Pancakes, Bacon, and a Side of Influence

A Memorandum on the Protocols of Power Breakfasting in the Power Breakfast Capital of the World

For all the gaffes Governor Deval Patrick has committed during his first months in office, he did get one bit of symbolism right. When he wanted to sell his bag of corporate tax changes to the business community, he knew enough to make his pitch at the appropriate forum: the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce’s monthly politics-and-policy breakfast powwow. Patrick’s presence drew a larger turnout than these events normally attract, and to accommodate the overflow crowd that showed up at the Park Plaza’s Imperial Ballroom on February 28, the hotel eschewed the buffet setup the chamber series sometimes provides in favor of table service, an approach that cut down on valuable schmoozing opportunities. But that didn’t spark too much grousing from the 800 or so heavyweights in attendance. Before his election, the new governor hadn’t really been a part of this circuit, so many in the audience were getting their first firsthand look at him. That made the event the power breakfast of the year—and in this city, that’s saying something.

In Washington, the lobbyist lunch is still famous (or infamous), and the think tanks that host a lot of the networking get-togethers tend to go for midday events. New York has its mythic power breakfast scene at the Regency Hotel on Park Avenue, but that’s an exception—in Manhattan, dealmaking is done over late dinners, or even later after-dinner drinks. Boston, by contrast, has always been a morning town, and accordingly a disproportionate amount of the rubbing of powerful elbows that happens here takes place over the a.m. meal. And beyond its unusual primacy, the very way we do the power breakfast is different, too. Boston being Boston, it’s not enough for two important people to huddle over coffee and OJ (though certainly, as we’ll see, that has its place, and occurs at a number of favored restaurants every day). Our influential citizens, following a long-standing local impulse, also like to form power breakfast clubs.

The month before Patrick spoke at the Chamber of Commerce breakfast, he addressed a far smaller, even more elite, and studiously under-the-radar collection of executives and political leaders in a downtown conference room at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. The group, which convenes under the auspices of Jobs for Mass., is one of at least five like it. As with the chamber confabs, they all feature guest speakers, but unlike those public gatherings these are all strictly invitation-only, off-the-record affairs. The idea is that without tape recorders and microphones around to capture every utterance, there’s no need to spin. And without spin, the meetings are a lot more productive for everyone involved.

It’s an arrangement that’s worked well for Kevin Phelan, the philosopher king of Boston’s power breakfast culture. His Breakfast Group, which has been getting together to talk civic affairs every two weeks or so for 30 years—long enough to merit the capital letters—counted my former boss Tom Menino as a member when the mayor was still an ambitious city councilor, and over the decades it’s been composed of and played host to the proverbial who’s who of area leaders, from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer to Senators Kennedy and Kerry. Perhaps its most striking accomplishment, though, is having spawned not one but two imitators: a group run by thirtysomethings James Skeffington Jr. and Tom Burton, of the New England Parking Company and Mintz Levin, respectively; and a second, newer collective organized in part by twentysomething real estate mogul-in-training Seth Rosen, who works under Phelan at Meredith & Grew. At first blush, it may seem odd that one city would have so many prominent citizens across such varying career stages all willing to hustle out the door extra early in order to listen to lectures and talk about Big Issues, a habit most people gladly give up when they leave college. But in fact, given local dynamics, it’s only natural that the Boston power breakfast would evolve the way it has. Nor is it really any surprise that its practitioners would rely upon their most important meal of the day as much as they do.

The proliferation of breakfast groups is, in one sense, an unstated effort to re-create the Vault, the coterie of top CEOs that for decades furtively convened to plot solutions to local problems before fizzling out in the late 1990s. But as with so many things in Boston, the trend has roots that go back quite a bit further. In The Hub: Boston Past and Present, historian Thomas O’Connor writes that as early as the 1830s, the city’s civic culture was being shaped by groups with a mission of self-betterment and a penchant for hosting talks by the luminaries of the day, as organizations such as the Boston Lyceum, the Ford Hall Forum, and the Lowell Institute invited the likes of Emerson and Thoreau to drop in on their conclaves to say a few (or more, presumably) words. O’Connor’s book makes no mention of the menu at these events, but it’s not that hard to imagine how we got from, say, debating the merits of transcendentalism over hard biscuits to debating the merits of the Romney-led healthcare reforms over organic lemon-blueberry scones.

Today, the bigwig who power-breakfasts is looking to do three things: send a message (specifically, that he’s somebody who’s somebody), make connections, and gather intel. The Hollywood producer who takes a lunch at the Ivy has the same agenda, of course. But what separates the L.A. player from his Boston equivalent is that the former will likely be more comfortable with that naked display of ambition—whereas in this puritanical city, we prefer to cloak our career-building in something more virtuous. That’s one reason why nonprofit heads are somewhat-frequent breakfast group speakers: While they get an audience with the potential donors and future board members they’re desperate to reach, the attendees get a road map for becoming involved with a cause. This isn’t to suggest the breakfast groups’ altruistic aims aren’t genuine. By every indication, they are. Rather, the point is that for members of these rarified clubs, the line between charitable activities and business activities can be blurry, if it exists at all.

And no matter how pure of heart a participant is, he does expect something in return: information. In a city of Boston’s size, where it can seem as though the people with their hands on the levers number in the low hundreds, everyone tends to find out about new developments at around the same time. So even a brief head start on an opportunity can translate into a significant edge. “It’s advance information,” says someone on the guest list for the morning salons organized by Nutter McClennen & Fish partner Bill Kennedy (which are said to be a little more laid-back than Phelan’s events). “And you get it unfiltered.”

That last word is key. Between Beacon Hill and City Hall, there are a lot of political jobs in Boston, and plenty of the decision-makers in the city’s private sector have at some point held one of them—Bill Kennedy, for example, worked as chief counsel to Tom Finneran during most of the latter’s tenure as House speaker—creating a remarkably media-savvy leadership class. Long before bloggers gave up on the mainstream press, the sort of VIPs who belong to power breakfast groups were reading the Globe and Herald with a skeptical eye, parsing news stories for signs of the reporter’s or even the section editor’s perceived biases. In fact, to carry the idea further, for participants the breakfasts themselves serve a kind of bloglike function. By attending, they get to trade scoops and analysis without journalists’ intervention.

What’s done with that information is determined, obviously, by the motives and needs of the person on the receiving end. But the options are limited by one unspoken rule: It’s not kosher to take the info and switch into full-on dealmaking mode right there in the middle of the breakfast group session. For that, you’ll want a one-on-one sit-down where—and this is important—you’ll be picking up the bill. After all, it may be acceptable to network before the guest speaker goes on, but it’s not okay to actually do business on your host’s dime.

If which breakfast group you belong to depends on who you know, where you take your personal power breakfast depends on other considerations. If, for instance, you’re a doctor, you probably don’t power-breakfast at all: The hospital community is cliquish even by Boston standards—lawyers attend meetings with lawyers from another firm or field all the time, but it’s rare for leaders from different hospitals to collaborate on something—and early morning rounds make off-site a.m. engagements unfeasible. For almost everyone else, the choice of power breakfast haunt is dictated by geography more than anything else. Along with the freedom to sit and chat without worrying about the fires you’ll inevitably need to put out when you get back to the office, one of the breakfast meeting’s chief advantages over the lunch meeting is its convenience (unless the lunch venue is on the same street as your place of business, you’re looking at tacking on up to an hour just to get there and back). So the power breakfaster has little incentive to go anywhere that can’t reasonably be incorporated into the morning commute. Partisans of the Four Seasons’ Bristol Lounge actually cite this, as much as the prestige accorded by the hotel’s brand, as a big reason for their patronage: They note that its location a few blocks from the Copley exit of the Pike makes it fairly easy to reach from the affluent western suburbs. Plus, the valet parking ensures that stowing the car isn’t a hassle. (For what it’s worth, no one I spoke with named the Taj as their power breakfast go-to, though whether this is a result of the recent ownership change or a weird byproduct of my source list, I can’t say.)

Another self-organizing factor in determining a power breakfast spot’s regulars is the old Boston tribalism. The greasy spoon Mike’s City Diner and the gourmet bakery Flour may more or less face each other across Washington Street in the South End, but rare is the loyal customer of one who’ll cross the cultural divide to hold a breakfast tête-à-tête at the other. (Interestingly, this is not the case for weekend brunch—an entirely different animal—during which you’ll find plenty of the young professionals who fill the neighborhood’s brownstones at both places.) And though Mike’s is blue-collar enough for some city pols, it’s not the first choice for truly blue-collar operators, like the chiefs of the electricians and ironworkers unions, who are proud habitués of Mul’s on West Broadway in Southie.

Then there are those power brokers who are devoted to a particular restaurant for the most old-fashioned and perhaps most honorable reason: They go there because it’s where they’ve always gone. Phil Johnston, head of the state Democratic Party, falls into this category. He started having breakfast at Parker’s in the Omni Parker House hotel—almost every day—30 years ago, and while the restaurant long ago fell out of fashion even among those much more motivated by getting things done than keeping up appearances, he’s stuck to his personal regimen. Tom O’Neill of O’Neill and Associates is similarly unwavering in his dedication to Seasons at the Millennium Bostonian Hotel, having been power-breakfasting there since 1982. It was during one such meet-up that Barbara Lynch got him to invest in No. 9 Park; another had him talking developer John Hynes into taking the plunge on the latter’s mammoth New Songdo City development in South Korea. Later this year, the Millennium Bostonian’s owners plan to shut down Seasons and convert it into a private function space, and when that happens O’Neill will be ready: He’s already got his new power breakfast venue worked out, and plans to set up camp at the InterContinental—albeit a little warily.

Indeed, once the power breakfast is part of a mover-and-shaker’s routine, it can be difficult, even scary, to imagine going without. Barry Shrage, president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies, is an inveterate practitioner known to occasionally schedule back-to-back-to-back power breakfasts. Which is all the more remarkable when you learn that his favorite power breakfast restaurant, Johnny’s Luncheonette in Newton Centre, doesn’t stock his preferred cereal.

“For 20 years, I’ve been asking for Special K,” he says, “and for 20 years, they’ve only had Wheaties.” Somehow, he’s endured. This brings us to our final lesson, if it isn’t already apparent: Whatever else it’s really about, the power breakfast is almost never about the food.