As any frequent traveler will tell you, there comes a point when all the rental cars, airline seats, hotel rooms, and even cities start to blur together. Sure, business travel can take us to exciting new destinations, but it can also—and frequently does—take us to cookie-cutter suburban office parks and nondescript hotels.
For me, the solution to breaking up the monotony is to find good meals. Food can be very comforting, and restaurants often provide a chance to (pardon the pun) get a taste for local culture.
One of my most memorable business trip meals came a few years ago in western Minnesota, near the South Dakota border. I was spending one night in a tiny prairie town surrounded by corn and soybean fields. Population: 740. Dining options: far fewer.
Luckily, as I finished my reporting for the day, I asked one of the local farmers for some restaurant suggestions. He started to mention a chain many miles down the highway. I interrupted and rephrased my question: Where do you like to go out?
Soon I found myself driving down a bumpy dirt road surrounded by cornstalks looking for a gray shack. The farmer had warned me that a neon beer sign in the window would be my only clue that this was a restaurant.
I parked my rental car next to a row of pickup trucks and figured that, at the very least, I would have a good story to tell.
The place was packed. Everybody knew each other, so as soon as I walked in, heads turned, conversations stopped, and every eye was on me. If this were a movie, the only thing missing would be the record player coming to a screeching halt.
I grabbed an empty stool at the bar, said hi to the bartender, and mentioned the farmer who recommended the spot. The couple next to me were extremely friendly and fun to chat with—they made me forget that I was 1,100 miles from home. And soon I was chomping down on an amazing steak that came with a salad, potato, and a beer. It cost just under $20—and that was after a 20 percent tip.
That great meal and experience happened because I asked for non-chain-restaurant suggestions. Yet all too often we don’t ask and simply go with what we know.
And what happens as a result? I recently stumbled across a report from Certify, a provider of expense management and travel booking software, highlighting the most frequent restaurants expensed by travelers. The results shouldn’t have surprised me, but they did.
The top 10 restaurants: Starbucks, McDonald’s, Subway, HMS Host (a company known by any road warrior for its many airport and highway rest-stop restaurants), Panera Bread, Dunkin’ Donuts, Wendy’s, Chick-fil-A, Applebee’s, and Burger King.
Personally, chain restaurants don’t excite me. They have their time and place but aren’t usually my first choice. Their giant reach is why they top this list of most-expensed meals. But I doubt they’re at the top of any frequent traveler’s culinary wish list.
Granted, we often don’t have time to stop and search for great spots. I’ve grabbed all too many meals at airport fast-food establishments while racing from one gate to another. But when we do have time, remember to try and make the meals memorable—or at least to choose something that doesn’t blur together with the past five dishes.
Ask your business contacts for advice. Get on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets, and ask people’s advice. And reach out to your friends. When I had one night in Las Vegas as part of a business trip a few years ago, I contacted an old college friend who lived in town; she and her husband invited me over for an amazing home-cooked meal. Isn’t that every road warrior’s dream?
But if you’re forced to dine alone, do some research online first. Check out Yelp, TripAdvisor, Urbanspoon, Zagat, and Chefs Feed. Then eat at the bar. It’s not as lonely as an isolated table, service tends to be quicker, and you might meet somebody interesting. And ask the bartender for a pint of his or her favorite local craft beer—you’ll be amazed at how many towns are now brewing their own beers.
Bottom line: take a chance. So what if one meal isn’t great? The potential rewards outweigh the risks of a bland meal.
Of course, sometimes—despite our best efforts—the road wins. This spring, I took a 6 a.m. flight from New York to Chicago, had meetings downtown all day, and then flew on to Iowa that afternoon. I did my research and had two restaurants in mind. At check-in, I asked the front desk clerk for suggestions. He named one of my two choices. I thought I was all set.
But somewhere between dropping off my suitcase in my room and getting back to my rental car, I realized how exhausted I was after 14 hours on the go. I ignored all my planning and ended up at the Wendy’s across the street.