No Coupons!: Avoiding Business Lunch Screw-Ups
The business lunch exists so that two people may converse about business matters (which is a meeting), while doing something they had to do anyway (which is eating). It is formal, yet it is human. It is committal, yet it is noncommittal. It is awkward, yet it is tasty. The business lunch is a paradox.
We'll assume you're meeting your counterpart one-on-one. And we'll assume the other person is, pretty much, a stranger. And we'll assume you're the one who is in need: of money, of a partnership, of a contract. You're the one pitching, and you've made the invitation.
You should make the invitation, but it may be a bad idea: Because the business lunch is more lunch than business. The invitee can request a downgrade, like a meeting in their office. Or meeting for coffee. So throw the lunch out there, but keep in mind: It's a bold move.
"My philosophy is that lunch is not the most productive place to do business," says Eric Manlunas, a managing partner at Santa Monica, Calif.-based venture capital firm Siemer Ventures. "I like to invite people in for a meeting in the office, in the conference room. If the idea is something we like and we believe we can get comfortable eventually investing in, then we may have lunch. Lunch means they've made it through the first filter."
The point is, whether at the first meeting or the second meeting, if you get someone to agree to lunch, you're in. You might be out by the time the flourless chocolate cake is served, but for at least the first hour or so, you're in.
Before Your Guest Arrives
The choice of restaurant is crucial. The place should be clearly convenient for the other person. It should not be in some sort of middle ground—it should be a place the other person need not travel far to get to. The message should be clear: For the purposes of this meal, the other person is to be catered to—even before the lunch starts.
It helps if you've been there before. Because if you've been there, you know how you'll be treated. You want a place that understands service. And good service as it relates to the business lunch is a place where you're seated immediately and tended to immediately.
"If a guest needs a lot of peace and quiet and no attention, then I need to seat that person in an area that's away from everyone else in the dining room, and I need to make sure my service person knows they don't need to provide a lot of attention to the table in terms of social interaction," says Richard Coraine, senior managing partner at New York-based Union Square Hospitality Group, which operates restaurants such as Gramercy Tavern, Union Square Cafe and Shake Shack. "The more we know about what you need, the better we are going to be at exceeding your expectations."
Ask yourself if the restaurant you're going to is looking to exceed your expectations. That's the kind of place you want.
You want to walk in seven minutes before the meeting. (Ten, and your table might not be ready; five, and your counterpart might beat you. So, seven.) You want to sit down at the quiet table your assistant requested, one where business may be conducted. Not a booth. A table. Four-top. That your assistant requested. (Note: Those who do not have an assistant must, for the sake of reservation-making, deputize someone—the receptionist, a friend, the delivery guy, Mom—to be their assistant. It changes everything. Assistants get good tables. If you call, you get a two-top for two people. If your "assistant" calls, you get a four-top in the corner for two people. That's the best table.)
Service-oriented places are used to specific requests. They welcome them. Says Coraine: "The more the assistant can tell us ahead of time, the less intrusive we have to be. We don't have to try and figure out what your agenda is. So if your assistant says you want a quiet table and you want to sit by the window, it's great for us."
You want a four-top. You want to sit next to each other, around one corner. The worst way to have a business lunch is to sit directly in front of the other person—all that eye contact is a little awkward, and you might have to talk loud enough that other people can hear you. The corner is a little intimate, sure, but lunch is an intimate thing. The key with corner seating is that it allows you to avoid the awkwardness, and it facilitates discretion. Which is occasionally important.