The Art of the Business Lunch: Etiquette Tips for Making a Great Impression

The business lunch is a time-honored tradition and an invaluable tool for building relationships, making deals, and advancing your career. But navigating the nuances of dining etiquette can be tricky. Use this expert guide to master the art of the business lunch and make a winning impression every time.

Why the Business Lunch Still Matters

In an era of video calls and instant messaging, you might wonder if the business lunch has gone the way of the three-martini lunch. But face-to-face meetings over a shared meal remain one of the most powerful ways to connect with colleagues, clients, and contacts. Consider:

  • 73% of professionals believe in-person interactions are critical for long-term business success (Hilton Hotels & Resorts)
  • Executives who eat meals with contacts are 62% more likely to land new business (Hinge Research Institute)
  • 65% of workers say sharing meals with coworkers strengthens relationships (ZeroCater)

There‘s simply no online substitute for the rapport and trust built by breaking bread together. Master the etiquette and you‘ll wield a powerful tool for influence and advancement.

Pre-Lunch Preparation

Success starts well before you sit down at the table. Follow these steps to proactively set the right tone:

Extend a Proper Invitation

When you‘re the host, your invitation should clearly convey the purpose of the meeting, whether it‘s an exploratory chat or to discuss a specific deal. Give your guest a heads up on key talking points so they can prepare.

Aim to invite them 1-2 weeks ahead to avoid last-minute scheduling conflicts. Avoid Mondays (too busy) and Fridays (too checked out). The most productive meetings tend to happen Tuesday through Thursday.

Etiquette experts agree you should always extend the invitation yourself rather than delegating to an assistant – it shows respect and that you value your guest‘s time.

Choose the Right Restaurant

The ideal business lunch spot has impeccable service, a relatively quiet atmosphere, and crowd-pleasing cuisine. Some 40% of professionals say noisy restaurants are a top pet peeve for business lunches.

Select a convenient location, ideally close to your guest‘s office. Have a couple of back-up options ready, as popular spots can fill up fast. If you‘re not sure what type of food they like, an upscale American restaurant or steakhouse is a safe bet.

Make a Reservation (and Reconfirm)

Book a table at least a day in advance, requesting a quiet corner booth if possible. Confirm the reservation the morning of and plan to arrive 10-15 minutes early to ensure prompt seating.

Reconfirm with your guest that morning as well. A quick text is usually sufficient: "Looking forward to our lunch today at [restaurant] at [time]. Please let me know if anything has come up!" If you don‘t get a response within a couple hours, follow up with a call to avoid being stood up.

Do Your Due Diligence

Don‘t go in blind. Research your dining partner‘s background and role. Check their LinkedIn profile and company bio. Google their name for any recent news or announcements. Gather intel from mutual contacts if you have them.

Prepare a mental list of conversation topics and thoughtful questions based on what you learn. Review the agenda and key points you plan to cover as well. Walking in prepared will boost your comfort level and ability to engage naturally.

Mealtime Manners

Your table manners can make or break your professional image. Here‘s a crash course on dining etiquette fundamentals:

  • Let your guest choose their seat – As the host, you should gesture for your guest to sit first. In a booth, offer them the seat facing into the restaurant (the "power" position).
  • Napkin in lap – Place your napkin in your lap immediately upon sitting down. If you need to leave the table mid-meal, loosely fold your napkin and place it to the left of your plate.
  • Guest goes first – Your guest should place their order first and take the first bite of their meal before you begin eating.
  • Pace yourself – Subtly match your dining pace to your companion‘s so you finish at roughly the same time. If they‘re a particularly slow eater, periodically rest your utensils and turn your focus to the conversation so you don‘t finish ages ahead.
  • Practice the ‘Continental‘ style – This refined dining style prescribes keeping the fork in your left hand and knife in the right throughout the entire meal, tines facing down. Never switch your fork to your right hand to take a bite.
  • Avoid messy foods – Pass on hard-to-eat items like long pasta, sauce-drenched ribs, jumbo sandwiches, and whole lobsters. Stick to tidy bites that won‘t distract you or your tablemate from the discussion.
  • Know your place setting – Your bread plate is on the left, glasses on the right. When in doubt, remember "BMV" – for bread, meal, and various glasses.

Conversation Do‘s & Don‘ts

Keep the dialogue professional, positive, and collaborative with these guidelines:

  • Use the 60/40 rule – Aim to listen 60% of the time and speak 40%. Show engagement by asking thoughtful questions, sharing relevant anecdotes, and sprinkling in meaningful compliments.
  • Steer clear of controversial topics – A business lunch is not the place to hold forth on divisive issues like politics, religion, or office gossip. Keep things cordial and uncontroversial.
  • Know when to wrap up – Watch your companion‘s body language and energy level. If they seem antsy or keep checking their watch, take the cue that it‘s time to wind down. A productive lunch typically lasts 60-90 minutes max.

The Check Dance

A clumsy check grab can sour an otherwise positive meeting. As the host, it‘s your job to cover the bill – promptly and smoothly:

  • Have your credit card ready and subtly signal the server as soon as you‘re both done eating
  • Immediately place your card in the check holder when it arrives – don‘t ostentatiously study the bill or announce how much it is
  • Thank your guest sincerely for their time as you hand the holder back to the server

If you‘re the invitee and the host doesn‘t take the initiative, don‘t make a grab for the check. Simply thank them graciously for the meal and conversation. In some cultures, there may be more back-and-forth over the bill. Do your homework on local customs so you‘re prepared.

Mastering the Follow-Up

The real payoff of a business lunch often comes in the follow-up. Reinforce a stellar impression with these final touches:

Say Thanks (More Than Once)

When you part ways after the meal, reiterate your appreciation for your guest‘s time and insights. Within 24 hours, send a concise email recapping any key takeaways and reiterating your thanks. For a high-stakes meeting, a handwritten note adds a personal touch.

Keep the Momentum Going

Look for organic opportunities to keep building the relationship. Send them an article that made you think of a topic you discussed. Invite them to an upcoming industry event. Even a quick check-in every few months keeps you top of mind.

Top Etiquette Faux Pas to Avoid

Steering clear of these all-too-common missteps is just as crucial as minding your P‘s and Q‘s:

  1. Arriving late – Aim to walk in the door 10 minutes early; 5 minutes at the latest. Keeping your companion waiting is the height of rudeness.
  2. Failing to silence your phone – Set your phone to silent and tuck it away before walking into the restaurant. Never place it on the table.
  3. Holding your utensils like a shovel – Use a light grip on the handles, never a fist, and keep your index finger extended along the top.
  4. Dominating the conversation – Don‘t prattle on about yourself. Maintain a balanced dialogue and show genuine interest in your dining partner‘s perspective.
  5. Drinking too much alcohol – A business lunch is not happy hour. Sip slowly and order a second round only if your companion does. When in doubt, stick to iced tea or soda.
  6. Criticizing the restaurant or food – Even if you‘re not thrilled with the venue or meal, keep negative opinions to yourself. Find something positive to compliment instead.
  7. Waving or snapping at the server – Catch their eye subtly if needed, but never shout, snap or otherwise treat your server rudely. It reflects poorly on you.
  8. Squabbling over the check – Never make a showy grab for the bill or quibble over who owes what. As the host, quietly take care of it. As the guest, express thanks and let it be.
  9. Letting the connection fizzle – Don‘t drop the ball after an excellent meeting. Promptly send a follow-up and keep in touch to reap the full benefit of the interaction.

The Bottom Line

A business lunch is a rare chance to build rapport and trust with professional contacts on a personal level. But dining missteps and poor etiquette can leave a bad taste that sours the relationship.

Fortunately, a little advance preparation and attention to detail can ensure you make a five-star impression. Remember your role, do your homework, focus on your guest, and use confident, refined table manners. Most of all, relax and let your winning personality shine through.

Master the art of the business lunch and you‘ll gain a reputation as a poised, persuasive professional – and open doors to exciting new opportunities. Those fruitful relationships will make the time and effort well worth it.