The Best Meal in Town

To a large extent the booze business is in the entertainment industry with food and drink at the core. After a hard day of meetings, conflicts and difficult decisions, then and now, people in the industry go to dinner — partly for business, partly to get to know the local colleagues/adversaries and partly for the meal.

One of the senior Seagram executives was known for his love of Italian food. He was and is a real gourmet, with knowledge of pasta, sauces and the differences among regional Italian cuisines.

One day he found himself in Montgomery Alabama on a market visit. It was a long day of meetings with the trade, consumers and local Seagram people.

At the end of the day, the Seagram manager said in a southern drawl, “Mr. Smith, it’s been a long, hard day and I know how you enjoy your eye-talian food and ah’ve arranged for us to have dinnah at the best eye-talian restaurant in Montgomery.”

“Really?” said the worn-out exec. “Where are we going?”

“The best place in town…Olive Garden.”

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Charity Follow Up

A very close and dear friend from the Seagram days told me the following story about another charitable dinner event that I’d like to share…

One of the Seagram companies in the past was Four Roses and they had a metro New York manager named Nick Cotter. Nick was not only an ex-cop in NYC but he had been shot five times in a police action/raid. He nearly died and in fact was taken for dead if not for the persistence of an emergency medic.

After months and months of recovery and rehabilitation Nick was on his feet and decided on a new line of work. Four Roses hired him. Nick turned out to be very important to Seagram inasmuch as he became a conduit to the police and fire departments when things needed to get done. (More about this at another time.)

Well, as the story goes, shortly after joining the company he was at a charity dinner. But, in those days there were no pre-meeting to announce your “gift” – you were expected to announce it publicly in a ballroom with 500+ people.

As they were going down the list, someone from Schenley was called and announced, “Schenley Distillers is proud to donate one million dollars.”

Nick Carter, who didn’t know what to expect or make of this event in the first place, was called next. His colleagues were hysterical thinking that they put one over on him.

He stood up, was very calm and announced, “I donate one million and twenty-five dollars from Schenley and Nick Cotter.”

The room erupted in laughter.

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Charity

I recently learned that the Wine & Spirits Division Dinner of the UJA-Federation of NY is honoring Charlie Merinoff. It made me think of a couple of things.

First, Charlie is a good guy and one of the brightest people in the industry. The Merinoff family has been great for this business and Charlie is a real mensch. It’s an excellent cause and they can use his support. I hope the dinner raises a bundle.

I also thought about the Seagram experience with the UJA fund raising event. It wasn’t pleasant. Here goes…

I came to Seagram as the VP Marketing Research, so I started in a senior position. That was in the spring of none-of-your-business. Three months later I received a memo telling me to report to The Glenlivet Tavern on the 5th floor of 375 Park Ave. for the UJA “meeting” of the executive group. I had no idea what to make of this gathering. The folks who were on my staff said things like “Uh-ho, they are going to call you by name and expect you to announce your contribution to the annual spirits and wine fund drive for the UJA; going to cost you lots of money but don’t worry the company will match your gift.” What?

I quickly  realized that 1) this was organized extortion 2) I didn’t want to appear stingy 3) I also didn’t want to appear obsequious and 4) it was a good cause but why do I have to stand up and publically declare my gift? I later learned that it was the “tithe” that made the family look good. (Although, in fairness, I should add that the Bronfmans always made a significant contribution in their own right. But, their gift, plus the executives’ gift plus matching funds meant that the Seagram “family” would be giving enough to sustain a small developing nation for a year.)

I came to the decision that I had to do what I had to do and decided on a number that my staff had suggested. You don’t want to know how much. It was over the top.

So I was locked and loaded and ready for the “calling of names” at the meeting. Unbeknownst to me, my colleagues had been through this many times before and knew how to beat the system. They called each other beforehand and decided on the amount that would be given by each managerial level. (Hey folks, thanks for telling me!)

Since my name begins with an S, I had ample opportunity to see what my associates were giving. My planned contribution was way out of whack. I quickly made a readjustment downward.

Lessons learned: After only 3 months I realized it was us against them. I also learned that the advice you got from some was not necessarily reliable. In short, I got the lay of the land pretty quickly.

Please forgive me if the UJA is not at the top of my charitable giving list.

Blame the Bronfman’s.

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