Paul Little: So long, lunch

There was a time when a so-called business lunch happily slid into dinner time with the help of someone’s company credit card and a lot of fine champagne. Paul Little looks back nostalgically at a bygone era and compares then with now.
Long, boozy lunches are a tradition as old as history itself.
Long, boozy lunches are a tradition as old as history itself.


It was the best of lunch times. It was the worst of lunch times. It was the long, loud business bacchanal and, for those with the money and the stamina, it was practically a sacrament, until suddenly the once orthodox ritual was condemned as heresy. But, like a cult that survives despite vicious persecution, its ceremonies are still performed by the devout in isolated pockets of Parnell and Ponsonby.

But was the cult of the long lunch ever as bad as nostalgia would have it? Was any business - apart from funny business - actually conducted on these occasions? What really drove the long lunch underground? And if it provided a crucial social lubricant among businesspeople, how is that oil applied these days?

Certain industries are inevitably associated with the long lunch, none more so than advertising. And if the staff of advertising agency Colenso were the high priests of the long lunch, then Raffles restaurant was its Vatican. Although Raffles founder Lindsay Sorrell (formerly Dobbie) denies that table dancing was ever compulsory at her hostelry.

"The tables would have probably collapsed," says Sorrell, now running Ponsonby's Mekong Baby, where lunchers are not encouraged to dawdle. "It was more gropey stuff. There was a certain amount of you-know-what going on in the toilets. And, as everybody got more pissed, it became more open."

Not that it was all fun and games for the people running things. "As business owners there's a fine line to tread. You want to keep your licence but you don't want to shut down the fun."

From the 1970s - first at her restaurant Clichy, then at Club Mirage - Emerald Gilmour spearheaded the upmarketing of Auckland wining and dining options. Her clientele rose to the occasion.

"There was a feeling of invincibility," says Gilmour. "Almost euphoria. 'MNO', they said - money's no object. That generation threw themselves into being ostentatious about money, which was something new in New Zealand."

Lunch became a status combat zone.

"Someone would order Bollinger, so someone else would order R.D. Bollinger. I can think of three people who would drink only Roederer Cristal - because it was three times the price, not because it was three times better. Then they'd try to pick up a waitress on the way out."

At another sacred lunch site, Parnell's Antoine's, Tony Astle says his 1980s lunch bills never went higher than $15,000 ($37,000 in 2015 dollars), which was the bill once for four people, and most of that was wine. "Nowadays," he observes ruefully, "if there's someone very high up who's trying to impress someone, it would be half that."

That much alcohol in the middle of the day is going to have an effect, not just on the consumers but on their surroundings.

"The guys at Colenso ran up a huge bill once," says ad industry veteran Mike Hutcheson. "A few hundred of it was for lunch, but most was for damage when one threw a barstool into the mirror at VBG."

Not everyone was so enthusiastic - or irresponsible. Former Newstalk ZB and Radio Sport head Bill Francis was regularly required to attend lunches hosted by the late Dave Walden, whose agency handled the radio station's marketing.

"Lunch generally started around 12.30 and went on till early evening. They were nice occasions, because a guy like Walden was such a great raconteur, but I was always frightened of a drink at the wrong time. I always felt a strong sense of responsibility about leading large numbers of people - to be away drinking was not a good idea."

So, apart from greasing social wheels, did anything actually get done in between the Men's Senior Barstool Throwing and the Incredibly Long Anecdote Challenge?

Many people Canvas spoke to insist lots got done. They just had trouble remembering what.

"For people like the Dave Waldens of this world," says Francis, "lunches were also a residue for ideas. 'Why don't we do this?' 'Here's a lightbulb gone off in my head.' Probably helped by the flow of liquor. Whether any of those ideas came to fruition I can't quite recall."

It's generally agreed that many of the brilliant ideas conceived at lunch were put discreetly to rest in the cold light of the morning after.

At some venues there was more dealing than wheeling. When Sorrell was at Ponsonby's Tuatara, it was an important meeting place for workers in the then flourishing film and TV industry; attendance was crucial in order for them to be seen by potential employers. "Networking was important," she says. "They had to be there drinking otherwise they wouldn't get the next job."

Hutcheson is adamant boozy repasts produced results. "The Christian religion was basically founded over a meal with a few wines," he says. "We have State banquets so people can learn to know and trust each other. And we founded HKM advertising over a lunch. I had a business that had clients without creative talent and the other guys had talent and few clients. The deal was closed at Sails. We started at 12.30 and at 7.30 they were laying the tables for dinner and we stayed on until we'd finished. We wrote the original agreement on the back of a napkin in the restaurant."


Those were the days. Hutcheson, for one, regrets that people no longer take time off for bad behaviour. "To me exercising that social interaction is at least as important as doing the due diligence. It's getting to know people."

He blames 1985's fringe benefit tax for tightening the entertainment purse strings.

"A greedy accountant in Wellington thought: 'They're having fun. Let's tax them.' They don't know about human interaction. To them it's always about dollars and a financial analysis, whereas business is all about people."

A sort of reverse showing off is also at work. It's now important to show potential clients or patrons that you are economically responsible, of a sober disposition and not a sybaritic timewaster if you want them to trust you enough to do business.

"People would be anxious if they were seen to be profligate," says Gilmour.

And there's been no shortage of external factors to wean people off their lunch habit. Many cite the 1987 stock market crash as one, although Gilmour maintains the impact wasn't felt on local hospo until a year or two later.

"And once the economic downturn came with the GFC in 2007," says Francis, "there was a big pulling back about spending money on lunches full stop."

Nor has the current state of the economy fostered an eat, drink and be merry mindset.

"I think the 30-ish somethings still try to tell themselves they are invincible," says Gilmour, "but hanging over them is a black cloud, which is what's going to happen in the housing market in Auckland. We didn't have that."

There might also have been a bit of growing up involved.

"I think we disregarded our employers in the early days," says Sorrell. "If you wanted to go out for lunch and stay out until 2am you did. You just didn't turn up for work. You wouldn't do that now."

For some it was a personal decision. "I'd been giving it a bit of a larruping," says former Colenso stalwart Dave Henderson. "I thought it was time to slow down. I still went to the lunches, but I didn't drink. You had to be firm. People said, 'Go on, Hendo, have a wine.' And I'd say, 'No, I'm off it and that was that.' But you couldn't falter."

Public relations maven Deborah Pead laments the lost art of the long lunch but also believes the change was inevitable, with technology as much to blame as the economy.

"We're all more time-poor and have to be more productive," says Pead, "but also we're more accessible. We have smartphones and have to clear emails and stay online wherever we are. Also, because we're more accessible we need to be on our game all the time. The minute you've had that one drink too many, you switch off the phone. You have to be able to deliver, and you lose respect if you can't."

She echoes Henderson's view of personal well-being and responsibility as factors. Tighter drink driving laws have also played their part and "as a society we're much more conscious about health, wellbeing and fitness. Having too many long lunches undoes all the great work we're doing in the gym maintaining our bodies."

Changing sexual politics have had as much to do with it as any decision made in Wellington political circles, according to Pead.

"There's now greater democracy in the home. There used to be a time when Dad could roll home and not be expected to pull his weight, but as women have become more emancipated and demanded joint responsibility for parenting, Dad better not do that too often, because it won't end up well."

Inevitably, this hygienic new environment has spawned products and services to meet its requirements, such as those of Christchurch-based Alcohol Drug Technology.

Co-owner Oliver St John provides drug-testing services for businesses whose workers use heavy machinery and perform other high-risk tasks. But he is increasingly supplying breath-testing equipment to professional firms worried about the workers.

"These firms don't have a no-alcohol-at-work policy," says St. John, "but they want to make sure their people don't get into trouble after Friday night drinks, especially after the lowering of the drink driving alcohol limit."

So the company breathalyser is now as much a part of some offices' equipment as the photocopier and the modem.

Hutcheson says that at his company, Image Centre Group, "We're quite careful. We have Friday night drinks and if people have had an issue with grog we've sent them home or taken it off them. We've talked about breath testing. There's certainly growing awareness and responsibility for employees."

Would that have happened in the 80s?

"Probably not," says Hutcheson, after a pause. "I don't think it would. That was one of those things where you shrugged you shoulders and let it go on."

But lunches go on - and some of them still go on into the night. Astle was delighted to announce that "just last week" he'd had a crowd in from noon until 1am," adding quickly, "They didn't drive home and they were quite quiet."

He says long lunches are still favoured by the likes of real estate developers wanting to impress clients, "but they're not monstrous. They don't get drunk but they buy top-end wines."

Astle also reports serving second-generation lunchers who have taken over the family businesses and "are not quite as irresponsible as their parents. They are also more discreet. They ask how many people are booked in because they would rather have a quiet lunch, which Antoine's is perfect for because we have separate rooms where they can't be seen. Before, they wanted to be seen."

According to Pead, today's long lunches tend to be "destination" affairs. It's not a regular thing but there's still an appetite for it." Always on top of her game, Pead apologised immediately for making that joke.

So between the never-ending lunches of yore and the destination lunches of today, we are left with coffee. Gallons of it.

"Coffee culture has developed as a ways and means of getting together, rather than going to a boardroom or a business place," says Pead.

"What's replacing the long lunch is the coffee catch-up or the express lunch. Masu does a roaring trade with an express lunch. In and out in an hour. More often we're seeing people who don't have time for lunch but can do a coffee."

Rochelle Shaw runs Bloggers Club, which "connects brands with bloggers and get products to them". Her practices typify more contemporary approaches to work and lunch, which, for her, is usually something picked up from one of the many hipster havens at Cityworks Depot, near her office, and eaten at her desk.

She says today's networking is as potent as ever but done differently, with much less distinction between work and the rest of life. Blame technology again.

"Everything has changed because you have nearly 24-hour access with everything on your phone or laptop," says Shaw.

"There's no shut-off from work. I have three kiddies and one of my little ones I had in the evening, and was still working that night from hospital. It's about passion and dedication. You can form relationships over emails at 10 at night. "

Not that Shaw has anything against interacting in real life, but "it will be coffee catch-ups. It's not having a meeting for the sake of having a meeting. You have to have a clear purpose of why you're catching up."

And there is still a place for a long lunch, albeit slightly abbreviated.

"We were doing a Melbourne Cup lunch in the afternoon. It was meant to start at 1pm, but as it got closer to the event we thought, 'That takes up half the day. We can't ask our clients and people to give up half their day.' So we started at 3pm."

- Canvas

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