The Art of the Business Dinner

Can food be a strategic lever? I know what you’re thinking. “Oh, come on now!” but stay with me on this one. I want to position an argument that the working meals are some of the greatest untapped opportunities we have at our fingertips. Still with me? Okay, then let’s dig in.

I remember years ago reading this quote from Tom Peters:

“Never waste a lunch!!!! Lunch is 5 opportunities per week, 220 opportunities per year to get to know interesting outsiders, folks from other functions, customers, vendors, frontline staffers.”

This quote got me thinking. Wow! What a great opportunity to learn, to network, to build relationships. We all eat lunch every day (or we should), and it tends to be the least planned part of our day, just something to divide morning and afternoon. I will say there are some leaders that do use lunch as a working opportunity. Many times, it is about time management. So, enough talk about lunch. Just use it.

What about dinner? We’ve all been through the terrible business dinner. This is supposed to be our free time, yet this is how we are spending it? I almost called this post “How to Butcher a Dinner” (pun intended) but didn’t.

The bad business dinner goes something like this:

  • We have someone in from out-of-town, and we view it as an obligation or
  • We are traveling out-of-town, and our hosts wants to be hospitable
  • We go to a nice restaurant with no planned seating and no objective
  • If the group is larger than 8 people, we break up into several small tables
  • The tables are usually hierarchal by position
  • Your table conversation is typically limited whomever is seated to your left and right
  • The extroverts like to talk more than others, so they do
  • The conversation typically ranges from sports, hobbies, vacation and, yes, occasionally about work
  • It is often loud, crowded and noisy, and so any business nuggets that might emerge go unshared with the larger group
  • Finally, people start checking their watches, phones, emails and it’s over

So, we leave the restaurant having checked off the “business dinner” on our to-do list.

I have spent the last 40 years with Milliken & Company. That’s a lot of dinners. Milliken is a privately held textile, floorcovering and specialty chemical company that will be celebrating its 150th anniversary this coming year. The Milliken family led the company for 140 years and Roger Milliken, the past Chairman, CEO and patriarch, led the company for over 60 years. He loved business dinners and finely honed hosting into an art. He once told me:

“I learn more at dinner than I do during the day.”

I have not heard many senior executives say that. However, the reality is, dinner can be a great environment for learning. A well-run dinner can be engaging, invigorating and can host a true exchange of innovative ideas. I realize that’s asking a lot of your average business dinner, but I have seen it work time and again. A well-run dinner does require structure and discipline, and this is how it works.

Creating the Right Environment:

First, you need to carefully craft the right environment for your business dinner. I would say dinners work best for groups as small as 6 and as large as 30 guests. Less than 6, it becomes a more intimate gathering, but many of the principles can still be used. Groups over 30 are more challenging from an interaction and time management perspective, but I have seen it done well.

1. Everyone is at the same table.

This is very important for the full exchange and learning to take place. You may have to put several tables together, but it should feel as if everyone is at one table. Think of it as a conference table with food.

2. Seating is critical.

I’m fine with placing all the senior leaders at one end of the table. In fact, this is encouraged. The rest of the table, though, should be mixed to create as much interaction as possible. Also, name tents are highly recommended. This controls seating and remembering names.

3. Privacy is preferred.

A private room is recommended for several reasons. You want to minimize distractions and control the noise level. It also promotes more detailed and confidential discussions. Guests will be more encouraged to pay attention to each other – and not to who is seated three tables away.

4. Food quality counts.

Yes, food quality is important. The quality of the food should symbolically reflect the quality of the opportunity. That being said, you do not want the food to be so over the top that it becomes the show. The “show” is about learning.

The Learning Process:

With the right environment set, we can now start the learning process. Most business dinners are one and a half to two hours in length. Use the cocktails informally. Once you are seated at the table, the host should formally welcome everyone and explain the process. This needs to happen early before sidebar conversations start-up. This business dinner is a controlled environment now, so use it wisely.

All you can really do is to work one singular subject. Here goes…

5. The Question

With this unique group at the table, what one question would be most beneficial for this group to tackle? The quality of the discussion will be dictated by the quality of your question. Give it some real thought. If the group is still getting to know each other after having spent the day together, here are some suggestions that have worked well for me:

“What did you see today that intrigued you, and what did you see that will challenge you?”

I’m always amazed at what comes out in discussion by just using these two questions.

6. Hear from Everyone.

We want everyone to participate. I recommend that the senior leader answers last, as they will tend to influence the group. Ask a guest to go first and then just rotate to the left, ending with senior leadership. Don’t let one person’s comments start a “rabbit trail” discussion and get the conversation off-topic. You can circle back to particular comments after everyone has been heard. Often, people don’t won’t to go first, but it is the easiest speaking slot! When you get towards the end, you might think you’ll start to hear, “I was going to say that” over and over, but guess what – people dig deeper and, the conversation gets richer.

Get the discussion going early in the dinner. I’ve seen hosts start the discussion when dessert is served. This is too late to start a meaningful discussion, since it will only extend the dinner beyond expectation. Respect the clock and your guests’ time.

And there you have it. It’s really that simple and can transform the dreaded business dinner into an energizing yet educational event.

Give it a try. Bon Appetit!


Craig Long spent the last 40 years with Milliken & Company in many different roles. For over 20 years he was VP of Quality. More recently, Craig started the consultancy Performance Solutions by Milliken, now operating in 400 operations in 23 countries.

Other Posts by Craig Long:

Milliken’s 9 Immutable Keys to Safety

Manufacturing: Reshoring or Renaissance?

Cultures in Conflict? Innovation & Excellence

Extreme Lean: The Next 3 Frontiers

My Machine: First Day the Best Day?


About the author

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.