For years, I was an editor at top magazines, which is great training ground for the obvious skills of writing and editing. But over the course of my career, I was also “trained” in the not-so-obvious art of the perfect lunch date. Done well, a lunch date is a golden opportunity to connect and create, especially in a world where lunch usually consists of wolfing down a sandwich while staring at a screen. As publicists, entrepreneurs, writers and more sought to build relationships, I experienced the best and worst of lunch date strategies.
Creating a killer lunch date takes skill, from how you ask and where to go to how to make the date both friendly and impactful. I honed my own system based on the greatest lunch-date artists in my industry, many of whom became lasting friends I’ve worked with over and over again.
Here’s your three-step guide — before, during and after — to the perfect business lunch date. This system makes it easy for your guest to say yes, get to know you and be receptive to an ongoing business relationship.
1. Choose the right person. First, who should you ask to lunch? Think peer level. It’s fine to pick the top person at an organization, but you should have an equally impressive history, even if it’s in an entirely different area. Don’t dismiss more junior level employees; they will often happily help you navigate their company or industry. Ideally you’re looking for the right person who can help you with your specific goals: the editor who covers the area you’re interested in, the business development manager who handles your vertical or the possible mentor who knows your business model.
And be sure to choose a lunch instead of coffee, an in-office meeting or a phone call when building an ongoing relationship that exceeds the one-dimensional business chit-chat. You’re here to become friendly so that you can decide if you want to work together.
Bonus points: Do a LinkedIn search and see if you have a mutual connection, especially someone you are close to. Ask your friend if you can mention his or her name, and you’re now dealing with a warm referral.
2. Pick two location options. Rule no. 1: pick something near their office. Proximity always wins. Rule no. 2: pick a place that’s nice but not too nice — this isn’t three-course tasting menu time (unless you’re a wine or food producer and this is a chance to share your products…then by all means!).
3. Ask away. Here’s what you should include in a short email: who you are, why you specifically want to invite this person to lunch, your two place suggestions (with links), a few date suggestions (at least two weeks out) and, most importantly, a promise to have them in and out in less than an hour. If you have a mutual friend, definitely mention that.
4. Ask again with a twist. If your lunch request is batted away, downgrade your request: would they have 20 minutes to meet in their office, and you’ll bring the coffees?
5. Do your prep work. Study the menu online and pick what you’re ordering. Prepare a list of questions to ask your lunch date if the conversation stalls, and note anything you must talk about. Make sure to spend 10 minutes reading the news so that you’re also up to date on current events.
1. Arrive early and make yourself a regular. I like to call ahead, too. Greet the hostess and waiter, let them know you’re hosting a special guest and thank them for their help. Ask for the best table possible for your situation. This way, the waiter will treat you as the host: for example, the check will come directly to you with no awkward grab. Even if it’s a self-serve spot or casual eatery, arrive a few minutes early to scope out and grab a table.
2. Consider drinks. If you think it will be appreciated, order champagne or white wine to be brought to the table when your guest arrives. In some industries and locations, it’s perfectly normal to have a drink at lunch (for example, creative industries located in New York City). If that’s who you’re lunching with, a drink can immediately signal that this is a social, not business event. But make it easy on your guest by pre-ordering a classic white (like a Sancerre), so no decision is required. I even like asking for two half-glasses — that way, you can order more if desired, but a small pour might be just the right amount.
3. Greet them like a VIP. If you haven’t met your guest before, make it super easy for them to find you. Greet them with full business enthusiasm and thank them again for taking the time to join you.
4. Set a timer and tell your lunch guest. When you start chatting, tell your companion something like, “I promised to keep this under an hour so I’ve set my phone alarm for 50 minutes so we know when to wrap it up.” This way they can focus on the conversation and not worry about checking their own watch.
5. Connect on a personal level first, then business. If you only talk business the last few minutes, that’s OK. What you want to do at a first-time lunch meeting is become friendly. What drives them? What do they love outside work? However, if you’re both excited about business partnerships and work connections, be sure to dive in after a little bit of personal talk first.
6. Wrap it up effortlessly. If you still have to get the check and they seem hurried, it’s fine to bid adieu at the table while you take care of the details. Or try a bonus move and give the waiter your credit card ahead of time so the check only has to be brought to the table for you to sign.
After your lunch:
1. Follow up within 24 hours. Follow up immediately with any links, resources or introductions that came up during your lunch. Next, propose or clarify next steps: Will you be sending over samples of your product for their team? Pitching an article? Asking for their feedback on an upcoming business issue?
2. Stay in the loop. Put notes on your calendar about any special personal things that came up in casual lunch conversation (for example, if they’re getting married in three months, put a note to wish them a great week beforehand). This helps you move your relationship into the personal realm.
3. Keep the connection going. After all the work of your perfectly planned lunch, make sure to keep the connection warm with occasional check-ins, useful information and even drinks or lunch six months to a year later.