Out to Lunch: Business Dining in Vancouver

With expense budgets slashed and time at a premium, the days of the three-martini-and-steak business lunch are over. Or are they? A report from the gastronomic trenches on the state of “meet-and-eats.”

With expense budgets slashed and time at a premium, the days of the three-martini-and-steak business lunch are over. Or are they? A report from the gastronomic trenches on the state of “meet-and-eats.”

The popularity of Mad Men – the TV drama about a hard-living ’60s-era ad exec and his exploits in and out of the office – has stoked a certain nostalgia recently for deals struck on handshakes at three-martini-and-steak lunches. The show is a reminder not only that there used to be much more play at work, but also just how fast the business lunch itself has evolved.

Jaw-dropping price tags associated with power lunches still hit the headlines every now and again, from Hong Kong businessman Zhao Danyang’s $2-million bid at an auction last year to nosh with Warren Buffett to the $77,000 wine bill rung up by five British investment bankers at Gordon Ramsay’s Petrus restaurant in London in 2002 (the food portion, a rather pedestrian $700, was comped by the restaurant).

But generally, the age-old social institution is in a state of decline these days. The increased drive to perform and the squeeze on time is part of the reason, with Canadians’ traditional workday lunch now down to 40.7 minutes, according to a 2005 Statistics Canada survey. Then there’s the ongoing crunch on corporate expense accounts and the legacy of tax-credit cuts for business entertainment (in the mid-’90s, the Canada Revenue Agency reduced the limitation on these expenses from 80 per cent to the current 50 per cent).

Indeed, British Columbians looking to “meet and eat” these days are more likely to schedule a coffee, a light lunchtime bite or a breakfast (when brains are, supposedly, most alert and the whole meeting can be wrapped up before the start of the working day). As part testament to this change, a number of high-end establishments – such as Vancouver’s Cioppino’s Mediterranean Grill & Enoteca and CinCin – have ceased their lunchtime service in the past year, with some of that business going to the growing array of mid-priced, quick-prep restaurants (think Cactus Club, Milestones and Earls).

But more and more, business people are foregoing face-to-face meetings altogether, relying instead on video-conferencing, social media (LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter), BlackBerries and iPhones to stay connected. Why meet for lunch when you can do business – and keep up to date with associates – through these channels?

That’s the take of Mark Wolverton, the president and CEO of North American operations for Lush Fresh Handmade Cosmetics. Wolverton’s career has bridged the halcyon days of all-afternoon business lunches in his former role as vice-president and director of Vancouver-based Wolverton Securities, when he remembers joining much of the city’s business fraternity at Trader Vic’s, Bombay Bicycle Club, Terminal City Club and the Vancouver Club. “The ability to consummate a deal in the past,” he explains, “was as much about the clicking of the personalities as it was about the fundamentals of the deal.”

But today – with deal terms negotiated down to every word and individuals judged much more on their practical experience – it’s no longer the right framework for him. “I value face-to-face meetings, but, personally, I don’t rate business lunches because I find they generally take up too much time in the day,” he says. “Some lunch invitations can leave you trapped in a presentation in which you have no interest. I like to make sure I am aware of all the angles before agreeing to it.”

There are, however, around 10 venues in Vancouver where the upper echelons of the business world, and their proteges, still very much “do lunch.” When Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell were looking to buy in Vancouver’s upscale Shaughnessy neighbourhood a few years ago, realtor Malcolm Hasman took the celebrity duo to Il Giardino, Umberto Menghi’s famed restaurant on Hornby Street, to seal the $3-million deal over lunch.

Umberto Menghi serves Mark WolvertonNearby, at the Four Seasons Hotel, legendary entrepreneur and philanthropist Joseph Segal, the president of Vancouver-based Kingswood Capital Corp., has held his spot (what he calls his “second office”) at Chartwell restaurant for more than two decades. When the venue was replaced in recent years by Yew Restaurant and Bar, Segal was so much a part of the fixture and fittings that the staff consulted him about the layout of the tables, and now he arranges business lunches there every day.

“For me, lunch is not lunch,” he says. “It is an extension of the day, and it takes a lot of pressure off the normal working day by continuing business over lunch. Having lunch with someone on an issue that’s really important under a relaxed environment will give you a good response.”

For Segal, little has changed over the past few decades – “those two-martini lunches have gone, but I never did indulge in those” – but for Menghi, like many restaurateurs, the transformation is acute: “The ’70s and ’80s were about power – and showing that power through what you ate and drank.” He recalls high-octane lunches that lasted until Il Giardino reopened in the evening for dinner. Orders today are noticeably tamer: there will likely be a glass of wine with lunch but without the “sharpener rounds” of martinis beforehand. “What I see now is people eating much more healthily,” Menghi proffers. “Less meat, more fish. This may be about the image that they are trying to create or because they are genuinely trying to eat healthily, but I think those earlier ‘power lunch’ days are totally gone – at least for a while.”

That said, there remains an abiding interest in business lunches as a means of keeping up appearances. “Perception is reality,” states one well-known Vancouver developer, who did not want to go on the record but believes in the importance of being seen in the right places. “Business lunches are a powerful tool to fortify relations with the people you are doing business with and for those who are onlookers that you might want to do business with.”

Menghi concurs: “The establishment would hope to bump into people in the same business during their lunches.” But it’s all achieved in a neutral zone. “The ambience in a restaurant is better than an office’s, where there is a bit of intimidation and hierarchy,” he adds.

Nearby, at Vancouver’s esteemed French restaurant Le Crocodile, veteran chef Michel Jacob explains that, while dinner is increasingly the main part of his income, he sees lunchtimes as comparable to business cards. “People may be taken out here for a business lunch and then wish to return for a more intimate, special-occasion dinner,” he says. “Otherwise, the cut in tax benefits and changes in people’s lifestyle and work practices mean that now 85 per cent of the people who come here at lunchtime are CEOs or people in charge – those who are not on the clock or need to be back at the office at two o’clock.”

Even if members of the next business generation – who are much more geared to social media – are less likely to initiate a working lunch, they’re still being taught the elementary rules on how best to behave during one. There is still a high probability of being invited to lunch at some point in one’s career, explains Christopher Hindle, manager of marketing and communications at Junior Achievement of B.C., a not-for-profit organization that helps youth in Grades 5 to 12 learn about business.

“I think the days of deals being made over lunch are on their way out, but it really depends on the situation and whom you are dealing with; you have to do your research,” he says. “The older generation has a lot of practice with business lunches, and if that’s how they like to do business, then it’s a good idea that they know how to act.”

Junior Achievement teaches, among other subjects, business-lunch basics such as having eye contact and choosing correctly from the menu – “something that’s easy and quick, something that won’t require a bib, because when you’re trying to have a conversation and eat at the same time, it’s a lot of work.” The newcomers are instructed to focus on the other person, not the food; forget ordering the preparation-heavy lobster thermidor, for example (“You don’t know what schedule the other person is on”), and forgo alcohol. “In this day and age, we would definitely advise against ordering any,” Hindle adds. “That’s where a lot of mistakes get made. Even if it is something that can make you relax, it’s definitely not a good idea.”

Unless, of course, you’ve already knocked a glass of water over vital documents and spilt spaghetti sauce all over your suit during the occasion. “Then,” Hindle jokes, “maybe a double martini is the way to go.”