A chapter in the newly revised Miss Manners’ guide is entitled, "Business Entertaining: Neither Businesslike nor Entertaining." I beg to differ. I think breaking bread together in a congenial setting is one of the most enjoyable, not to mention effective, ways of moving a client relationship forward.
It is true, though, that of all the various forms of business entertaining, dining is particularly fraught with hazards. Our skills as gracious hosts and guests and our behavior at table speak volumes about our character, upbringing, and worldly experience, whether we want to admit it or not. Anyone who has wrestled with which bread plate to use or has been confronted with a wine list the size of, well, a Miss Manners’ guide knows this only too well.
Even seasoned, successful professionals, like the financial advisors who attend my classes on "Dining with Affluent Clients," have questions about how to handle bad service or the finer points of pairing food and wine. They know that in industries such as theirs, where trust and credibility are crucial, and in which large sums of money are involved, the key to successful business dining is knowing how to foster the client’s ease and comfort, while at least appearing to be comfortable themselves.
As a longtime food writer and restaurant reviewer, I have dined in just about every situation imaginable, in the company of an exceptional range of fellow diners, and have encountered (if not committed) just about every possible faux pas. I don’t pretend to have all the answers but having dined, for instance, while perched on a wobbly wooden crate in a bazaar in Marrakech and another time at a Michelin three-star restaurant in which my purse was given its own stool to perch upon, I feel I can get through any dining situation.
Yet there is an irony to my instructing others in seamless dining, and that is that I, myself, did not eat at an actual restaurant – one with cloth napkins and someone other than a short-order cook in the kitchen – until I was 16. (I like to joke that I have been making up for lost time ever since.)
Partly this was due to economics: there were seven of us children, which kept my mother at home and stretched thin my father’s paycheck from his job on the bottling line at Anheuser-Busch in Newark, where we lived.
But really it was more a cultural phenomenon, because even the better-off families in our predominantly Italian-American neighborhood ate at home or at relatives’ houses, because that’s where the best (and most familiar) food was found. The primary exceptions were lunch counters, delis, and pizzerias.
When a major financial firm approached me last spring to develop a program on business dining, I welcomed the opportunity because it combines my current career as a foodie with a previous one: that of corporate trainer. Until I had my second child and no longer wanted to travel on business, I was an associate with Kepner-Tregoe in Skillman. After that, I became a caterer in the wildly mistaken notion that running my own business would give me more control over my time. Eventually freelance food writing gave me that control, at least in theory.
Etiquette experts say that good manners began a downward spiral in the 1990s, a result of converging trends in family life and corporate America. The advent of Silicon Valley heralded economic boom times and casual Fridays. Then members of Generation Y entered the marketplace, having grown up in families that eat on the run, in front of the television, and often apart. This holds true across all economic levels, as I learned from Stuart Orefice, the head of dining services at Princeton University. Orefice instituted a program that brings in chefs from around the country to expose students to a wider range of cuisines than even these Ivy Leaguers have necessarily experienced.
Now that market conditions have become much more competitive, universities like Princeton are trying to prepare their graduates in every way possible, and businesses are looking for every competitive edge – and that includes having employees capable of entertaining socially and with aplomb. Rutgers, Seton Hall, and Kean offer classes in business etiquette, while Princeton students can attend a wine tasting series that focuses on pairing food and wine. Among the burgeoning list of corporations that offer some form of business etiquette training to their employees are General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, Merck, Johnson & Johnson, Merrill Lynch, Prudential, and Deloitte & Touche.
The financial advisors I teach have already proven themselves successful in handling affluent clients, who are defined as having assets of at least $10 million. They already know the basics of dining etiquette, including using the right fork, turning off their cell phones, and foregoing a doggie bag.
Even so, they have varying amounts of experience and degrees of comfort with the level of fine dining their clients are accustomed to. That is why, even though my session is an elective in the middle of several days of extensive technical training, attendance levels have exceeded expectations, hovering between 25 and 30 for each of the four classes I have conducted.
Because we have only 75 minutes together, I begin by asking which areas they would like to focus on – from extending an invitation to paying the bill – and several themes emerge. One is how to choose the appropriate restaurant, a corollary of which is the question, Is it always necessary to choose a fancy, expensive place. The short answer to the latter is no. The objective of the interaction is to provide a pleasant backdrop for conversation – both small talk and business. The way to do this is to select a setting in which the client feels at ease, and, since the pleasures of the table come in many forms, a key component is how to discern what that setting may be.
The first step in finding the appropriate spot, I tell my classes, is to profile the potential dining partner. I separate the world into two main categories: food-centrics and everyone else. If someone enjoys talking food, restaurants, wine, and perhaps cooking, and who likes to tell me about his or her latest discovery, I know I have a foodie on my hands and will try to come up with an interesting spot, perhaps one with a celebrity chef or a trendy or relatively obscure cuisine – say, Burmese.
If my potential dining partner isn’t so much into food but is accustomed to the finest of everything, I may choose the best steakhouse in town, or an Italian restaurant with an award-winning wine list. Non-foodies may enjoy restaurants where the movers-and-shakers hang out, or a restaurant with a cigar lounge or a spectacular setting.
Many hazards surround the area of alcohol, of course, and two questions that always come up are how to order wine in general, and how to match food and wine in particular. Here I advise that when entertaining four or more people, make it easy on everyone by simply starting with one bottle of white and one of red. (Nowhere does it say that all of it has to be consumed, and this way no one has to profess a preference in advance). I do not hesitate to ask the restaurant’s wine person for suggestions based on what food my group is ordering.
As for pairing food and wine, entire courses are devoted to this subject, of course, but among the advice I give is to stick with geography – order Spanish wines in a Spanish restaurant; Italian in an Italian, etc. – and think in terms matching the textures of food and wine. We spend some time exploring how both feel light, medium, or heavy in the mouth.
I’m often asked if I ever have a guest choose the wine and I say, absolutely – as long as I am sure he or she will feel comfortable doing so, and not be put on the spot. Wine aficionados are flattered to be asked, I find.
Dealing with service issues is a particularly tricky area to expound upon. I’ve learned in my time as a restaurant reviewer and radio talk show host that each person’s definition of bad service differs, sometimes widely. Nevertheless, I do share that my preference is to deal with serious shortcomings away from the table. I simply excuse myself without explanation and take up my concern with the person in charge, as discreetly as possible.
There is never justification – no matter how egregious the service – for being rude to wait staff. We’ve all been in the discomfiting position of having a dining companion become unpleasant or overly demanding to servers – it simply makes them look bad and out of control. The objective of the meal, I remind those in my classes, is to keep our client-guests relaxed, not to induce squirm.
What keeps these sessions really interesting for me is the variety of questions that pop up, many of which concern cultural differences. One person asked: If I am entertaining someone who is Muslim, should the entire group forego alcohol out of courtesy? My position is to always err on the side of politeness, so I said yes. But I also asked the group their opinion, and one fellow, from the Middle East, said that Islam is no different than other religions in that some adherents are more observant than others, and that they are also worldly and accept that others consume alcohol. In effect, he cautioned us against stereotyping.
Another time I was asked: When there are only two of us, is it acceptable to sit at a 90-degree angle from my client, rather than directly across the table? Again, cultural norms play a role here – we don’t want to impose on our guest’s comfort level when it comes to personal space – but I offered that, in general, sitting catty-corner makes for easier and more intimate conversation – especially if paperwork or financial information is involved.
I’ve also learned that the amount and kind of dining experience differs tremendously within each group, so we sometimes wind up reviewing my list of foods to avoid (when I include spicy foods I often draw gasps), and the ins and outs of a formal place setting.
And I always leave them with my personal, admittedly subjective list of top 10 behaviors that indicate to me I am in the company of fine dining novices.
They order white zinfandel.
They fill wine glasses more than halfway.
They tip less than 20 percent when they are the hosts.
They cut all their meat at one time.
They use the wrong bread plate, butter their bread or roll directly from the communal butter dish, and they butter it all at once. [Your bread plate is always on the left. Your wine glass is on the right.]
They consume enough alcohol for me to perceive they have lost some sharpness.
They are rude to the waitstaff or badmouth them to me.
They start eating before everyone is served.
They order the most expensive meal when they are the guest.
They forget all the rules their mother taught them about elbows, reaching, talking with their mouths full, and chewing quietly.
When I distribute the list, I find that veterans of fine dining nod their heads in agreement, but that some people chuckle abashedly when they encounter something they didn’t realize was giving them away. My feeling is that if I’m going to flout convention or ignore commonly accepted rules of behavior, I want to at least be aware that I am doing so, and that people will make judgments based on it. Which is exactly why classes such as mine have increased exponentially in recent times, as reported by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere.
As much as I enjoy my classroom sessions, I’m particularly excited about another group I’m about to work with. Attendees here have far less experience dining with clients and the setting will not be a seminar room but an actual restaurant, over a live meal. I can hardly wait, because it is my heartfelt belief that dining out in a business setting can be enjoyable as well as profitable, and I want everyone to experience that pleasure. Despite anything Miss Manners has to say on the subject.
Pat Tanner is a food and travel writer and restaurant reviewer based in Princeton. She is the host of "Dining Today," a live weekly radio show on food and dining, broadcast each Saturday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. over Nassau Broadcasting’s MoneyTalk 1350 AM, and via computer at www.moneytalk1350.com.
Tanner is co-leader of the Central New Jersey Chapter of Slow Food and is a member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP), and the James Beard Foundation. She can be reached by E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more tips on dining etiquette consult "Business Class: Etiquette Essentials for Success at Work," by Jacqueline Whitmore (2005, St. Martin’s Press).