Hunger Games

Greg Dawson never falls for financial seminars—unless a steak is at stake.

There is no such thing as a free lunch.

I must have said it a thousand times in my years as consumer columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. I kept saying it because people kept violating this cardinal rule, learning the hard way that only your mother will give you something for nothing, including lunch.

Though I’m living proof of P.T. Barnum’s belief that a sucker is born every minute, a “free lunch” is, amazingly, the one bright, shiny object I have steadfastly resisted, unblinking as a Buckingham Palace guard. Until now.

It was the double-cut filet mignon that made me blink. A round, two-inch-thick hunk o’ beef cooked to pink perfection. Actually, it was a photo of said meat, at the top of a bulk-mail letter. Next to it the hook: “Join us for a complimentary meal. The honor of your presence is requested.”

Said the spider to the fly.

 “Don’t mind if I do,” said the fly.

It’s not like I hadn’t seen and dodged this web many times before. Every few months I get a letter offering me a free lunch if I sit through a presentation on how to “AVOID THE ANNUITY TAX TRAP!!” or some other imminent financial apocalypse. And every time, I toss it in the trash without a second glance.

My mistake this time was taking a second glance at the filet, so plump and succulent I could taste it—except I refuse to pay $45 for a piece of meat the size of my fist. Here was my chance! With carnivorous longing and opportunity merging to form a perfect storm, the caveman caved.

“Hey, let’s do this,” I said to Candy. “Free lunch in a classy place. No obligation—just tune out the sales pitch. Be fun.”

It was the sort of upscale steakhouse that charges $11 for a side order of steamed broccoli. The dining room had dark wood paneling and paintings of polo ponies and tennis players. Scattered at white-linened tables were more than two dozen free-lunchers from our demographic. It looked like pre-boarding for an AARP cruise to the Bahamas.

At our table was Marty, a Korean War vet in a green-striped polo shirt with a Bay Hill logo and a country-club tan to match. Marty radiated vigor and prosperity. He was with his wife, a former teacher and Realtor, and a woman friend of theirs. 

They’d all done other free-lunch seminars but had never changed their investment strategies as a result. “We’re very conservative,” Marty said, “so we want a safe return on principal.”

Marty said his son is a bank president in Virginia and tells him everything he needs to know about investments. So it wasn’t likely he was making any changes at this point. Ditto their friend. So why come?

“It’s always nice to get more information,” she said.

Especially if it comes with a free meal. Our hosts, father-and-son financial planners, were not dummies. No food before we listened to their spiel. There were three entrees to choose from: chicken, salmon and a rib eye steak. I ordered the rib eye.

We then sipped water as Joe Sr. Power-Pointed us through a gloomy gauntlet of economic collapse, mounting inflation, IRS Rule 7702, and reminders of our mortality.

“How many of you plan to be on the planet in 10 years?” he said. “Every hand should go up!”

None did. I think we were too weak from hunger to raise our hands. Finally, Joe wrapped up the pitch for his tax-free plan, and lunch was served.

My rib eye in garlic butter was a thin, flat piece of meat, delicious but a downgrade from my fantasy—as if a steamroller had run over the filet on the invitation. The Caesar salad and mashed potatoes were excellent, and the chocolate mousse was to die for.

Afterward, Joe Jr. came around with information packets for anyone interested in a private consultation. I was ready. This is where I say “ta-da!” and thanks for the free lunch.

“We understand some people are here just for the food,” Joe Jr. said, watching me scrape the bottom of the mousse dish.

I asked Marty if he had heard anything in the sales pitch to change his mind about his portfolio.

“Zip,” he said, waving off the packet. Marty never takes a packet. He is a free-lunching god, my something-for-nothing role model.

Yet somehow I still left with a packet. 

I think they put something in my mousse. 

Categories: Column