picking a restaurant for a working lunch — am I doing this right?

A reader writes:

I was wondering if you might give a bit of guidance on how to go about locating a location for a work/networking lunch. I’m the head of corporate responsibility and outreach for my company, so I’m periodically asked to lunch by community partners and agencies. Usually, these invitations are accompanied by the dreaded “I’ll head to your neck of the woods, so just let me know when you’re available.” At this point, I’m left trying to settle on a place to take them.

I find the whole process of negotiating a restaurant to be painfully awkward and unreasonably stressful. I’m a slow eater, so trying to conduct business while also not taking 20 minutes longer to finish than anyone else is obnoxious, but navigating the minefield of food preferences, allergies, diets, noise levels, drive times, and price points is worse. Is it safer to stick with chains that are more accessible, or go for more local charm and pick somewhere more interesting? Are there any cuisines or foods that should definitely, always be off the table (so to speak)? Is picking a fast casual order-at-the-counter place ok? How expensive is too expensive if I know a nonprofit partner is going to be picking up the tab? How important is cutting the difference, distance-wise, so that both of our commutes are reasonable and they can make it back to their office in a reasonable amount of time? Do I just suggest my favorite Thai restaurant and not worry about it? Am I just over-thinking myself into a bewildered paralysis?

Typically I wind up suggesting two or three specific places (“Casa Verde has great fajitas, India Spice has a wonderful lunch buffet, and we’ve also got a Chili’s right around the corner”) and let them settle on the one that sounds right, but I can’t help but wonder if there’s some kind of standard practice for this kind of thing, and every. single. time. I wind up worrying that I’ve made some kind of faux pas.

“Am I just over-thinking myself into a bewildered paralysis?” This one.

I actually think your practice of suggesting a few different places with a little info about each is exactly right. They’re almost certainly going to be able to pick something that works for them from those options, and if they don’t, you’ll have opened the door for them to suggest something else (because you’re clearly not being rigid about where you’ll go).

So I think you’ve already nailed this, but in general the thing with business lunches is just to be aware that people may have food allergies or restrictions that could make it tough for them to eat in a particular restaurant. But all that means is that you should show that you’re flexible about where you go, and make it easy for them to feel comfortable suggesting somewhere else. You’re already doing that by offering up a few different options. If you wanted to, you could add on, “Or let me know if there’s somewhere else you’d prefer” … but I think that by suggesting multiple options, you’re already demonstrating that you’re not particularly invested in any one of them and it’s fine if they’d rather suggest something else.

It does mean that you shouldn’t just announce “we’ll meet at Seafood World.” Even then, if you did that, they should feel willing to speak up if they have a seafood allergy or hate seafood or whatever — but it’s more polite to just not create that situation to begin with.

You asked about distance and whether it’s important to ensure they can make it back to their office in a reasonable amount of time. In the situations you’ve described, they’re specifically saying that they’ll head over to you, so it’s fine to take them at their word for that. In general, when someone is asking to meet with you, it’s okay to assume they’re coming to you and aren’t expecting you to split the difference for them. (If it’s part of their job to seek out these meetings and they benefit from them, it’s usually part of the deal that they’ll do most of the driving — they want to make it easy on you so that you give them the meeting.)

And last, a side note: This doesn’t apply to you because it sounds like this kind of relationship-building is part of your job, but for readers where it’s not, it’s okay to turn down these lunches if you’d rather not spend your lunch that way. For example, vendors will often ask to buy lunch for clients, and it’s fine to turn that down (unless part of your job involves building those relationships); if you don’t want to go, it’s fine to say “it’s tough for me to get away for lunch” or something along those lines.

{ 111 comments… read them below }

  1. Bee Eye LL*

    I agree that throwing out multiple choices is better. This lets people pick without having to divulge any personal issues with diet. It also helps to consider the noise level in the place. I had lunch at a sports bar/grill with some co-workers the other day and the TV’s were all turned up loud. Not a great meeting place, but good burgers!

    1. Chriama*

      Oh yeah, that’s something you should legitimately think about! Lots of restaurants have a bar section and a quieter dining room, but if you haven’t been there before then err on the side of caution and consider the genre of restaurant. Same goes for something like live entertainment, though I think that’s typically more a dinner thing.

    2. Dynamic Beige*

      Definitely! There’s few things worse than someone who is such a picky eater (for whatever reasons) that they only eat 3 things and so they have final say over where you’re going to eat so they’ve already picked out the place and you just have to hope that there’s something on the menu for yourself.

      One of the things I would suggest is based on what a client does — they keep takeout menus in their office for all the local places because they work late and have to order dinner, so it’s useful to know what’s available (they’re in a kind of weird area). You could make an Excel sheet with the name of the place, its website (because most places have their menus on their websites) and then copy and paste a few in the return e-mail. Add notes as you go along or get other people in the office to help out, which ones are really noisy or have bad food or limited parking.

  2. justsomeone*

    I agree with Alison that the way you’re going about it – offering a few options – is the best way. I hate having lunch meetings though, so I almost always ask to do coffee instead. “I am always busy during the lunch hour, how about coffee instead?” usually works for me. I am way happier to sip on tea or coffee rather than try to eat anything in front of strangers. I still haven’t found a food I can gracefully eat in front of people.

    1. justsomeone*

      I’ll also add that I manage our community outreach and giving program, so I often get invitations of the sort that the OP describes. Those ESPECIALLY are the ones I try to shunt to coffee. Coffeehouses are generally quieter and easier to meet in.

    2. Chriama*

      Good option! I mentioned below that these are people reaching out to her, so the onus is on them to state any requirements/accommodations they may need. It’s totally fine to just stick with what works for you and offer flexibility only if it ‘s that’s easy for you to do.

      1. TootsNYC*

        Also, you know what? From an etiquette point of view, this is FAIL on their part. ‘
        They’re the hosts, they’re paying, they should choose. Both from a financial reason and because they should bear the burden of making the decision.

        In the days of Google, they don’t really have an excuse.

        1. seejay*

          It could be that if they’re throwing the option out on the LW’s table, they’re not picky/have no restrictions. Usually among my social groups, unless anyone feels really strongly about something, those with diet restrictions/allergies/preferences usually get asked first what they prefer when looking at restaurants if it’s just a general free-for-all. That might be what’s at play here.

        2. Chriama*

          I read good intentions into that though. They’re inviting OP out and they don’t know the area so they don’t want to inadvertently pick something that looks close on Google maps but always has a traffic jam or a crappy left turn light between it and her office, nor do they know if OP is a picky eater/has allergies/whatever. So they’re giving her the flexibility to state any concerns up front.

          1. TL -*

            Or that such and such place has super slow service and is crammed during lunch, or the place where everyone gets food poisoning and only eats there when everything else is closed, or the place where there’s the best food in town AND it’s super cheap and it’s quite during lunchtime….

            Asking for local input isn’t a bad idea at all.

            1. Christopher Tracy*

              Exactly. Our vendors ask us to pick the restaurants, and we typically send them a list of suggestions for places to eat if only a handful of people in our office will be partaking. If more than 10 people want to do lunch with the vendor, we cater in instead since going somewhere would result in a two plus hour lunch, and we don’t have that kind of time.

          2. TootsNYC*

            I agree, good intentions.

            But since they’re delegating their responsibilities, then our OP shouldn’t stress so much over it. They’re asking her to do a favor (by picking the restaurant), and she gets to decide the constraints.

    3. JR*

      I also work in corporate social responsibility, and I agree that these kinds of meetings are often easier over coffee (especially if it’s a prospective partner, versus an existing partner, or if you’re really just meeting with them to get to know them/to be polite, versus actively considering a grant). If it’s unsolicited and you’re unlikely to find them, it’s also (generally) fine to decline – bump it to a phone call or ask them to send you materials or let them know you’ll reach out if/when it looks like they might be a good fit. That said, when you do meet with them, consider paying, even if they initiated. I think this is less relevant if it’s a prospective partner and you’re basically doing them a favor by meeting with them, but when it’s an existing parter, I’d lean toward having it come out of your budget, rather than theirs.

    4. Dynamic Beige*

      If you can find a more upscale coffeeshop/cafe, they usually have things to eat that they make in-house so it’s not like the triangle sandwich wrapped in clingfilm that sits in a refrigerated display all day. Then, it’s people’s choice if they want something more than just a drink.

      It’s also not just the food that people can be allergic to. I picked a small chain cafe and one person couldn’t eat their food. They had a latex allergy and the people who made the food of course wore latex gloves while preparing it.

    5. Justdocoffee*

      This. I hate lunch meetings. I am not coordinated enough to eat gracefully and conduct business. Whenever possible, I ask to meet for coffee instead. So much easier!

  3. Critter*

    I’m reminded of a work lunch, mostly because of what I remember about it – our new vendor (who had been, for a time, campaigning to be our only vendor and had successfully landed a contract with our company), offered to take our team out for lunch – 6 or 7 of us. Our office was in midtown Manhattan, so we ended up at the expensive steak restaurant a couple of blocks away (of course!), and I STILL remember that guy’s face when he got the receipt. Still wonder what the damage was.

    Also that guy hugged me hello once. Oof.

    1. (different) Rebecca*

      Noooooo hugs hello unless on very, very familiar terms!! Oh how awkward that must have been for you.

    2. Helen*

      Our vendors also hug and even KISS hello. Ugh. Even though it’s mostly one guy whom I’ve now known for a number of years, I still don’t want to hug him and certainly don’t want to exchange kisses. It is even more likely that he will hug/kiss when he is taking us out to lunch rather than just an in-office meeting. Don’t know what that is! It makes me SO uncomfortable.

      1. plain_jane*

        Clients who triple kiss. I know it’s their culture (French). But still – my English clients don’t hug.

    3. Squeegee Beckenheim*

      A client (who was seriously terrible to begin with–the most Michael Scott I’d ever encountered) hugged me goodbye the first (and only, so far) time we met. Ugh.

  4. Chriama*

    Alison covered the general advice, but I know OP had a long list of worries so I wanted to address some of them. Right off the bat – these people are contacting *you*, which means the onus is on them to accommodate you. What does this mean?

    Dietary requirements: if they have allergies they want you to take into consideration, they state that upfront. If they have strong preferences but can make it work, they wait for your restaurant suggestion and agree or modify (especially now that they have the restaurant location, they have a better idea of other nearby restaurants that would be convenient for you and don’t inadvertently end up suggesting something that looks 5 minutes away from your office but is actually 20 due to traffic patterns).

    Price: There will typically be a few restaurants in a general area around a certain price. You obviously don’t want to suggest the steakhouse or seafood place with $90 entrees, but generally I assume that most places people go out for business lunches are around the same price point. You don’t need to substitute Chili’s for McDonald’s just because it’s a non-profit (insert obligatory “not all non-profits are poorly funded” message here).

    1. TL -*

      As long as the OP suggests one chain restaurant, clients with allergies will probably be okay – they’ve usually got pretty detailed information on their websites and you can call the restaurants and ask. Someone with a peanut allergy might say no to the Thai place but will probably be pretty okay with the Chili’s, which is a probably a fairly known quantity in terms of ingredients.

  5. thomast*

    A slight variation on the “here are three, take your pick” that can make things a little more definitive and close the thread more quickly is to make a specific suggestion, but include the other info, eg,
    “Let’s meet at Casa Verde – they have great fajitas! If that doesn’t work, India Spice has a wonderful lunch buffet, and we’ve also got a Chili’s right around the corner.”

    That way you don’t seem completely wishy-washy, but are still making your flexibility clear.

    1. Chriama*

      I think that makes sense if you have a specific preference for whatever reason, but I don’t think it’s necessary if you have no preference and are just doing it in order to prevent back and forth. In social settings that may happen, but it’s a business setting so a lot less likely.

      1. Random Citizen*

        Heck, I do this socially all the time. More so with newer friends than older ones whose preferences I know. I was getting together with a new friend last week in the evening, and texted her earlier in the day and said, “Since it’s close to supper, did you want to stop and grab Subway or Little Caesar’s before we go?” Figured there was enough variety between the two, and I would have been totally okay with a different recommendation (given the circumstances, it would have been really easy for her to say something like, “Actually, I’m gluten-free/dairy-free/vegan, which makes it hard to eat there, so let’s just meet for [event]/do you want to try [other place].”

    2. nofelix*

      To some people this phrasing will imply you prefer Casa Verde and they will feel bad about disappointing you if they want one of the other two.

  6. Jen S. 2.0*

    Agree with throwing out a couple of choices that hit a couple of levels of formality and price points. That is a great way to go.

    And not just because I haaaaaaaate Thai food (all Asian food, actually) .

      1. Jen S. 2.0*

        Fair point. I do not like most of the foods that are typically represented in America as Asian, largely because I do not like soy flavors, fish sauce*, savory ginger, lemongrass, cabbage, raw meat, seaweed, pork, cabbage, sprouts, and several other flavors / foods that are very common in the “far East.” I’m sure I could find something to choke down if forced to go to a restaurant, but you will never, never, never find me suggesting Thai, Chinese, Japanese, or sushi.

        I do love Indian and Mediterranean food, though.

        *There is some common savory / umami flavor that I really hate that shows up in a lot of Asian (as defined above for our purposes here) foods. I’m not sure what it is. I think it might be fish sauce…but I’m not going to go taste-testing to find out.

        1. Jen S. 2.0*

          Oh, other big dislikes: peanuts in meat dishes, peanut sauces, peppers, mushrooms, and coconutty-tasting savory dishes. Those right there pretty much do it for Thai food.

  7. TootsNYC*

    On the Open Thread for this weekend, someone asked what business you would start if you didn’t have to worry about whether it would succeed or fail.

    That’s mine: A chain of lunch places in metropolitan areas w/ a quick-enough service, allergy-free capability, and a reasonable variety on the menu.
    And take-out/delivery service for working lunches.

    1. Government Worker*

      There are a ton of places in my city that strive to hit this, but fast-casual style rather than sit-down. Panera, Cosi, Corner Bakery, and I know I’m forgetting some…

    2. Love Food, Even at Work*

      Isn’t that Panera’s basic appeal? Not award winning, but enough variety to work for most people.

      I also feel like Roti does a good job in this regard though it isn’t as generic.

      1. TL -*

        Does Panera do gluten free well? I don’t think I’ve seen a lot on their menu that I can eat (but I also have only eaten there once).

      2. Lily Rowan*

        Although Panera has a sign up that basically says “If you can’t tolerate gluten, you’re taking your chances eating anything here.”

          1. Lily Rowan*

            Yeah, I don’t remember the actual wording, but I definitely got the impression that they were saying anything could have gluten just from the environment there.

      1. TL -*

        Oh, Cosi has very little that I can eat! A lot of the quick places aren’t gf friendly because they depend heavily on breads and soups.

  8. teapot unionist*

    I also give a couple options and usually send along a link to the menu if it is available online. That way, the price point is known.

    1. Ayla K*

      Yes to links! I get major anxiety around situations like this and often like to look at the menu and decide what I’m likely to order BEFORE I go. This is especially true if you end up at a restaurant that you frequent, and you know what you usually order. Those moments where one person is ready and the other is scanning the menu in a panic while trying to keep up with the business conversation are awful.

  9. Amber T*

    I hate working lunch. I generally dislike eating in front of other people, but it’s one thing if I’m out with friends (and spill stuff on my shirt) – I don’t care as much, they can make fun of me or whatever. But eating with colleagues (or potential business partners… ugh) is just awful.

    I had ordered sushi for lunch and my skill with chopsticks is a solid 5/10. I usually eat at my desk, so if I drop a piece (or in my case, it just magically explodes), who cares? No one can seem me. Right before lunch arrived, my boss asked me to come in and have lunch with him and two of our visiting vendors (who all had sandwiches or salads). I hated every second of that.

    1. Gene*

      It’s perfectly acceptable to eat sushi with your fingers. And I bet you’re 10/10 with them.

      I’m saying this with adobada burrito juice dripped on my shirt. I’ll survive.

        1. MissMaple*

          Haha, I’ve done that… I also just returned a call with my ear while listening to a message :) So you know, you’re not alone in clumsiness.

  10. MSW*

    I’ve found it helpful to have a few go-to places in my back pocket that are relatively convenient and have a broad range of menu options, and then I suggest those all the time. I already know the ambiance, what I’m going to order, and how long it takes. Then I can focus on the person I am with, rather than ending up in a loud place, staring at the menu for 15 minutes, and stressing about choosing something to eat that is messy or something.

    Might be the Type-A in me, but I find it simplifies things!

  11. Ayla K*

    Thank you, OP, for writing in about this and thank you Alison for responding with such detail! I too overthink the absolute crap out of situations like this, both personal and professional, and I’ve found that suggesting 2-3 places as you have and adding “or let me know if you have something else in mind” usually works best.

    If I know the person well, sometimes I’ll start with “any cuisine preferences?” to help me narrow down the options I’ll provide, but that does add an extra back-and-forth, so it’s usually best reserved for lunches with friends, rather than colleagues, clients, or partners.

  12. NYC Redhead*

    It sounds like I am in a very similar role to the OP and I am asked out for lunch my non-profits as well. I always parlay that into a meeting instead. Not only do I hate the thought of a 90 minute lunch filled with small talk, but I also want to be sensitive to non-profit budgets.

    “I would love to take you to lunch.”
    “I am afraid lunch is not good for me, but why don’t you come to my office late afternoon?”
    Repeat as needed.

    1. Lily Rowan*

      The who pays part is what’s most interesting to me! My gut reaction is that the funder should always pay, not the nonprofit — but of course the person who asks, pays, at least in dating. I probably wouldn’t suggest lunch, but would appreciate someone who offered coffee or a meeting instead!

      Side note: I am also very interested in learning more about how a person gets into corporate responsibility.

      1. JR*

        People in the field tend to have a very diverse range of backgrounds, but some of the more common paths tend to come out of the nonprofit sector (especially working for one of the company’s grantees) – this is probably more common at the senior level, moving over from a corporate communications role at the same company (or some role at the same company, depending on the nature of the program), or coming out of the industry that supports corporate responsibility departments – corporate social responsibility consulting firms, software companies, advertising firms, industry associations, etc. If you were strategically trying to craft a path, I think that last option is your best bet. While graduate degrees typically aren’t required (certainly not for more junior roles), MPAs and MBAs are pretty common, and MSWs, EdMs, and degrees specific to the subject matter the firm concentrates on aren’t unusual. The major challenge in finding an in-house role is that most companies have very small departments (maybe 2-5 people for all but the biggest companies), so there aren’t a lot of openings.

      2. Allison*

        I am in supplier diversity. I have a background in vendor management and procurement. Beyond that it was right time and right place.

      3. justsomeone*

        It’s 1/4 of my marketing-department job. We roll it in under “PR”. I was actually really surprised when I was handed the reins, I’m in a pretty junior position.

    2. Development Professional*

      YES! As the person on the other side of these meetings, I’m also more than happy to have you pivot my request for lunch into a meeting in your office. Sometimes, I’ll just suggest lunch/breakfast/coffee because it feels more like a normal introductory activity and/or more pleasant than a meeting, especially if we don’t have an existing programmatic or funding relationship. My main goal is to get some of your time and attention, and food is sometimes a good way to get some of that. But it’s not like I’m dying to share a salad with you. I would LOVE to come to your office and meeting in your conference room with notebooks in front of us. So much easier for me!

  13. Government Worker*

    If you want to bend over backwards to be accommodating, I’d err on the side of including a place with more standard American food options (assuming you’re in the US), like a sandwich and salad place, on your list, because there are a lot of picky eaters in the world who don’t like Indian or Thai or whatever.

    The other unnecessary but helpful thing is to make sure you’re suggesting places that have menus online. I’m a vegetarian and if I got three suggestions from you I’d probably Google them and check their menus to make sure I could eat easily. I can eat happily pretty much anywhere, but at a business lunch I’d rather be able to order a standard entree and not do a three-side-dish meal or have to go back and forth with the waiter about substituting tofu for the chicken in my chicken fried rice, both of which I’m fine doing when I eat at restaurants with family or friends.

    1. Joseph*

      Big chain restaurants like Chili’s/Applebee’s/etc get a (deserved) bad rap for their generic American food, but in this case it’s actually a virtue. Precisely because they’re so generic, most people can at least find *something*.

      1. Charlotte Collins*

        I haven’t been to Applebee’s in years, but I’ve never noticed them to be particularly accommodating to vegetarians. However, you can generally find something to make a meal of at Chili’s.

        But I’m lucky enough to live in a mid-sized city with an extremely vibrant restaurant scene where good vegetarian food is easy to find.

        I like the idea of giving three different options, but if someone is coming from out of town (especially if it’s far out of town), I’d also suggest recommending something in the local cuisine, if possible. Some people like to try out regional specialties.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Granted this was years ago and also in the south, but the last time I was at an Applebee’s, the only vegetarian option was a baked potato. That was it.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            In an attempt to be fair to Applebee’s, I just took a look at their current menu online. Still not a single vegetarian entree, and even the salads all have meat in them.


            1. animaniactoo*

              lol, I did the same to check my memory – check the “extras” and “appetizers” – you’ll find stuff without meat there, and they will do a custom order on a salad to make it without the meat. The last time I was there (earlier this year), there was at least one salad that didn’t have any meat in it, so it’s interesting that they seem to have eliminated that…

                1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  That salad is $3.69 though — it’s a side salad. It’s basically iceberg lettuce, croutons, cucumbers, tomatoes, and cheese (plus bacon, which you could presumably have them leave off). Maybe you could ask if they’d make it entree-sized, but even then, that would be a really crappy salad to have as your meal.

                2. animaniactoo*

                  Hey, I didn’t say it was a *great* salad. ;)

                  Seriously though, I know something like 2 years back they had a “Spring Pasta” dish which basically a pasta primavera. I’m curious as to why it’s dropped off the menu. Although VintageLydia below says that even the vegetarian looking options end up having some stealth meat products in them, so the “hearty grains and rice” dish which looks interesting probably has some sort of meat fat in it as a taste thing even though you only see vegetables in it.

            2. VintageLydia*

              A friend of mine worked in Applebee’s and is a vegetarian. Even a few things that SEEMED like they might be vegetarian had some stealth animal products in it. At think you couldn’t even order a plain baked potato at the time. It’s probably the WORST chain restaurant for vegetarians.

              1. AcademiaNut*

                Yeah, when the house salad comes with bacon by default, and the mac and cheese with chicken, I wouldn’t be surprised if the green beans were made with lard, or the rice with chicken stock.

            3. Jaguar*

              Complaining about Applebee’s having meat in it might be missing the broader point: even people who eat meat will have a hard time finding something unobjectionable at Applebee’s.

              1. Jaguar*

                Really, they’re doing you a favour. You can object to eating their food on the basis of your vegetarianism. Society hasn’t progressed to the point that I can object to eating their food on the basis of it being Applebee’s.

              2. nonegiven*

                I love a seasonal dish i had there. I had to just stop going. I have never had a good experience in an Applebees. Seriously, four different towns.

              3. That Would Be a Good Band Name*

                I’m the least picky eater I know. Seriously, I’ll try just about anything and enjoy a WIDE variety of foods and even I have a hard time finding anything that looks good at Applebee’s.

          2. animaniactoo*

            ime (which is more than I’d like, but my husband likes chain restaurants…) Pretty much every chain restaurant of every stripe now has at least the equivalent of a pasta primavera. Usually 1-2 vegetarian “main” courses, and several dressed up sides/appetizers. Being vegetarian is too mainstream now not to do it. Vegan not so much… you might still be stuck with a baked potato.

            1. Government Worker*

              My wife and one of her fellow midwestern-born friends just had a back and forth on Facebook about how often it was acceptable to drag their vegetarian wives to Olive Garden, Outback Steakhouse, Red Lobster, etc. for the nostalgia factor. The agreement seemed to be that birthdays are fair game, but more than a couple of times a year just wasn’t fair.

                1. Charlotte Collins*

                  Olive Garden does have options for vegetarians, but it might be hard for vegans. However, some people might like more variety. (Vegetarians can end up eating a *lot* of pasta and salad when going out with non-veg diners.)

                  I am fully in support of any place that serves vegetarian soup. I love soup, but it can be difficult when eating out…

              1. Government Worker*

                This particular conversation was between two people who had grown up in the midwest and felt a lot of sentimental attachment to certain national chains, though both admit that the food on recent visits hasn’t been as good as they remembered it from childhood. Both had married people (me being one) who find many national chains to be less enjoyable than many of the (in my view) more interesting options available in my city. Both spouses also happen to be vegetarians, which complicates the issue but wasn’t the only factor.

          3. Government Worker*

            I just looked at their menu online out of curiosity, and there’s a lot more than just a baked potato now, but no entrees – it’s all side dishes. I could happily eat garlicky green beans plus mac and cheese for lunch, or fire grilled veggies plus a “hearty grains and rice” side, whatever that means, but how hard would it be for them to throw a veggie burger on there, or a pasta where the chicken was listed as an optional add-on?

            1. Charlotte Collins*

              I bet there’s chicken stock in the green beans and in the rice. And most of that stuff is probably boil-in-the-bag, so it’s not like they could change the recipe easily.

    2. Eugenie*

      I love this thread so much! I have to do business lunches a few times a year with my boss and co-workers and as a vegetarian working in the suburbs it’s nearly impossible to find a place that’s suitably nice enough (we always do sit-down places) but doesn’t put bacon in everything! I hate having to negotiate with waiters to customize a dish, especially in front of others (plus there’s usually a 50/50 chance that the message doesn’t make it’s way to the kitchen). If my co-workers were more adventurous I’d love to take them to some local Thai or Indian places, but that would be so far outside people’s comfort zones they’d look at me like I grew a third arm if I suggested it.

      Even the nicer places (I’m looking at you Cooper’s Hawk) either don’t have a single vegetarian item on the menu or they’ve got one and it’s super heavy (I really don’t want cheese-stuffed pasta for a business meeting).

      This is why I bring lunch from home and never suggest outings – I’m probably seen as the office couch potato!

  14. hi.*

    Alison, where’d the gay rights post go? I saw the start of it in my RSS feed and was looking forward to reading it, but got a page not found when I clicked through. I saw the question but not the full advice section! :)

    1. fposte*

      If it’s the question about the wedding shower, that’s one of the questions in the post titled “How can I bounce back from disappointing my boss?”

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It’s for later in the week but I accidentally published it today — for literally two seconds. I didn’t expect it would end up in RSS that quickly!

  15. sarah*

    I like your strategy of offering a few options — out of all of those things, people should be able to find something that works for them. If they do have a super specific diet that needs to be accommodated and can’t fit within the choices you have offered, I think throwing out a few options signals that you’re flexible and gives them the opening to mention that.

    I also wanted to touch on the “slow eater” thing. I am in the same boat, especially with work lunches where I’m expected to be keeping up a conversation during a meal…I am a terrible multitasker when it comes to food! I cannot recommend the “to go” box enough. Just plan to eat half of whatever you order and take the rest to go. Obviously this won’t work with a buffet, but pretty much any other sort of place will do this. Takes the stress off you to gobble everything down, and you can finish up at your leisure as an afternoon snack.

  16. Brick in the Wall*

    I think offering a few options like you do is perfect. It’s a good starting off point, but gives them the opportunity for input.

    Slightly OT, but I was trying to plan a lunch with two friends for tomorrow, and it’s like pulling teeth when no one wants to make a decision and everyone’s trying to be accommodating. I ended up taking charge and I didn’t even do the inviting!

  17. animaniactoo*

    The only thing I have to add to Alison’s advice is that if you know you’re a slow eater, I wouldn’t worry too much about it unless your eating pace is going to take you beyond an 40 minutes to an hour for lunch. That’s a pretty standard time frame for a lunch, so your being slower won’t actually stretch out the time by any significant amount. If you’re really concerned, you could say something along the lines of “If you need to get back to the office, please feel free to go. I’ll be a bit longer finishing this, but I understand if you have a time issue.”

  18. Kimberly Herbert*

    I’m one of those people with a deadly food allergy, and I love this technique. With national chains I can usually tell you immediately if I can eat there. With local places, I can call them and check. I also know that I cannot eat certain types of food because peanuts are such a common ingredient.

    If it is just you and I can simply say I prefer X. If it is a larger group I can say I vote for X, but I can’t even enter Local fancy place, because they use peanut oil. (The place I have in mind literally told me it wasn’t safe for me to drop by my sister’s birthday dinner due to the peanut oil being in the air. The manager’s brother had to go the hospital after dropping something off, he didn’t get off the property before he started having trouble breathing).

  19. EddieSherbert*

    One thing that did cross my mind reading this letter… if someone is meeting you for the first time, does have a severe food allergy, and is inviting you to choose a place for lunch – I would REALLY hope they would give you a heads up.

    My father has severe fish and dairy allergies; he was a consultant and regularly had various forms of business lunches and had no problem throwing in a line to let people know his allergies ahead of time.

    1. Chriama*

      Yup! If you’re inviting and also asking the other person to choose, it’s on you to let them know any restrictions up front.

  20. Photoshop Til I Drop*

    I like the idea of multiple options! I’m currently in a situation in which working lunches are basically impossible (I have braces…unless you’re taking me to the Pudding and Applesauce Emporium, I’m going to be in misery) so I would appreciate the opportunity to glance over the menus of each place and see which will hurt the least.

  21. NicoleK*

    Regarding distance, if the meeting is for my benefit, I will be happy to meet closer to their office. If the meeting is to benefit them, then I would expect to meet closer to my office. If the purpose of lunch is to socialize and catch up, then I’ll split the distance.

  22. Anonymousse*

    I think others have mentioned this too, but I have a particular place I always suggest. So you figure that one out and just keep using it. For me it’s the crepe place where you walk up to the counter to order and have your food brought to your table when ready. It has crepes plus breakfast, sandwiches, salads, soups, and a few other things. I feel like there’s always one in every town. They’re not my favorite, but they do make it easy to either have each person pay their own way or to pay for everyone, they’re speedy because you select/pay before being seated, and the wide variety of generally inoffensive food works for many people.

  23. Case of the Mondays*

    I actually think OP is thinking of all the right things and not totally over thinking it. For a business lunch, I want a place that isn’t too far, that has parking reasonably nearby, that is a moderate price point, can accommodate different allergies and different food preferences, isn’t very loud, and won’t take more than an hour to get through a meal. I think all of those are very reasonable considerations. Whether a chain restaurant is good depends on your location. I have lots of local places nearby and chains are further away so it would be odd to choose a chain where I am. At my parents though, there are more chains than anything else so a chain would be normal.

  24. Patty*

    I think the idea of giving three reasonable choices is a good one. It’s also helpful to send links to each place’s website that include the menu and location.

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