Power Lunching on a Shoestring

With budgets getting gutted, new rules of business meals emerge

For years, a major media company's communications executive and I have met for lunch at the same reasonably priced French restaurant halfway between his office in Burbank and mine on Wilshire Boulevard. And for years, we fought over the check. Until the other day.

When the bill arrived, we looked at each other, sensing unfamiliar territory. Then in unison, we offered: “Split it?”

The days of three-martini lunches are long gone, and the WGA strike a year ago has already pinched our industry's working meal culture, especially in Los Angeles. But as corporations continue to reel in T&E spending as tightly as they can and still keep the business moving, a new cost-conscious era of dining out in the entertainment business is here.

A recent canvassing of popular media hotspots in New York and L.A. underlines that fact. We talked to managers at Michael's, the Patina Group and Cafe Dell'arte in New York, and at Smokehouse and Luna Park in Los Angeles. While all insist they are still busy, they all also admit they've seen average check totals slide.

Steve Millington, general manager of legendary New York media hangout Michael's, says “major deals” are still made at his place, but “there is consternation and fear in all the ranks of our clientele….Your Wall Street guys are not being able to make it up here now, so you're seeing the dropoff of that.”

Patina Properties VP of Operations Ken Gordon calls Patina's The Sea Grill at 30 Rock “a media haven,” but says that “I see [people in the industry] come in less, and they'll bring fewer people and it's all strictly business. It's not, 'Let me come down and get my lunch down here' as in the past. Everybody's just cut back.”

Folks are still conducting working meals, they're just doing it differently. Lunch business remains good at Smokehouse in Burbank, according to owner Lee Spencer. But they've changed the lunch menu to bring prices down, and patrons are also cutting back. “Heads are the same,” Spencer says. “But people who used to have a $30 filet mignon will have a $20 sirloin steak.”

Some people will always be able to afford to eat out. “The same media people are here,” Spencer says of Smokehouse. “Behind-the-camera people, that's down a little bit. The execs, writers, stars, they are still coming in.”

But it is, in fact, gauche today to be caught being anything but careful. Disney-ABC Television Group chief Anne Sweeney says her approach to T&E is to boil it all down to what you need to get your work done.

She says she started noticing different habits in the industry more than a year ago, during the WGA strike. At that time, talent agents started flying coach and meeting her in her office rather than plying her with dinners, she says.

So in a business community that places so much emphasis on appearance that most executives get car allowances to project success, the trick now is to keep both your clients and your accounting department happy.

Stephanie Robbins and David Tanklefsky contributed to this report. Ben Grossman's Left Coast Bias will return next week.