It’s common for mothers with small children to drop their corporate jobs to have more time at home with the kids. But many aren’t content to stop working altogether. Instead they find or create employment with a narrower scope that lets them keep their hand in the “real world” while earning a little extra dough. With the idea, of course, that they will have more control over their time.
Pat Tanner did that, but things didn’t work out exactly as she had planned. She left her job as a corporate trainer when her two daughters were very young because it required her to travel regularly, often for five days at a time. “I decided I wanted to stay home and do something that would give me more control,” she says.
But her idea for a new vocation did not yield a lot of free time. “Foolishly I said I had always enjoyed cooking and giving parties,” she remembers, so she decided to become a caterer.
Her career eventually circled through catering, writing about food, and then back to training. Among her food-related work, she now gives seminars on business dining and entertaining clients at home. She presents “Mastering the Art of Business Dining” at Mercer County Community College, on Thursday, August 10, at 9 a.m. Cost: $79, includes continental breakfast and lunch. For more information, call 609-586-9446 or E-mail ComEd@mccc.edu.
Soon after leaving the corporate world, Tanner started a catering company, Doorstep Dinners, for Yuppies who didn’t have time to fix their own meals. She rented the local Elks club kitchen and made from-scratch individually packaged meals, which she delivered frozen, in microwavable and oven safe containers.
Then things got out of hand. Some people who had bought her frozen dinners asked: “Can you do party catering?” She tried it and found it was more lucrative than making single-portion healthful meals, which turned out to be very time intensive. But party catering also meant no control, requiring work on holidays and weekends. “It was the opposite of what my goals were,” says Tanner.
But another opportunity was at hand through a friend who had also been a corporate trainer. Tanner had also catered a party or two for her. One day they ran into each other at the Whole Earth supermarket, and she told Tanner that she had become lifestyle editor for the Princeton Packet, and then she added, “While meditating last Saturday, your name floated into my mind.” Why? The Packet had a food column every other Tuesday, and the newspaper was looking for an alternate voice.
“I laughed,” said Tanner, who was a little surprised at the offer, since she had never done any writing. Her friend told her to go home and think about it. “I took out a legal pad,” she says, “and in 20 minutes had two pages of ideas — things I’d love to write about.” So she decided to do it, as long as they knew they were getting a novice.
That novice writer soon had a healthy freelance writing career. Within several years she was writing food and travel articles for newspapers and magazines throughout the state, including the New York Times, the Star-Ledger, the Trenton Times, New Jersey Countryside, New Jersey Monthly — as well as U.S. 1 Newspaper, where she writes restaurant round-ups and food trend articles. She is also the restaurant critic for New Jersey Life magazine, and for six years she hosted Dining Today, a live, weekly radio show on food and dining in central New Jersey, which was broadcast on WHWH.
Tanner, who not so long ago was preparing dinners for busy professionals with no time to cook, went on to become a founding member of the Central New Jersey Chapter of Slow Food — a group promoting nutritious, natural food that is the antithesis of fast food.
One thing led to another in a career begun in the aisles of Whole Foods, and two years ago it brought Tanner full circle when she got a call from an executive who was both a big fan of her show and the director of training for a major financial institution in the area. “He asked if I was interested in putting together a presentation for their financial analysts who handle private portfolios for very affluent people.” The workshop was to be called “Dining with Affluent Clients.”
This new offer was perfect, bringing together her two otherwise disparate careers — training and food.
Tanner loves giving the workshop and finds it different every time, depending on the group. But for almost everyone the subject has some value. “Sitting down, having a meal, breaking bread,” says Tanner, “whether in a business or personal context, can move along a relationship more than anything else.”
Tanner offers a number of suggestions about business dining, useful both to bosses who are crafting sophisticated business deals and to the administrative assistants often asked to make restaurant reservations:
Choosing a restaurant. “This is the key to the whole evening and experience,” says Tanner. “You really want to pick a place with your guest in mind more than yourself.” Finding the right place requires using what you know and sometimes doing a little sleuthing.
In choosing a restaurant, it is critical to determine first whether your guest is a “foodcentric” or just someone who enjoys a good meal and fine wine, but whose social life doesn’t revolve around food. Real “foodies” will talk about food, restaurants they have gone to, their latest restaurant finds, and the newest celebrity chef, and they probably watch food TV and read magazines like Gourmet.
For a foodie, you may want to look to the newest exotic cuisine, say from the Phillipines or a new region in India. A nonfoodie may be more likely to appreciate the best Italian or steak restaurant in the vicinity.
If you don’t have a sense of which camp your prospective clients fall into, Tanner suggests a few questions to ferret out their alliances: “You grew up in Cincinnati. My sister is going to school there. Can you give me the names of three restaurants?” or “Where did you eat at Disney World?” or “Hey, I just heard you were in Houston on business; did you find a good restaurant? I have some business there next month.”
If they respond that in Houston they stayed in the hotel working every night and got room service, she says, you have a clue. If they tell you that they read up on the Houston restaurants beforehand and ended up at its best barbecue spot, that’s another clue. Sometimes you just have to listen carefully: If you have heard them talk about cooking or having their own wine cellars, you know it was a foodie speaking.
Extending the invitation. Although it depends on your relationship with your clients, Tanner recommends having in mind at least one place and a backup. “Let your guests know that you’ve given some thought to what would appeal to them,” she advises. Either suggest a specific place or give a couple of choices. Tanner thinks it’s okay to extend the invitation by phone or E-mail, but that you should always send a followup note confirming details.
Ordering wine. Tanner sees many people who are insecure about ordering wine. “It doesn’t matter where you are along the spectrum, you never know everything.” But, she adds, “you shouldn’t feel you have to.” So what’s the best approach to take if you have to order wine for a group?
“You don’t want to fake it,” she says, “because anyone who knows anything will figure it out.” First of all, know that the sommelier and the chef have put together a wine list from the universe of all possible wines for a good reason: because the list matches what food they offer, how much they charge, and what makes their food look good. Enlist the waiter or the sommelier as your ally, saying, “We’re going to start with crab cakes and Caesar salad — what do you recommend?”
If you have a limited expense account and can’t order any wine you’d like, Tanner offers a trick for conveying how much you can spend without saying, “I can’t spend more than $40.”
If you are sitting with the wine list in front of you in a good restaurant (which is where you should be if you’re trying to impress your client), the person waiting to take your order should be knowledgeable about the wines on the wine list. Tanner suggests saying, “I was thinking about something like this,” and then pointing to a price. “They will know what you are telling them,” she says.
Eating by the rules. Not even the most highly successful financial advisors know which fork to use or the correct wineglass. Tanner offers a simple rule for remembering which bread and butter plate to dip into: In a formal place setting, the forks and napkin are on the left. Forks are for handling solid food, whereas the spoons on the right are for liquids, often in the form of soup. “Bread is a solid,” she says, “so you follow the fork up to the bread plate.”
Paying the bill and tipping. The moment when the bill is brought to the table can be awkward, and you’re in trouble if your guest picks it up. Tanner has a number of opinions about handling this tense moment: “You should always immediately pick it up; it should barely land on the table. If the guest wants to pay, say: ‘Absolutely not.’”
In some cultures, however, it is a point of honor to put up a fight to pay, but still, as the host, you should always pick up the tab. “If they insist,” she says, “tell them: ‘You can get it next time,’ but if it is a client of yours, you shouldn’t let that happen either.”
You can by-pass all of this messiness by keeping the bill off the table. You can either arrange to have the meal charged to the house account beforehand, or toward the end of the meal you can excuse yourself for a moment and present your credit card.
Tipping. Tanner is firmly in the 20 percent camp. “Years ago, it was 15 percent for good or adequate service,” she says. “Now 20 percent is the new 15 percent.” And there’s a good reason: “Twenty percent is what people who appreciate good service give. It shows that you know good service, and you know that when you come back you will get the best service that the place has to offer.” If you entertain regularly, she advises that you create a stable of restaurants where they know that you tip well.
Tanner also cautions that bad service — like 45 minutes between courses — is usually the fault of the kitchen, and she advises that you not take it out on the servers, who usually work hard.
Sometimes Tanner encounters a question she has never heard before, and she may ask participants to help her out — as she did recently when someone at the a recent session of her “entertaining at home” workshop asked what you do about someone giving a blessing. That’s a toughy. The consensus solution was to give the guest the option by saying, “Would someone like to give a short blessing?” The goal here is to finesse the situation by trying to keep it so short that it is not too specific.
Tanner believes that her foodie career has direct connections to her childhood experiences. She grew up in Newark in an Italian-American family where her father was second-generation, with parents from Sicily. Her mother grew up on a farm in upstate New York. The sixth of seven kids, Tanner says, “I grew up in a very food-oriented family. Our happiest moments almost all revolved around food.”
Tanner’s bachelor’s degree from Newark State College (now Kean University) was in elementary education, and she came to central Jersey to work in product development and training for Kepner-Tregoe in Skillman. She has two daughters in their 20s.
Tanner’s father worked for Anheuser Busch, near Newark Airport, as a bottler on the bottling line, and her mom stayed home with the kids. Tanner remembers fondly the racially and ethnically diverse neighborhood in the central ward of Newark where she grew up, concluding, “I couldn’t imagine a better place to grow up to be a food writer.”