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Everyone knows there's no such things as a free lunch. Except when there is. Should you be offering a free lunch?
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Maybe There Should Be a Free Lunch

We Americans are a deeply cynical bunch, and “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” is deeply ingrained in our financial DNA. But maybe there should be a free lunch, and maybe thinking about how and where to offer a free lunch can help you build your business.

Plenty of companies offer their employees a literal free lunch. I’ve visited Google’s office in Kirkland, Washington, just north of Seattle, and seen the basketball courts, the rock-climbing wall, and the bustling cafeteria with the customize-your-own ramen bar. It’s a beautiful thing, and lunch is actually delicious.

Of course, serving an employee lunch, which can’t cost Google more than the equivalent of a few minutes of that employee’s time, isn’t a selfless gesture. It keeps them on-site, close to their desks, and avoids wasting time commuting to and from the nearest Wendy’s (or, more likely, Sweetgreen). Keeping staff together for lunch means they never really disconnect from work, either. All of that helps put more money in shareholders’ pockets – and since the employees are some of the biggest shareholders, they’re perfectly happy with the bargain.

Ben & Jerry’s lets employees take home three free pints of ice cream for each day they work. (Exactly what you’d expect from a couple of Vermont hippies, right?) That’s $15 worth of creamy goodness for those of us paying retail at our neighborhood Target, although certainly less to the company. Employees report that only newbies actually take home that much – they quickly find themselves needing to work off the “Ben ten” and slow it down.

And those of us who know the financial services business are familiar with the “free dinner seminar” offer. This model trades dinner at a blandly anonymous steakhouse like Ruth’s Chris in exchange for the chance to talk for 45 minutes or an hour to grab an appointment. It works, too, or it wouldn’t have gotten so popular, although it appears to be falling out of favor.

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But sometimes, free lunch really is a little more altruistic. Brunello Cucinelli is a billionaire fashionista located in Solomeo, Italy, overlooking the Umbrian countryside. Every day at 1PM, he invites his staff of hundreds to the cafeteria for a 90-minute lunch including three courses of locally-sourced food and wine. It’s not free . . . but at €3, it might as well be. Cucinelli sends his people home at 5:30 and turns the power off. He also doesn’t allow after-hours emails. Oh, and he pays them 20% more than similarly-situated Italians and contributes 20% of pretax profits to his nonprofit foundation.

Now, that sort of benevolence isn’t for everyone. But they’ve made Cucinelli a fashion powerhouse, despite prices starting at $1000 for sweaters and $3,000 or more for blazers and coats. The New York Times says, “Brunello Cucinelli’s clothes can make you a better man. Provide you’re very, very rich.” (I’m delighted to report that I own two of his amazing cashmere sweaters, and happy to reassure you that I didn’t pay full retail for either of them.)

So, how about you? When can offering a free lunch be in your best interest?

For starters, take a lesson from the companies (and TMN members) already doing it. If you’ve got a staff, pick a day or two per week to test it with them, especially during tax season. Make it nice – don’t just cheap out at Subway (blechh) for a 6-foot sandwich (ick) and bag of oversalted chips (ick) and yesterday’s two-liter bottle of flat soda (killing me) and call it a day. Brunello Cucinelli pays three authentic nonnas to cook the lunch and serve it on real china, with linen tableware and crystal stemware. (His 4-piece napkin sets start at $780.)

Beyond employees, what sort of “free lunch” can you give clients? What extraordinary value can you deliver that cynics wouldn’t expect? But how can you make the experience of doing business with you more pleasant – or even unexpectedly delightful? What little touches can you introduce to set yourself apart from the stereotypical penny-pinching accountant that thinks saving money on office snacks is more important than making a great first impression?

Can you tell I was hungry when I sat down to write today’s Briefs?

Members: Next month’s TMN Book Club selection is Who Not How, by Dan Sullivan and Dr. Benjamin Hardy. The book helps you identify when to stop asking “How can I do this” and start asking “Who can do it for me?”

The Briefs is a weekly column on marketing and business planning for tax professionals and financial advisors looking to better serve clients and grow their business. 

Edward Lyon

Edward Lyon

Edward A. Lyon is CEO of the Tax Master Network, where he's coached tax professionals to add planning and financial services to their business since 2005. Go here to join the network. Go here to upgrade your membership or discuss opportunities in financial services.
Edward Lyon

Edward Lyon

Edward A. Lyon is CEO of the Tax Master Network, where he's coached tax professionals to add planning and financial services to their business since 2005. Go here to join the network. Go here to upgrade your membership or discuss opportunities in financial services.

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