The Power Lunch

By Hannah Wallace December 31, 2005

If you've been to the Bijou Café at lunchtime, you've probably seen Marj Baldwin, intrepid president of the Sarasota Tiger Bay Club, holding court at her corner table. It faces the door, of course, so she can keep track of who's coming in and with whom.

Baldwin, with her trademark Famous Grouse scotch or La Ina sherry (always in a snifter), is a master of the business lunch; and the Bijou, where many business types dine, is her favorite restaurant. She lunches there three or four times a week to keep abreast of the gossip and interview her upcoming Tiger Bay panelists. Baldwin advises anyone who does business over a meal to pick a restaurant where the service is impeccable and unobtrusive, and where the staff provides a dark linen napkin to anyone wearing navy or black: "You don't ever want to walk out of a restaurant with a lot of white lint on your slacks," she says primly. Her judgment on when a business lunch is successful? "When it's damn near 2 o'clock and you're still talking."

Why are business lunches so important? It's true that parties rarely sign a contract at the table, but power lunches (or breakfasts, dinners or cocktails) can pave the way for a fruitful relationship. You get to know the human side of someone with whom you want to do business, and decide whether the relationship is one on which you can build.

We asked some local leaders what they think makes a successful power lunch.

DeWanda Smith-Soeder of Smith-Soeder Enterprises is a Sarasota-based national consultant in diversity management and organizational development, and regularly invites colleagues and clients to join her for everything from coffee to dessert. "Business lunches are for trust building, and a commitment that we're moving forward. I'm looking for synergy," she says.

Favorite Restaurants: Sarasota News & Books for coffee, First Watch for breakfast and Zoria for dinner. "Zoria is high-brow and casual at the same time, with an excellent wine selection, an adventurous menu and desserts to die for."

Worst business dinner ever: In a Charley's Crab in Cleveland, when a patron at a nearby table made a scene about his lobster and spit it out on his plate, she says.

Tips for breaking the ice: Focus on the other person. Talk about something unique to the individual or his business.

How important is it to be seen? "I don't care, but once a client said, 'This is the wrong table. I can't be seen here,' and went to the server and got the table he wanted. I was surprised it mattered so much.

Mark Barneby, managing partner at Kirk Pinkerton and a specialist in land use and development, needs to schmooze a lot with professionals in development, law and politics. "Business lunches are an important part of getting to know people," he says. "If it's boring, it's my fault. You want a place that is reasonably quiet that will give you an opportunity to talk, although sometimes it's better to be in a loud place because people can't hear what you're talking about."

Favorite lunching restaurants: Mangrove Grill, Twin Dolphin Marina Grill, Ezra, Central Café, J&J Bar-B-Q. "If I'm in a situation where I want low profile, I go to J&J since most businesspeople don't go there."

On service: "It always matters if it's the first time and you want to make a good impression."

Breaking the ice: Best topics are travel, sports and family.

Tip: "Don't get down to business until after you order. The key is [to] be yourself. Don't put up airs."

Shaun Merriman, Southwest Florida area executive for AmSouth Bank, takes prospects and employees to lunch every week. "I'm not a golfer, so business lunches give me a way to get out," he says. "Everybody needs to eat, and restaurants are a neutral zone. You're not on your turf or theirs."

Favorite restaurant: Michael's On East. "I eat there once a week. The location is really good. Banks are headquartered in downtown Sarasota but customers aren't. You don't have to worry about parking and traffic, plus people consider it a treat."

On ambiance: "The tables are spread out. I can have a confidential conversation. Michael does a good job coaching his servers. They know when to interrupt and when not to. Otherwise it can make for a disastrous luncheon."

To drink or not to drink? "I won't order alcohol. If a client wants to, it's fine. Maybe 20 years ago it was acceptable, but in my reading, alcohol impairs judgment. I still have six hours to go in the day."

Tip: Be an active listener. "If I get invited to lunch I will do pre-meeting work. What can I do to prepare? What are you trying to accomplish? Who's attending? What are the expectations?"

Who pays? "I always pay." As a guest, take the budget into account. If someone from a nonprofit extends an invitation, don't order an appetizer or dessert.

Andrew Vac, broker/owner of RE/MAX Longboat Key, prefers to have business meetings in his office where he has staff and a computer, but for a first or second business meeting, he takes advantage of the business lunch. "People will assume that if I get them into my den, I'm going to close them. Not so at a restaurant."

Favorite restaurant: The Longboat Key Club. "It's private and impressive. When I walk in, they'll say, 'Good afternoon, Mr. Vac.' I get the best table, in the far corner, looking out over the pool and the beach, and it's far enough away [that] you can have a business conversation without people overhearing."

On service: "They know the difference between a business lunch and people who just came in from the courts or the golf course. They know when not to interrupt."

Worst business lunch: "When a client's cell phone continued to ring. After the sixth time, I said, 'You're too busy to talk right now,' so I put money on the table and left. If you're at a business lunch, put your cell phone on vibrate. If you're expecting an important call, tell your guest, 'There's one call I might have to take,' and then excuse yourself and go away from the table to have a conversation."

Tips: Set the appointment and confirm that morning. Leave your contact numbers. Order food that is easy to eat, not a barbecue sandwich or pasta. The negative of a business lunch is that you can't talk with your mouth full, and sometimes the food gets cold. And don't forget to send a thank-you.

Dr. Sarah Pappas, president of Manatee Community College, often lunches with consultants, colleagues, and potential donors and supporters of the MCC Foundation. While the Bijou Café is "the place" for lunch, Pappas prefers breakfast at First Watch. "It's close to my house and there's nothing to get in the way of making the meeting. And I love the pancakes."

Best deal made: "I took a donor to First Watch to talk about a project to help first-time college students, and he donated $100,000."

Who pays: "I always pick up the tab."

It's not about the food: "If you have to go out to lunch as part of an interview, get the simplest, smallest meal possible. You need to concentrate."

Be sensitive to the other's schedule: Always ask, "How much time do you have? Do you have a place to be?"

Don't cut to the chase: Spend the first 20 minutes talking about anything.

Ron Allen, president of NDC Construction, prefers taking clients to dinner instead of lunch. "Dinner is more discussion and philosophy," he says.

Favorite restaurants: Mangrove Grill, Beach Bistro and Ezra. "Mangrove has a nice atmosphere where a lot's going on, so not everyone's listening to your conversation."

Biggest mishap: "When I told a client to go to Gio's Italian restaurant and didn't specify if it was the one in Ellenton or the one on Cortez. We ended up at different restaurants."

Most memorable business dinner: "We were working with LECOM [Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine] in Erie, Pa. LECOM was deciding between bringing a campus to Pinellas or Manatee. We took the president and executive committee to Beach Bistro, where we had hors d'oeuvres on the beach and a fabulous meal. We concluded the business arrangement that night."

What clinched the deal? "They fell in love with Lakewood Ranch [the home of their new campus], but for Sean [Murphy, the owner of Beach Bistro]'s sake, I'll say it was the ambiance and the food."

Joel Freedman, president of Freedman Consulting and Development, says business lunches are too rushed. "I prefer cocktails and dinner." The main reason to take someone out to lunch or dinner is to build trust, he says. "I usually don't close deals." He also avoids pricey spots, to avoid having clients look at his fees and say, "If you didn't go to such an expensive restaurant, maybe it wouldn't cost so much.'"

Favorite restaurants: If you want to be seen, Bijou Café; for cocktails, Marina Jack; for lunch, dinner or cocktails, Sam Snead's Tavern and Patrick's. "I like the atmosphere in the bar area of Patrick's; it's relaxed and sports oriented, and the service is outstanding. Mike is my favorite waiter. He remembers what I like and how-a hamburger and top-shelf vodka. I don't need to ask. We know each other so well he came to my wedding."

On table size: "I'm never going to be spreading papers all around because what I do is confidential."

Tip: Be discreet. "This is still a small town, and elected officials, staff and competitors may be seated nearby."

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