Big pharma reps spend a bundle on catered lunches—and restaurants get in on the action.
A routine visit to his doctor triggered a huge jump in lunch sales for Howard Felixbrod, founder and CEO of Blue Moon Mexican Cafes. “I was sitting in the waiting room and in walked these platters of food, carried by a salesman from a pharmaceutical company,” Felixbrod recalls. When the receptionist informed him that the office got treated to lunch nearly every day, he thought, “We can do that.” He immediately told the sales rep about Blue Moon’s menu, that rep told another rep and four years later, Felixbrod claims, Blue Moon is doing $1 million extra in lunch business.
Drug company reps eager to get their products into doctors’ hands are increasingly wooing medical offices and hospitals with free lunches. While the practice isn’t new, it has accelerated since 2002, when the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America adopted a new code of ethics. Fancy dinners, golf outings and concert tickets are pretty much taboo, but it’s acceptable for sales reps to feed health professionals meals that are “modest” by local standards and accompanied by an educational session. Lunch falls into this category.
When reps compete with each other to provide the best lunches, local restaurants can win, as Felixbrod discovered. As a follow-up marketing strategy, Blue Moon managers showed up at area medical offices with free chips and salsa and copies of the menu. Once the business took off, Felixbrod developed a special pharmaceutical catering menu (the fajita lunch is the best seller) and a centralized system to manage logistics.
The reps call a phone number at Blue Moon corporate, where two employees do nothing but handle lunch orders every day from nine to noon. The order is then fulfilled and delivered by the store closest to the medical office—there are currently five Blue Moon locations in New Jersey and New York. Credit card info and medical building addresses are in the computer’s database to speed and simplify service. “Everyone wants their orders at the same time—between 11:30 and 12:30—and we can’t be late,” says Felixbrod. “That makes the reps look bad.”
Blue Moon is expanding through franchising and recently signed its first agreement. “We plan to offer this centralized system to our franchisees, too,” Felixbrod says. “It’s a great selling point.”