Bring back the two-martini lunch

Booze and business used to go hand in hand. Here’s why we should return to those glory days

 
Coworker and server looking shocked as woman orders a martini
(Illustration by Peter Arkle)

The offices of RL Solutions, a health-care software company in Toronto, are fairly unorthodox. There’s the Ping-Pong table and the golf simulator, but what really sets it apart is the fully functional Irish pub on the first floor. The kegs slosh with Sleeman and Mill Street, while the fridges are stocked with even more varieties of drink, not all of them alcoholic. Employees drift in and out at all hours of the workday, taking a seat at one of the 15 stools at the bar. It’s not uncommon for a staffer to grab a beer at lunch or have a job-related conversation over drinks in the afternoon. “It’s a place for staff to go and release a little bit of stress, continue the work conversation and build camaraderie,” says CEO Sanjay Malaviya, taking a sip of his first beer of the day at 4:30 on a recent afternoon.

Most people would agree booze and the workplace no longer coexist. The free-pouring Mad Men days are long over. The fabled liquid lunch was already dying out by the mid-1970s, when then presidential candidate Jimmy Carter accused big corporations of writing off “the $50 martini lunch” at the expense of the working class. Order a glass of wine over lunch with a colleague or crack open a beer in the cafeteria today and get ready for a few puzzled stares.

There are obvious consequences to drinking on the clock: A study from the Journal of Consumer Psychology found that prospective hires who ordered a glass of wine during an interview were seen as less intelligent than those who abstained—even when the interviewer was indulging in a drink. But an alcoholic beverage consumed responsibly in the course of doing business can be beneficial, creating stronger social ties among co-workers. Moreover, the martini lunch is an opportunity for managers and clients to form personal bonds and talk about issues candidly and openly at a leisurely pace, free from the tyranny of meeting agendas and daily schedules.

Some business cultures elsewhere in the world still uphold this ideal. “With Kobo, we did a lot of business in Europe,” says Michael Serbinis, the founder of the e-reader company, who’s now working on his next venture, a health and wellness firm called League. “It was all about relationships, and those relationships couldn’t have been formed without dinners together and a glass of wine.” The head of one Italian company was a particularly gregarious and social fellow. “It was like a rite of passage, and whether he would decide to do business was dependent on how the dinner would go and whether I appreciated the wine and the conversation.”

At RL Solutions, Malaviya didn’t build the bar to provide access to alcohol; rather, he says it’s an extension of the laid-back, easygoing work culture that already existed. But the bar, which locks up at 6 p.m. (there’s also a breathalyzer on site), offers work-related benefits. “Everyday problems become easier to solve, and they get discussed more often,” he says. A few days prior to our interview, two programmers were having a heated debate about an arcane software issue. They came to the bar and settled the argument over a shot of vodka.

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There’s a reason such conversations can be productive. A study in Consciousness and Cognition published in 2012 found that test subjects (all men) who reached a blood alcohol concentration of 0.075—at least three drinks for a 160-pound guy—were better at creative problem-solving than their sober peers. That’s not to say we should all come in to work liquored up, but it does suggest that having a drink during the day can be for the greater good of the company.

As for Serbinis, he’s a little uncertain about how wine will factor into the health and wellness industry he’s working in now: “Maybe we’ll be doing green juices together.”

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