitability within the show programming. At a recent meeting, he mentioned one of the books he was reading which piqued our curiosity and ultimately lead to the creation of this new series: B&R Book Club.

Each month, we’ll explore the bookshelves of industry thought leaders to find out what they’re reading, who inspires them and how they continue to advance their education beyond their bars and restaurants.

Read on to find out what Jack McGarry is reading, and hopefully find some inspiration for your own library.

What are you reading at the moment?

I'm reading Dan Heath's book called Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen. He outlines the differences between our continued obsession with downstream beliefs and decision-making, instead of focusing on solving problems at the root, which is upstream work. This type of mindset is so pervasive in our industry, and it's something I've been keen to break both with my life and work. Solving problems before they happen, or at the very least leaning into that train of thought, results in claiming more of our time back to focus on other things instead of constantly engaging in firefighting (which the majority of operators do in this industry, resulting in poor results for the business and ill health).

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Which non-F&B-related books would you recommend every operator read?

Oh, that's a toughie. Books I've read this year that I'd recommend are Atomic Habits by James Clear, Mindset by Carol Dweck, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown, Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity by Kim Scott, and Principles by Ray Dalio.

Why did you choose those titles?

I love James Clear’s Atomic Habits because he focuses on the aggregation of marginal gains in a perpetual fashion, looking for that 1% gain or improvement daily. That culminates in a 37x improvement in performance in one year. So, I always look for my 1% improvement each day. Dweck's Mindset is similar in that regard, focusing on cultivating an always improving mindset irrespective of where you are in your career, age, or any other perceived or real barrier. I've noticed many folks in our industry seem to stop learning when they reach a certain height or position, and begin to regress. McKeown's Essentialism is awesome, and I love his 'Weniger aber besser' mindset, which translates as 'less but better.' We have so many things competing for our attention and mind space, and his book is all about decluttering and doubling down on your core rocks and staying disciplined. Kim Scott's Radical Candor is about challenging directly and caring personally, which I think we all need to do more as we hold back or leave money on the table regarding our viewpoints or thoughts. Lastly, Dalio's Principles is excellent, spanning his work and life, and it reinforces how important principles are in anchoring your beliefs, assumptions, and decisions. 

A lot of operators struggle to find time to do almost anything beyond running their business, but you seem to make learning a priority. Have you always been a big reader?

I’ve always been a voracious reader, devouring cocktail and spirits books from the 19th and 20th centuries. That led to reading industry and non-industry-specific books to improve as a leader and operator. When I moved from bartending to running a business, I was suffering from Peter Principle-syndrome, meaning I'd reached my level of incompetency. Therefore, reading and learning is my way of future-proofing to ensure I'm always improving and evolving. I look at reading and running as essential for my productivity and well-being, so it has to happen. No excuses. 

You post books that you’re reading on Instagram and quotes that resonate with you. What are some of your favorites? Is there a quote that resonated with you enough that it’s impacted the way you work/live?

I love quotes, and I'm constantly documenting them in my reMarkable digital handbook and categorizing them according to what they speak to in my overall philosophy. I love the simple quotes that encompass core tenets of high performance both individually and as a business, including maximizing moments of truth (Moments of Truth, Jan Carlzon), never prioritize tasks over customers (John diJulius), Weniger aber besser (Essentialism, Greg McKeown), and radical candor (Radical Candor, Kim Scott).

Out of all of the quotes that you’ve saved, which one stands out to you most right now?

I have hundreds of these quotes, but the one I've been repeating over and over again recently is from Michael Levine's excellent book Broken Windows, Broken Business: How the Smallest Remedies Reap the Biggest Rewards. His book outlines the ‘broken windows’ criminal theory, which theorizes that not tackling misdemeanor types of crime leads to larger, more serious forms of crime. Now, this type of philosophy has critics in the criminal world. Still, Levine applies the concept to business, where not ensuring the small details such as bathrooms, lights, music, poor maintenance, or poor service communicates – on a conscious and subconscious level – that you don't care. Therefore, your customers or teammates won't care. So, for me, ‘broken business, broken windows’ means being obsessively focused on the entire experience, opening the aperture, developing a panoramic view of the business, and constantly looking for those broken windows so they're fixed as soon as possible. 

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Do you feel that learning from a wide array of disciplines has improved your skills as an operator and a leader?

100%. I think that's pretty apparent with some of the stuff I've mentioned. Any book or learning endeavor is worthwhile if you pull one thing from it, but the key distinction, I suppose, with what I do is that I immediately apply what I've learned. For example, I read a bunch of human resource management books by Brad Smart (Topgrading), Geoff Smart (Who: The A Method for Hiring), and Ram Charan (Talent Wins: The New Playbook for Putting People First) and then immediately overhauled how we recruit, interview, onboard, and manage performance in an ongoing basis. I apply the learning and refine constantly. 

As a member of our Executive Council, you’ve pushed for a more interdisciplinary approach to the conference program. Why do you think it’s important that operators educate themselves beyond the realm of F&B operations? 

Well, in a word, synthesis. Diversifying your information streams enables you to connect the dots better and integrate those learnings into a cohesive, integrated, and thoroughly informed system, product, or service. 

What’s an F&B-related title you think everyone should read – a cookbook, a cocktail book, a book on flavor profiles or hospitality – anything.

I would encourage everyone to read Dave Wondrich's cocktail books, as I think it's imperative to understand what happened yesterday before thinking or imagining what will happen tomorrow. In terms of flavor profiles, The Flavor Bible by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen A. Page is excellent. On hospitality specifically, everything from John DiJulius is excellent. 

Do you want to be featured in our series, or know someone who would be a good fit? Email [email protected] and tell us what you’re reading for a chance to be featured. You can find Jack McGarry and Dead Rabbit on Instagram, or at www.deadrabbitnyc.com .  

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