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Just what the doctor ordered

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.”    

How to tap into the drug trade 

Pharmaceutical reps often buy lunches five days a week, feeding anywhere from two to 50 people. Here’s how to get a chunk of that business.

Create a list. Call pharmaceutical companies for contact info on their local reps, then send out your catering menu with a savings certificate for their first order.

Cozy up to the staff. Reps always ask medical office staff members for lunch recommendations, says Jo-Ann Thyne of New Century Medical Associates in Fishkill, New York. While chains like Panera Bread and Ruby Tuesday are frequented by their reps, a favorite at her office is the local deli. “They send over great salads with interesting, seasonal ingredients,” Thyne says. “There are two vegetarians in our office, so these are really appealing.”

Reach out to a rep. Offer loyalty/frequency programs and volume discounts on lunch orders, as well as personal tokens of thanks—such as a gift card to your restaurant.

Make the rep look good. Reps are looking for lunches that will set them apart from the other guy. Don’t be greedy. Entertaining budgets are more limited than in the past and reps like to scope out good deals.

You gotta have leave-behinds. Medical offices tend to keep a stash of menus on hand as well as smaller, more visible premiums. Magnets, tissue packs, wrapped mints and toothpicks with logos and phone numbers all do double-duty.

Buy an ad. Pharmaceutical Representative is a must-read industry trade publication. Some restaurants target reps through print ads; others, like Boston Market, place banner ads on the magazine’s website, www.pharmrep.com.

Make it painless. “The biggest hurdle is to pick up the food on my tight schedule,” says one rep, adding that the restaurants she patronizes must “go above and beyond, offering free delivery and other services.”                 

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