Business Meals for Dummies

A while ago, Ashley (one of my friends in my MBA program) asked me to write a guest post for her blog.  I agreed, but wasn’t sure what to write about at first.  I knew I had to write about something food and business related (I almost wrote about how Colonel Harlan Sanders met Dave Thomas in Fort Wayne, Indiana; or about how Walt Disney and Ray Kroc knew each other from being in the service together, and how they almost put McDonald’s French Fries in Disneyland but decided not to due to a pricing disagreement.  But these had been done before!)

However, I decided to go with more of a straightforward post focusing on proper procedure in going out to eat for business.  “Dad’s Rules of Life for Eating Out” from the Wall of Shame makes a cameo appearance in this blogpost.

Without further ado, I give you…


In some way, shape, or form, we are all salespeople.  However, while my “Business Development Manager” title at my job sounds like a “salesman,” I don’t really see myself as a “salesman.”  In fact, I don’t really look at my job at all like a salesman.  I’m more of a support guy.  As a support guy, my job is to act as kind of an internal resource for my customers.  This requires me to build lasting, consultative relationships at my customers.  Therefore, we’re ultimately “selling.”

There’s multiple ways this is achieved amongst different types of business, some more clever than others.  Golf is one of the most popular.  Depending on your type of customer, succeeding here may consist of a better score, or how many Cigars you can smoke and Bloody Marys you can drink while driving the golf cart.  I’ll do this, but I’m more of a comedy golfer.  (“Comedy” in that it’s awful funny when I tally up my golf score and I end up with the high score every time.  This is why you should look for scramble tournaments, fellow comedy golfers!)

Of course, I’ve hosted other events to help build relationships with customers.  This has included regional training seminars with continuing education credits attached to them, movies, fantasy football leagues, and heck—we’ve even done Whirlyball.  All these are great.  However, in my opinion, the best one is “eating out.”

Today, I’m going to explain to you on how to be good at eating out while selling yourself.  How does this article apply to you, no matter who you are?  At some point, you’re going to need to sell yourself to someone else.  Whether it’s dating a potential future spouse or closing a big business deal, one of the easiest ways in our culture to gain rapport, interest, and build any relationship is to eat out.

There are two sets of rules here that I can offer when dining out.  There’s the extremely serious “business dining guidelines” and the seemingly less serious list from my father:  “Dad’s rules of life for eating out.”  (Both lists—dining guidelines and rules of life—actually were taught to me by my father.)  I’m going to outline them all, starting with the business dining guidelines as you should certainly master them before doing anything else.  The guidelines will “get you to the table” and the rules of life will help you master the art.

Before I delve into these guidelines, I offer one important caveat:  These guidelines assume that you are in the United States and are within our local culture.  Some of the things on this list would NOT apply in other cultures.


Prior to arriving to their office, do your homework.  Have a few restaurants in mind where you can hear your customer speak, you won’t have to wait an hour for, you won’t offend anyone, and of course, the food is awesome.  If it’s a steakhouse or something very nice (especially for dinner), confirm the number attending with your customer make a reservation.  Err on the side of caution—if you think the venue might make your customer uncomfortable, don’t bring them there.  I recommend looking up restaurants on Yelp prior to going to them to ensure a positive experience.

Arrive early and always take the seat facing the door.  This will allow you (hopefully) to view the door while waiting for your customer.  If you can’t see the door, ask to be seated (if possible) in a table where you can see the door, or give the customer’s first name to the host or hostess.  When you see your customer walk in (if you know them), you’ll be able to see them and wave at them.

If you’ve never met them before, call to confirm your appointment and then let them know what you will be wearing.  This makes for less “are you here” awkward cell phone calls.

Shake hands APPROPRIATELY.  When shaking their hand, don’t try to squeeze their hand as hard as you can.  However, don’t go for the cold fish handshake as well.  Find a happy median.  And, of course, it should be common sense to know that you ALWAYS shake with your RIGHT hand.

Don’t order alcohol until your customer does.  Try your best not to order your drink or meal first.  Let them order alcoholic beverages first, and then follow suit accordingly.  If you absolutely must go first, order a non-alcoholic beverage, and if they order one, then follow suit by saying “On second thought, go ahead and give me an (INSERT ALCHOLIC DRINK NAME HERE) instead.”  You can’t un-order a beer without looking like a moron.  Don’t forget—not everyone believes in drinking.  Ordering alcohol can make them feel uncomfortable.

The company party is NOT really a party.  This isn’t a frat party.  Keep it under control.  Don’t drink to excess.

Don’t order the most expensive thing on the menu.  This isn’t such a huge deal, but you don’t want to look wasteful or too excessive.  Keep this under control.  If you really want the most expensive thing on the menu, order it, but don’t be excessive about it.

Be nice to your server.  If the server hasn’t been around for a while, don’t be a jerk about it.  Also, if your food didn’t come exactly as you ordered it, don’t send it back.  This makes you look like a jerk in front of your customer and makes them uncomfortable.  Also (unless there’s some extremely compelling reason not to), leave AT LEAST 20% when dining on an expense account.  Not doing this could make you look cheap.

Know some basic information about wines.  Know what you like, know what you don’t like, know how to pronounce the different types of wines.  (Wikipedia can help with this.)  Know that a red wine glass is bigger than a white wine glass.  Know that when drinking red wine, you generally hold the glass by the cup, whereas when drinking white wine, you hold the glass by the stem.  Most importantly, know how to DRINK wine.  The smell is important.  The taste is important.  (We’re not doing shots here.  Think “art meets food.”)  Don’t be ashamed to ask about pairings (“Will the Merlot go with my ____?”).  Google this as well—there’s many pages about this topic around the Internet.

Use good table manners.  Also, know which utensil is the correct utensil.  (Generally speaking, you start with the silverware farthest away from your plate and work your way in.)  Cut a chunk of butter off and put it on your butter plate—use this as your master.  When eating bread, after buttering it, tear it apart into bite size chunks.  Don’t take a bite out of it.  (Don’t take huge bites, as this can be awkward to finish the bite of food in your mouth when a customer asks you a question.)  As you finish a bowl of soup, tilt the bowl away from you while you scoop to get to the last of the soup.  Enough said—there’s entire books, website, youtube videos, and other forms of media dedicated to this subject.  For manners, the ownness is on YOU.

Don’t season your food before you try it.  Think about it—pouring salt / pepper / whatever your condiment of choice all over your meal before trying it can show that you don’t have an open mind or are not easily satisfied.  (I’ve worked for an employer before where if an applicant did this, they were eliminated from contention for the job.)  Kind of silly, I know, but be careful.

Ask for the next meeting.  More specifically, if it went well, you’re talking to the right folks, and it’s a relationship worth maintaining, make sure to ask for the next meeting.  Don’t be pushy about this.  “Let’s do this again!  How about we get you on the calendar for _____?”

Skip the doggie bag.  When you get done with your meal, if you haven’t finished, DO NOT get a doggie bag.  This makes you look extraordinarily tacky and cheap.

Now that we’ve got the basics, here’s the fun part…


When I was a child, my father instilled upon my sister and I these basic rules of life for eating out.  Some are funny, some are graphic.  They are all true.  Sure, exceptions exist—but generally speaking, these should all be heeded.  (Example:  If you look at Rule #2, I’m sure there’s very good steakhouses in Boston.  However, if you’re visiting, you’d likely have better experiences ordering seafood—like lobster, shrimp, etc—as it is appropriate to the region.)

I’m not going to explain these, as I find them rather self-explanatory.  If I need to be more specific, feel free to e-mail me.

Rule #1 – Never ask a skinny person where to eat.
Rule #2
– Don’t eat at regionally inappropriate restaurants.  (i.e. – Don’t eat at a Taco Bell in San Antonio.  Or–don’t go to Boston and order beef.)
Rule #3
– Never eat seafood at a place that has an inflatable crab on the roof.
Rule #4
-Don’t order cuisine-inappropriate dishes.  (i.e. – don’t go to a Mexican restaurant and order a cheeseburger.)
Rule #5
– Don’t ever go to a restaurant on Valentine’s Day.
Rule #6 – Don’t ever eat hot peppers (like habaneros), and then go to the restroom.
Rule #7 – Life is too short to drink cheap beer.
Rule #8
– Don’t ever eat Kimchee prior to boarding an airplane.
Rule #8.5 – Better yet, don’t ever eat Kimchee period.
Rule #9
– Don’t ever eat at a restaurant called “Mom’s”, or anywhere that advertises “just like home”, or “home-cooked”.
Rule #10 – Only eat sushi if the sushi chef is Japanese.
Rule #11 – Never eat sushi or raw seafood in a country where you cannot drink the water.
Rule #12 – Only eat in Mexican restaurants that display a crucifix and a likeness of “our Lady of Guadalupe”.
Rule #13 – Only eat in BBQ restaurants where the silverware does not match.
Rule #14 – Never eat sushi in a restaurant that advertises Korean, Chinese, or Thai cuisine in addition to sushi.
Rule #15 –
Generally speaking, the larger a pepper grinder used in a restaurant, the worse the food.
Rule #16 –
The price of a meal is directly proportional to how high the restaurant’s location is with relation to the ground.
Rule #17 – The quality of a meal is inversely proportional to how high the restaurant’s location is with relation to the ground.
Rule #18 – Don’t eat at restaurants that rotate.
Rule #19 – Don’t ever eat at a restaurant that also sells bait.

If you keep this advice in mind when eating out, your customers will appreciate it, and a better experience will be had by all…  Good luck out there.  Until next time, fellow business diners—Ciao!

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