The art of doing lunch

The long liquid business lunch may have had its day, but the BL is still one of the best ways to build a working relationship.

by Rhymer Rigby, World Business
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

The book, Power Lunching: how you can profit from more effective business lunch strategy, was published in 1983 and is a fascinating insight into a bygone business world - and one we should probably be pleased is bygone. The authors of this book, the improbably named Ligita Dienhart and E Melvin Pinsel, have all sorts of useful tips for would-be swashbucklers over lunch. We are introduced to 'Bill' and 'Mary', and pretty soon we're in the thick of '80s-style dining for deals.

We are told that "Bill knows a banquette lunch lends itself to physical closeness and that the straightening of his tie and the touch of Mary's breast are not accidental". In this case, perhaps as a nod to encroaching equality, Mary is the one who's playing for advantage, although doing so involves the use of empowering lines such as: "Bill, you're in such great shape, you must work out regularly."

Luckily, these sexual harassment suits of the future do not detain us for long. There's general etiquette - "when lighting (a woman's) cigarette, if she does not reach for your hand, extend yours to steady her hand" - and the forthright manliness of hard liquor. The authors assert: "If you're hosting a power lunch, your choice of drink should convey your dominance. Here's a list of power drinks ... " So Scotch is in and white wine and 7 Up are out. Women, meanwhile, are advised not to order a 'ladies' drink', such as a dry sherry or a cocktail called 'pink squirrel'. Apparently its "impotent image" will "drain your power". In fact, the book goes as far as to provide a helpful and proscriptive index, with food and drink categorised into P for power and W for wimp.

Of course, this was back in my parents' generation and even with hindsight it all sounds a bit ridiculous, so who better to ask if this kind of ribald lunching was the norm than my father, who was a manager at ICI at the time. Were lunches all about power foods and drinks? "Oh, yes," he said nostalgically. "We used to eat something called a baron of beef (two sirloins back to back). We'd have wine, beer and starters, then finish with Stilton and port and get back to the office at 4pm." No wimp foods on his plate.

Of course, the business lunch (BL) has a longer history than this; its roots go back into the mists of time as, since the dawn of civilisation, business has been discussed over food. The BL as we understand it, though, is more rooted in the coffee houses of Change Alley (out of which grew the London Stock Exchange) and the gentlemen's clubs of St James' - the start of the modern business world.

Of course, as James Minter, managing director of Adam Street, a London club founded for entrepreneurs, points out: "The hypocrisy of the old-school St James' clubs is that one is never allowed to talk business, while at the same time the connections that such a membership confers are often vital to business."

The widespread adoption of the BL had to wait for the formation of a managerial class and the development of the Western industrial economies, especially the US. In the early part of the 20th century, references to BLs start appearing in popular culture - and often in a rather derogatory way, implying that robber-baron types stitched up the working man over porky executive lunches. With post-war affluence, the BL took off and, arguably, reached its zenith in the '60s, '70s and '80s. This was the era that started with corporate man and his double martinis, and ended with the kind of advertising executives caricatured (thinly) by John Self in Martin Amis' Money (1984).

But then something changed. Perhaps it was when Gordon Gecko famously declared "lunch is for wimps" in Wall Street (1987). But for whatever reason, the BL started to decline - well, in terms of Bacchic excess, anyway. Recession and globalisation made business altogether more competitive and serious; too competitive and serious to have your first good ideas after your second bottle. This, coupled with health consciousness, meant that by the 1990s BLs were very staid affairs - fish and Evian water - and really were all about business.

Things have loosened up a little since then and the strictly mineral water days are probably over. But lunches are still mostly short, sober businesslike affairs. Nowadays, Bill would be more worried about the presentation he had to write in the afternoon than he would be about brushing Mary's thigh after his fourth Scotch.

The BL, says Carole Stone, author of The Ultimate Guide to Successful Networking (2004), has become a victim of the fact that modern life is so busy. "They used to start with a couple of G&Ts and last all day. Now they have to be back at their desk at 2:30pm. People just don't have time to waste an entire afternoon."

Nonetheless, even in these relatively abstemious days, the BL is one of the best business relationship building tools there is. "If it's such a great tactic, why wouldn't you use it?" says Robin Jay, author of The Art of the Business Lunch (2004) and veteran of over 3,000 client lunches. "People prefer to do business in a relaxed and casual atmosphere. It's far more pleasant than meeting in the office."

She adds that the other reason to lunch with people is that you find out far more about them. Sometimes, the lunch meeting can be very revealing. "People forget that it's work and it breaks down walls. It's a comfortable environment." Too comfortable for some. The downside of this is that you might discover that, once relaxed, the person you liked in an interview thinks it's a good idea to treat the restaurant staff like dirt.

And not everyone believes that it makes for far better working relationships. "Certain US government agencies and many big businesses forbid their buyers from lunching with vendors," says Jay. "They know it creates too prejudicial a relationship and that you won't work in the best interests of the company."

So then, what should the environment be? Well, says Stone, it should be convenient for both parties. But other than that, it's a question of horses for courses. It needn't be the most expensive place in town. Indeed, million-dollar deals have been done over sandwiches and coffee, and four-figure lunches have resulted in nothing.

As long as it is up to a certain standard, the quality of the food, perhaps surprisingly, is not all that important unless you are lunching with a gourmet. In today's fast-paced world, the speed and efficiency of service are more likely to be an issue. And if the food is awful ... well, you just have to keep a sense of humour. If you're hosting, your guest is unlikely to blame you and if you're the guest, then you should be gracious about it. This is perhaps an argument in favour of using a tried and tested restaurant.

However, you don't want somewhere that's too noisy. This was a notable failing of the vast cafeteria-like restaurants that enjoyed a brief vogue in the 1990s. They may have looked stylish, but they were as noisy as the refectories they resembled and, in retrospect, pretty terrible places for any sort of lunch.

There are logistical points too. If it's to be a big lunch, you should probably go for a set menu. The reason? People are busy and dealing with eight or 10 orders takes forever. In this case, you should definitely check guests' dietary requirements, but don't give them the opportunity to be too picky. Genuine allergies, religious restrictions and vegetarianism are important, faddy diets and fashionable food intolerances may safely be ignored. On the other hand, with smaller lunches, you shouldn't outnumber your guests. If you've said it's going to be a lunch for two, it's poor form to then show up with three colleagues.

Tardiness is a tricky one. On the grounds that your guest may be late, you probably want to go armed with a newspaper. Jay suggests, if possible, nipping this problem in the bud by picking your guest up from their office. But while this is a good strategy, it is best suited to cities like LA and Las Vegas, where everyone drives, and not London, New York or Tokyo, where people are far more likely to take cabs or public transport. And if your guest doesn't show at all, you just have to grin and bear it. If you want to see the person enough, you'll re-arrange the appointment. Whatever the case, keep calm. An overreaction may be embarrassing if there is a genuine excuse.

Basic manners are a must. Don't talk with your mouth full. Behave politely. But Jay cautions that you shouldn't be too nervous or worry too much. "When I speak, I always ask who has never spilt a drink. These things happen." She also recalls a man in his 40s who didn't know how to excuse himself and spent an hour and a half desperately needing the bathroom. Apparently, it never occurred to him that the best way to excuse himself was to say "excuse me".

And though this won't be an issue in the UK for much longer, don't smoke. But if you twig that your dining companion is also a smoker and you pull out a pack, it might work in your favour. Mobiles are a no-no: remember to turn it off - and don't be tempted to sneak a look at your text messages.

What about getting down to business? Well, of course you should. Americans are legendary for putting their cards on the table, but different occasions require different amounts of small talk. Minter recalls a wonderful story told to him by someone very much of the old school. The man was supposed to be negotiating a bottling contract and hosted a lunch that stretched on into the evening. Eventually, the fellow and his lunching companion walked out on to the street and "and as I held open the door of the cab for Bertie, he said: 'I think 8p a bottle', I said: 'I think 7 and a half', he said: 'Done!' We shook hands and that was the account settled for another year. After eight hours of jolly good company, we had done the deal in about 20 seconds ..."

But eight hours of jolly good company works only if both parties are playing. No doubt we can all recall horror stories. The one where someone got so drunk, they fell on the way out or, worse still, were sick. "There are plenty of stories about people getting stoked and coming out with all sorts of things - even racial abuse," says Jay, "and the point of these stories is always the same. You never let your guard down and that means you don't get drunk in front of your clients." Not, she adds, that you shouldn't allow yourself a glass or two of wine. But you probably shouldn't have a bottle or two.

The bill is another minefield, but one that's easily negotiated. If you're hosting (and therefore paying), you should choose the restaurant. Indecision is an irritant. You should also, within reason, choose the wine if you're drinking. And, if your guest chooses caviar followed by foie gras and truffled lobster, you should probably just grin and bear it, while making a mental note to yourself about the kind of person they are.

If you're hosting, don't go to the loo when you know the bill is arriving - and pay with a credit card. There may be a few occasions where a split is appropriate, but the worst possible thing you can do is to split the tab and then keep the bill for your expenses. Few things send out a more powerful message about being a cheapskate. There is also the question of getting to the bill. Unless you are up for a long lunch, Stone suggests a timely appointment, real or ficticious, that allows a face-saving exit should your lunching partner be a lingerer.

Speaking of which, some reckon that lunch simply eats up too much of the day. "A lot of people find that travelling is so difficult that the meeting has to be for a good reason. Often, they feel that breakfast is better," notes Stone.

Indeed, in many ways, breakfast might be a better bet, the new lunch. It doesn't break up the day and doesn't involve a time-consuming, there-and-back-journey. And, of course, you don't have to worry about the implications of ordering a pink squirrel.


In many ways, the business lunch is fairly consistent around the world and good manners will get you most places even if you don't know the minutiae of local customs. But although many places are broadly similar, the devil is in the detail.

Japan is perhaps the most notably different country. "The main real difference," explains Niall Murtagh, author of The Blue-Eyed Salary Man, "is the importance attached to seniority if several people are present. You need to be careful where you sit."

The most senior person in the party gets the best seat - typically, the one furthest from the door. "No-one tells you about this," says Murtagh, "and it comes as a surprise. I once entered a private dining room and as I was early went to an inside place. I was told pretty bluntly that I shouldn't be there."

Other important points, he adds, are in a similar vein. "Greetings are said at the beginning and the most senior boss is expected to start the conversation and set the main topics." The other thing, true of Japanese meals generally, is that you shouldn't pour your own drink. "It doesn't look good; you should wait for your host or someone else to do it." While your drink is poured, you may wish to hold the glass with your right hand and when it's done, return the favour.

Other countries are perhaps less extreme. The Germans rarely drink over lunch: the steins are saved for later. Conversely in France, southern Europe and Latin America, you almost certainly will drink and lunch will be a more leisurely affair.

And in the Philippines, says Stuart Green, an ecologist who has lived in the region for 10 years, "wine is common at lunch as it's a status symbol - the old Mestizo rich usually have it". This is true of many south-east Asian countries, especially as wine is almost always imported.

Green adds that at a business lunch, "you'd either wear a suit or Barong Tagalog dress, the traditional outfits made of pineapple fibre". He adds that the host pays 100% of the meal: "Even a verbal mention of 'let's have lunch' means they pay."

This, it appears, is fairly common the world over. If you invite, you pay. Even the Dutch don't go Dutch on a business lunch.

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