making sure you pick the right type of place for your meal
As we all lead busy lives, having a business meal is sometimes the best way to squeeze an important conversation into the workday. Furthermore, interacting with someone outside the confines of the workplace provides an opportunity for sharing mutual interests and knowing more about one another while breaking bread together. When dealing with other cultures, a meal may also be a great tool to show appreciation, demonstrate customs and make visitors feel at home. But even in your own city, inviting someone to a work breakfast, lunch or dinner is best planned when keeping in mind the purpose of that meal and who is participating.
I recently had a business lunch at which I was meeting a potential customer. His organization was located very far from my place of business, in the outskirts of town. Since I was the one asking for the meeting, I agreed to drive to his location, given his kindness in taking he time out of his busy day to meet me. Our conversation was interesting, as my interlocutor is a seasoned executive with a pleasant demeanor; I was asked intelligent questions, which is always exciting when meeting a new contact. But the communication flow during that hour was not easy, and for a simple reason: the place of choice for our lunch was one of those restaurants where you help yourself from a buffet and then weigh your plate. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this type of restaurant for a quick lunch during the workweek among colleagues: leaving the office for a little while gives our brains a little break; breathing fresh air and walking around is a welcome change of scenery during busy days. Plus, the food at this particular place was varied and tasty, and the few opportunities we had to interact with the staff revealed their friendliness and effectiveness. However, the purpose of our meeting was to know each other, to assess mutual interests and see if we could collaborate on a common goal. And that was not achieved. The constant interruption and awkward pace of getting up/filling our plates/weighing the food/sitting back down/eating while trying to converse/going back for the next course/waiting for the person across the table to finish definitely harmed our chances of developing a productive rhythm for our chat. In the end, I left with the impression that I didn’t accomplish what I had set out to do, and worse: I probably wasted that executive’s time.
There is a certain ritual for business dining occasions; the conversation, eye contact and reflection may only occur when enough time is shared around the table. If one feels rushed or out of place, that natural course of the meal will not occur – and the business objective of that encounter will suffer. The person being invited wants to feel respected and appreciated, so selecting a restaurant based on your preferences alone is not the best strategy. Although you may be a foodie, the restaurant setting should be a backdrop, a welcoming landscape conducive to easy and productive talks. Unless you know your fellow diner very well, some caution is to be exercised when selecting a restaurant. Regardless of how fancy or casual the place of choice may be, a few considerations must be made when the purpose is to talk business:
1- Location, location, location
Making it uncomplicated for your guests to find the restaurant will save time and – more importantly – avoid stress. When selecting a place to meet, think about how easy it will be to access it. Be it in Budapest, New York or São Paulo, it will make a difference whether there is a subway station nearby, valet parking at the door or if a shared-ride app will easily locate the place. Considering these aspects when inviting someone will not only show respect – it will also reveal your level of attention and efficiency.
2- You trust the quality of the food offerings as well as the level of service. Trying a new restaurant with a new contact is too risky – bad service or food may embarrass you – your guest may avoid sending something back to prevent an even more awkward situation, but by the time an issue is resolved, the topic at hand will have been lost. It is better to choose a tried-and-true place where you know your table will be well served than to go for the trendy new bistro you haven’t had a chance to evaluate yet.
3- Dietary restrictions may be accommodated.
Dietary preferences due to religion or health-related reasons are serious concerns impacting many people. They are also private matters which, when disclosed, must be respected, but when keep discreetly should not become a topic of discussion. A simple question such as “are there any dietary restrictions we should know about?” shows you are attuned to your guest’s wellbeing – and that will reflect positively on her impression of you and your organization.
4- The noise level will allow for the desired conversation.
During a one-on-one meeting, a quiet restaurant with sufficient space between tables is the best choice and will afford the level of privacy the conversation requires. When dining in groups, a larger restaurant with a slightly livelier atmosphere is probably more suitable, otherwise the noise level of your group alone may bother other tables. A place with live music may be a good choice for a celebration or other type of gathering when people already know each other; have worked together for a while and when negotiations are not to take place.
5- Money is not an issue – or is it?
Most of the time, the old rule of social etiquette applies: the person who invites, pays. But there are situations which require a different understanding, due to the nature of the business relationship or to regulatory constraints. Most governments prohibit their officials from accepting gifts exceeding a certain amount, and those may include meals. Publicly-listed companies may have similar restrictions, whereas family-owned businesses might have no such concern. What matters here is selecting a restaurant whose prices are in accordance with those rules – if the idea is “go Dutch”, selecting an expensive eatery might force your counterpart into an uncomfortable situation. On the other hand, if your guest is someone used to elaborate meals (perhaps due to culture, age or social status), going to the casual neighborhood café may fail to convey how much you value that relationship.
Business meals have been conducted for ages. Decades ago, businesspeople would convene only in formal, smoky restaurants filled with mostly middle-aged men in their suits. Nowadays, food trucks and smart casual eateries are omnipresent in big cities, and new mindsets and aesthetics have been introduced by younger generations and dynamic industries. Nevertheless, some principles never go out of fashion: respect for your peers and efficiency in planning are still essential to cause a good impression, display business savvy and further professional relationships.
By Viviane Vicente