If you have a positive impression of the company, are already working with them, or are intending to do so in the near future, having lunch or dinner with the company owner and his senior managers could be a great way to cement your relationship with them.
Bear in mind that business lunches and dinners in China are more than mere entertainment. Lunch or dinner is a place where business is discussed, but it is typically secondary to the enjoyment of the meal and getting to know each other.
I have found that these meals have a way of slowing things down and helping to decompress from a busy day of work in the factory. A lunch or dinner with the supplier/factory management can often distill what really happened that day, as well as what needs to happen later in your relationship. A lot of times, you may learn business details at lunch or dinner that you never find out at the supplier/factory office.
It is a place where you can measure each other in a different way. Often, for example, you may meet new people who are friends of the factory owner or relatives running other factories that are an important part of the local area’s production network of suppliers. These side meetings may prove useful later.
Remember your hosts are probably just as worried as you are about doing something discourteous. If you are at ease during lunch or dinner, it will go a long way toward helping your host become more comfortable too.
Whether you are just getting acquainted, working together on a production run, or celebrating an achievement, building a deeper personal bond at lunch or dinner will always benefit you and your business associates.
Depending on the region of the country you are in, and how formal the lunch or dinner arrangements are, you will find considerable variation in what is expected during the meal. Still, you can expect a few common formalities and courtesies that are commonly observed.
When at a restaurant, you will often find yourself in a private dining room and you will not be seated in the general serving area. This is a show of respect for you as a guest.
As a guest, you may be asked to sit prominently at the table in the so-called “seat of honor”. Usually, this seat is facing the door of the dining room. Your back will be to the wall or window of the room as a show of courtesy and respect.
You might notice that one of the napkins is folded differently than the others; this designates who is paying for the dinner. Napkins are typically placed beneath your plate and then draped onto your lap from the table.
Generally, the courses are: cold dishes, followed by hot soups, vegetables, and meat/fish dishes. Next, comes rice or noodles if more food is desired. Finally, a fruit selection might be served at the end of the meal. As the guest, everyone will be waiting for you to taste something at the start of each course before others begin, so do not be shy.
It is more polite to try a little bit of everything, even in small portions. If you find something you do not like, just leave it on your plate and move on to what you do like. You get extra points for trying more adventurous tastes when dining out, and typically there are more good surprises than bad.
Toasting with drinks can be a random free-for–all at times. Or it can be a very formal circle of toasting where the guest toasts everyone at the table individually. You do this by working around the table, alternately from right to left. Toasting may also move around the table when you are toasted by your host and then a short time later you will toast that person back before moving to the next person.
After the toast, especially if you have finished your drink, you may see your host gesturing towards you holding the empty glass with both hands; you should do the same back as a way of ending the toast.
Group toasting is often done by simply clinking your glass on the table and then raising it with both hands in a toasting gesture.
Beware however of the Chinese toast “Gan Bei” which means bottoms up. In Hong Kong but also in China they often use Cognac for this. The more expensive the better and you have to be really careful to maintain self control.
Regardless of where you find yourself in China, lunch or dinner should be fun and a chance to relax for a few minutes from the cares of the day. More often than not, it is one of the best places to build the foundations for your relationship with the factory.
From my own experience I would like to offer you an alternative to an outside lunch or dinner if you are short on time. Instead of spending time on a two hour lunch in a nice hotel restaurant, only to run out of time later, you may want to consider asking your host to arrange some fast food from a nearby McDonald’s or Burger King. I did that many times during my business trips and managed to finish my schedule on time and allowing me to catch the last ferry home.