First published in the Financial Times on 16th July 2013.
The first meal of the day offers opportunities for business and is easy to manage with the day
They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day: increasingly, the business world agrees with this axiom. I like breakfast time because it is the start of the day, when anything is still possible. A positive meeting first thing provides an optimistic opening from which to capitalise. One is still full of energy, unlike at dinner, which after 10 hours of work can seem a tiring prospect.
Even if you miss breakfast with your family, that is surely preferable to missing supper and reading bedtime stories to your children because of a work commitment.
I have other reasons to love breakfast. For the past 10 years or so it has been core to several of my businesses – Giraffe, Patisserie Valerie and Gail’s. The British have been busy discovering the joys of eating breakfast out during this period, and my companies have been a part of that revolution.
However, there are plenty of people who forcefully object to business breakfasts. As a routine, breakfast meetings require you to get up early and start work before you have even arrived at the office. Generally, they are not leisurely or boisterous affairs, unlike a business lunch or dinner. Alcohol is almost never consumed – so unless you’re still drunk from the night before, sobriety is guaranteed. Certainly, I recommend you avoid the writer Hunter S Thompson’s breakfast recipe, which ends with “ . . . six lines of the best cocaine for dessert”.
The US has always been the best place in the world to eat breakfast – hence the British band Supertramp came up with the song “Breakfast in America”. Americans have taken it seriously for more than a century. Doctor John Harvey Kellogg and his brother William built a business based on one of the cleverest foodstuffs of all time – packet cereal. The margins are huge, it keeps well, it’s instant, relatively cheap, and some is even good for you. We get hooked as children, and on average we eat almost 200 bowls a year – an example of capitalism at its most ingenious.
Inevitably, the Americans created the breakfast meeting too. It is a big affair: in the swankiest hotels of New York or Los Angeles, you see bosses packed in, feasting at power breakfasts every weekday morning from 6.30am. It appears to have been part of their commercial culture from the early days of the nation. Benjamin Franklin was a famous early riser who said: “The early morning has gold in its mouth.” I rather agree with his sentiment.
Indeed, breakfast business meetings have advantages over lunch too. They require less of a time commitment, are generally a lighter affair nutritionally and are mostly less of an expense too. Yet, as with any meal, they permit you to get to know a client, supplier, recruit or partner.
Spending an hour eating with another human is an intimate encounter and you will never be strangers again. It is a much more satisfactory way of forming an acquaintance than the starkness of drinking coffee together mid-morning in a functional office. As the historian Lord Macaulay wrote: “Dinner parties are mere rituals; but you invite a man to breakfast because you really want to see him.”
Breakfast has come into its own during the Great Recession. Cuts in corporate expense accounts mean that the modest cost of a breakfast appeals more than an elaborate meal at a grand restaurant serving expensive haute cuisine. Even those who fuss about accusations of bribery could not object to the principle of buying someone breakfast.
Of course, many people skip breakfast because they are not hungry at that hour, or as a way of eating less. They are misguided. All the health experts say that it is essential to eat well after sleeping. Otherwise you arrive at work weak and irritable. Anyway, lots of the best dishes ever invented are breakfast specials, from porridge to eggs Benedict, from bircher muesli to fresh croissants. Even the finest drinks are served at breakfast: freshly squeezed orange juice and espresso. What could be a more delicious and invigorating combination?
So the next time you want to close or celebrate a deal, I suggest you pick a special dining room for breakfast, invite your important guest, and think to yourself: now should our menu be toast and marmalade, pancakes, full English – or perhaps all of them?