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Rich People’s Problems: Is the business lunch off the menu?

Good business lunching is an art, not a science. Over the years I’ve eaten a lot of lunch and become quite the artiste. However, as the cost of living crisis begins to bite deeper, should I be curtailing my activities and cutting back? After all, whenever businesses face economic headwinds, the first things to go are biscuits in meetings and a clampdown on expenses.

The diet from Michele (my nutritionist with one l) has already imposed biscuit limitations — though there’s nothing worse than a meeting with bad tea or coffee and a lack of biscuits, regardless of dietary restrictions.

An early work lesson was biscuit etiquette. I’d snaffled the lot and was given a proper dressing down. The host of a meeting should never dive in first or take the one that’s got the wrapper on. Nor should you have more than one biccy, no matter how bored you may be.

However, biscuit restrictions won’t significantly improve a balance sheet. It’s a smokescreen to distract from more lavish business entertaining.

Lunch is a more delicate matter — even more so as a freelancer, because the costs come straight home to roost. If the bill for a social event tops £100 a head, that’s special occasion territory. But you try getting an investment banker or private equity professional to eat out for less. They won’t have it. They are so acquainted with the high life that any kind of austerity when it comes to lunching is a no-go.

And why would it be? If you’re going to ruin your life with such a job, there must be some perks when it comes to partner or managing director status. Where you lunch says as much about your business as it does you. If anyone takes me to a Nando’s, any kind of chain restaurant or indeed somewhere that’s substandard, well, you can’t trust their judgment on the bigger issues. The power lunch is back.

And that’s problematic when I’m paying. Roka, the Japanese restaurant, is all very well when someone else or a mega firm is picking up the tab. By the time you’ve ordered the tuna tataki (£16.50), vegetable tempura (£13.20), black cod marinated in yuzu miso (£41.80) and the wagyu beef (£95), you’re racking up a tasty bill.

And that’s before you’ve washed it down with anything decent. When I started my working life, we were actively encouraged to use the company credit card, not to take colleagues out for lunch but to entertain clients, prospects and counterparties. Networking is a valuable commodity. And it’s a false economy to suggest that by cutting back on such expenditure you’ll improve your returns.

Yes, a rifle shot at expenses may well improve your immediate bottom line, but a business relies on building a pipeline, extending its values, name and reputation in the marketplace. And it’s far more effective to prospect for new business or close a deal over a decent lunch than it is over Zoom.

While working for an investment bank, I was often impressed by senior management’s abilities to double up as restaurant critics. Keen to try the newest and greatest eateries, they were past masters at using their corporate card while racking up personal points. Kerching!

This wasn’t restricted to the locale around the London office. In New York, Paris, Milan — in fact, wherever we were doing business — their appetite for a good eaterie was a constant.

When conversations about London’s pre-eminence was ever discussed, its vibrant restaurant scene was always cited as one of the reasons it’s a top investment destination. The fact that Frankfurt is a dull city with few decent lunching prospects discounted it from ever securing a top spot in global financial markets.

New York is restaurant-tastic. But it irks that Americans are mildly horrified if anyone orders a beer or glass of wine at lunch. Heaven forbid that it becomes a proper session! On business trips, I often took great pleasure indulging, simply to annoy them.

Of course, it’s the alcohol that can really turbocharge a bill. A few weeks ago, I caught up with a former colleague. I promised myself I’d only have one. Well, I did only have one. Bottle. I think he had two. I can’t remember. But the cost was stratospheric.

Mostly because we started with a bottle of fizz and then moved on to a rather nice Pauillac. I don’t think the smoked salmon and Dover sole helped to control our expenditure. It was delicious and ended up being a PFL. A Proper F-ing Lunch that started at 12.30pm. I think I eventually rolled home at 8pm having split the bill between us. Funnily enough, having invested time and money, we’ve developed a few plots and plans to work on.

Much as I love a high-rolling lunch, austerity measures sometimes have to kick in. My aversion to chain restaurants has led me to the gastropub. Usually there’s a delicious menu without the fancy venue premium. They’re often quirky and ideal for lunch, because they’re discreet. And if you fancy a pint, where better?

But does the current financial turbulence, bear market and impending recession mean it’s curtains for the finer eateries?

No. With named chefs and wonderful restaurants popping up all over the UK, there’s no longer an excuse for a bad meal. Indeed, I see every business lunch I have (and pay for) as an investment. Not in my girth but for spending quality time with people I want to see and do business with.

During the pandemic, we learnt to operate online. Saving thousands of pounds, working longer hours and restricting our social activities. But anyone who thinks that business just happens because of decent corporate advertising or simply by being good at your job had better reconsider.

I am all for homeworking. I have been doing it for years. But human interaction drives new business. Keeping your name, business and opportunities in other people’s minds is essential.

Lunch provides the platform for an unscripted conversation and discussions that meander. That’s when creativity, ideas and inspiration arrive.

And if you are going to draw people away from their focus, you’ll have to do so at a place that they want to be. Yes, I’ll be a bit more choosy about who I invite and where I book if I’m footing the bill. But I’d recommend embracing the expense. It’s time to re-engage in the art of lunching.

James Max is a TV and radio presenter and a property expert. The views expressed are personal. Twitter: @thejamesmax

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