The Business Lunch May Be Going Out of Business

The Business Lunch May Be Going Out of Business
The Business Lunch May Be Going Out of Business

WASHINGTON Few people understand the power lunch better than Ashok Bajaj. The restaurateur began his career here in the waning days of Ronald Reagans presidency, when he opened the Bombay Club a short walk from the White House.

Eight of the 10 restaurants he operates today are, like his first, located downtown. Theyre conveniently clustered near one another, making it easier for Mr. Bajaj to preside over multiple dining rooms, and near customers who work on Capitol Hill, at the State Department and in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building crucial sources of what Mr. Bajaj calls his lunch crowd.

Prominent members of that crowd gravitated to the Oval Room, the power-lunch magnet he ran for 26 years and closed in November 2020. Longtime regulars have resumed eating lunch at his places that are open for it, like Rasika and the Bombay Club. But its nothing like it was before Covid, he said. The energy has been sucked out of downtown.

Of all the headaches the pandemic has caused the restaurant industry, among the most persistent is the disruption of the business of doing business over lunch. It afflicts a specific, influential cohort of restaurateurs who, like Mr. Bajaj, own prestigious restaurants in the hearts of large cities that office workers have fled.

Continued uncertainty over when or if those workers will return leaves the dining rooms that catered to them without an important revenue stream at a time when the cost of doing business, particularly in dense urban areas, is spiking. At the same time, many of the diners who used to nurture relationships and close deals over midday hamachi crudo and steak frites are now making those connections in front of a computer screen at home while eating salads from takeout boxes.

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