An Appetizing Virtual Lunch

Not everyone has given up on the famed business lunch.

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It was one of David Perlmutter’s best business lunches. In late May, the real estate broker gathered about 50 people from around the country to talk about the latest trends in commercial properties. Everyone was friendly, no one spilled any drinks on anyone else, and Perlmutter got to show off his online real estate service, QuantumListing. When it was over, he got up from the kitchen table in his cottage and cleaned off his lunch plate.

Before the pandemic, about 3 percent of the US workforce, or about 3.4 million people, worked from home full-time, a number that of course has risen dramatically. And as it has grown, nearly every business activity has been upended—including that staple of business activity known as the business lunch. Still, going virtual hasn’t stopped everyone from trying to break bread over work. In this era, already everyone from college financial aid officials to even the owner of the Los Angeles Chargers pro football team has held virtual lunches.

Indeed, there are even businesses offering to both host the online connection and deliver food to wherever the participants are. Choosing the upbeat route, Jaymie Scotto Cutaia, CEO of her eponymous public relations firm, has set up more than 30 virtual lunches with clients. “There’s something about this technology that can unite us during this difficult time,” she says.

For decades, enterprising businesspeople hoped to woo potential customers or current clients during this midday break. (Lunch, by the way, wasn’t considered a daily ritual until as recently as the 18th century; Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755 describes it as “as much food as one’s hand can hold.”) As it would turn out, the effort seems to pay off: decades of research have shown that people are more apt to change their opinions on subjects while they are eating.

So it isn’t surprising that many executives have been scrambling to find a way to replicate the business lunch at a time when simply sitting down face-to-face could potentially be more hazardous than eating undercooked meat. Some have discovered that the virtual route doesn’t change many of the best practices. Start off with a few minutes of catching up and socializing. Work in a few persuasive elements for working together. Don’t overpitch. “Nobody wants a good meal ruined by a sales pitch,” says Roger Dooley, coauthor of the blog Neuromarketing and host of the Brainfluence podcast. And don’t forget to follow up after the meal, whether it’s by sending a thank-you note or, as Cutaia suggests, setting up online chats for lunch participants to continue their conversations.

To be sure, these virtual meals can get awkward. Business lunchers usually don’t have to worry about being interrupted by their children or pets at a restaurant. Then there are the technical difficulties, including videos freezing up at inopportune times and dropped internet connections. Some lunch hosts also have reported an unexpected issue: some people don’t like eating while on camera. It’s hard to keep focus when one person keeps turning the camera off to take bites of food, says one luncher.

Still, the virtual lunch could provide some advantages that a restaurant sit-down cannot. Lunchers can now work easily around time zones. Make it a breakfast chat in New York and serve lunch in Paris. There’s no commuting time to and from the restaurant. There are no eavesdropping neighboring diners or waiting for the check. Dietary restrictions or personal preferences aren’t an issue, either. Indeed, the food itself usually doesn’t matter. Perlmutter says his business lunch is usually just leftovers from whatever dinner he had the night before.

Some proponents say the virtual environment also makes it easier to get points across. Instead of having a client sift through paper pages of documents, they can just look at them on a computer screen. The pitch can even become interactive, with clients able to demo software programs or navigate web pages. That all can be done without the risk of a clumsy waiter spilling something on a laptop.

At some point—hopefully—the COVID-19 pandemic will wind down and businesspeople will once again wine and dine their clients at the Four Seasons in New York. But for Perlmutter and others, the pandemic has shown a new way to interact with clients. “There will be real lunches face-to-face, but I don’t think this cow is going back in the barn,” he says.