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What Ever Happened to the 3 Martini Lunch?

By Mike Drummond, The Charlotte Observer, N.C.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Mar. 14, 2005 - Except for New Year's, no other holiday in the United States is more closely connected to alcohol than St. Patrick's Day.

On Thursday, bars from the Carolinas to California will push Bushmills, Guinness and green beer. In downtown Charlotte, Irish pub and restaurant Ri-Ra's will open at 8 a.m. that day -- three hours earlier than usual -- to serve Irish coffee, Baileys Irish Cream and other Emerald Isle classics.

Yet this week's celebration of Ireland's patron saint also underscores how work-time drinking customs have evolved over the past few decades. Stiffer driving-while-impaired penalties, potential workplace liability concerns, expectations of professionalism and longer work days have helped shape a social code that generally frowns on daytime imbibing.

Marylin Culp, an attorney at Littler Mendelson's Charlotte office, ate lunch at Harry and Jean's downtown last week. She was surprised to see a business duo next to her drinking -- one had wine, the other a martini.

"I can't remember the last time I saw business people having martinis at lunch," she says. "It hit me as, 'Wow." "

She recalls her early professional days in Florida, where it was common to order a highball with lunch. As in other parts of the country where she travels these days, that's no longer the case. Professions such as print journalism and advertising shed their associations with drink long ago.

The Observer maintains a zero-tolerance policy, barring any alcohol consumption while on the clock. It will -- and has -- tested employees on the premises. Having a blood-alcohol content of .04 or more is grounds for disciplinary action, including termination.

The three-martini afternooner never was a lunchtime mainstay in button-downed Charlotte, veteran working warriors say. Compared with famed drinking towns such as New Orleans or San Francisco, Charlotte has been more temperate, says Randy Phillips, an attorney with Moore & Van Allen PLLC. "At least at lunch."

Area restaurants with brisk daytime business report weak lunch-hour alcohol sales. Mimosa Grill downtown generated $3,000 from lunch receipts last Wednesday, a typical haul, says Adam Dietrich, a manager. Just $72, or 2.4 percent, of that was for alcohol. The banking crowd, however, pours in for happy hour after 5 p.m., he adds.

National consumption rates for alcohol dipped slightly between 2002 and 2003, the latest statistics available from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The agency reports that in 2003, some 146 million or 68.6 percent of the population older than 18, used alcohol that year, down from 147 million or 69.8 percent the previous year.

That hasn't stopped the alcohol industry from tempting lunch patrons. A television commercial for Samuel Adams beer depicts four male professionals at a lunch table. Two obsequious underlings order water, while a third boldly goes with the Sam. The boss says he'll have the same.

Sally Jackson, an independent public relations representative who helped Boston Beer Co. founder Jim Koch launch Samuel Adams in the 1980s, insists beer is "the beverage of moderation." (Insider's note: the Boston Beer Co. has a bar at its company headquarters.) Yet even she doesn't drink during the work day.

"It's not that I miss drinking during lunch," she says. "I miss lunch. There's no time (to eat out) anymore."

Culp, the Charlotte attorney, also notes that having even one drink during the day can impair your judgment. In medical, legal, aviation and many other professions, that can spell negligence and potential liability, if not worse.

"Besides," she adds, "This job is hard enough even with all your faculties working perfectly."


Keep it clean and sober during business lunches, workplace experts advise. Confine the business drink to off-site evening functions, and limit yourself to one or none.

--The manner in which you handle your drinking conveys impressions you sometimes can't control. Nothing will sour your reputation faster than when others hear you slurring your words or witness you in a drunken stupor.

--If no one else is drinking, don't drink.

--If you need to drive yourself home, don't drink.

--If clients insist you join them in a lunchtime drink, say, "I'm not drinking today, but you go ahead."

--Self-control and restraint are characteristics of success -- in office politics, business negotiations or personal conduct. Don't put your reputation on the line.



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Copyright (c) 2005, The Charlotte Observer, N.C.

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