Time is still money: Score points by eating quickly and getting back to the job

THE COST EFFECTIVE POWER LUNCH

April 29, 1991|By Holly Selby

The days of leisurely nibbling radicchio and other yuppie fare have fallen by the wayside as the decade of power lunches has become the era of the lean and mean mid-day meal.

Schmoozing, drinking and politicking -- constants on the '80s business lunch menu -- have been replaced by these buzzwords of the '90s lunch: fast talk, fast service and getting the job done.

In fact, eating in your office has acquired a cache it never had before.

"There's much more [eating in] going on than I've ever seen," says David Rogers, vice president of Tracy-Locke advertising.

"It's more working lunches, briefer lunches and healthier lunches," says Sam Fales, vice president and co-manager of the municipal bond division of Legg Mason, who, when he does leave the office at noon, often will "zip to the Gallery and grab a sandwich.

"When the economy was better, and certainly when the broker businesswas better, you allowed yourself more time for lunch. There have been so many mergers . . . that there are fewer people doing a lot more work. Working through lunch is one way to avoid working 'til midnight," he says.

Besides, in leaner economic times, the adage that time means fTC money seems increasingly true -- and a long, luxurious lunch can slow a person down in more ways than one.

"Things have changed: Less is more now. It's the way you run your business. It's the way you eat your meals," says Melanie Sabelhaus, president of Exclusive Interim Properties.

Ms. Sabelhaus and company have sought out new places that allow business executives and clients to lunch quickly -- and get back to work. A favored place to take clients is -- believe it or not -- the Cross Street Market.

"No. 1, it's a lot less expensive and No. 2, it's fast. And people are a lot more impressed with that," says Elizabeth Schroeder, vice president of Exclusive Interim Properties. Since the company deals with executives who aremoving to Baltimore, a meal at the market provides a taste of city life as well.

To be sure, trying to close a deal standing in a market cracking crabs might not suit everyone. Thus, if Mr. Rogers is putting on the dog for a business associate, particularly one he doesn't know, he sticks to Baltimore's power lunch standbys such as the Center Club or the Polo Grill. But "on a routine basis I wouldn't hesitate to downscale. I think attitudes about spending money have changed."

Indeed, "the time factor has become much more important," says Phyllis B. Brotman, president of Image Dynamics Inc. "People are doing more lunches in the office because it takes less time and it shows the client you can use time wisely."

And those are words to make Sascha Wolhandler smile. As owner of Sascha's Catering, which provides gourmet lunches (egg salad and caviar anyone?) in "silver sacks" for offices that want to brown bag with a flair, she thinks the '90s signaled an end of excess simply to impress.

And, besides, she says, "A lot of big companies have invested in artfor their offices and [eating in] showcases the office."

The National Restaurant Association projects that restaurant and lunchroom sales, after making annual gains of 3 percent to 5 percent throughout the last two decades, will be flat this year (not counting inflation), says Anne Curtis, media relations manager.

The beginning of the end of the really high-ticket power lunch can be traced to 1987, she says, when tax reform reduced the tax write-off for business meals by 20 percent.

"That, coupled with the 1987 stock market crash, really changed the attitude toward dining," Ms. Curtis says. "People are less inclined toward the white-tabled and high-ticket business meals. Casual restaurants are becoming acceptable for business deals. called the 'casualization of the American restaurant.' "

But there's more to frugal feeding than that.

The boom of health consciousness that began in the '80s has affected both what's on the menu and how much it costs, points out Greg Schwartz, general manger of Paolo's at Harborplace. Being careful about lunch prices may be new, but he says he would have been serving salads and light pasta dishes -- gentle on both body and budget -- anyway.

In these days of Evian and heart-healthy diets, businessmen -- as well as businesswomen -- are eschewing the prime rib for grilled chicken or sirloin or shrimp atop salads as their usual luncheon fare, Mr. Schwartz says. "And we've noticed a considerable drop in alcohol consumption."

And at Pierpoint, a Fells Point restaurant, the new attitude about health has made chef and co-owner Nancy Longo experiment with a "homey but glamorized" menu that includes salads and sandwiches with oysters or perch.

"Everyone is into down-scaling these days," she says. "People will tell you, 'Oh, I won't go there, the prices are too high.' In the '80s people didn't care."

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