You can't take the pulse of an email.
That's why at 6:30 weekday mornings, business consultant Paul Tonna can be found in his usual booth, facing the entrance of the Sweet Hollow Diner in Melville, for the first of two or even three breakfast meetings.
"I think what's sorely lacking today from technology -- texts and emails -- is context," said Tonna, the former presiding officer of the Suffolk County Legislature. "It's nonverbal . . . even with the adroit use of emoticons," such as typed representations of smiles or frowns.
Tonna is not alone. In an age of cybercommunication, Long Island's movers and shakers still are plotting strategy, cutting deals and nurturing personal connections as they break bread. They're doing it at places such as the Sweet Hollow Diner, Giulio Cesare Ristorante in Westbury and Blackstone Steakhouse in Melville.
"Long Island has been built on writing on a paper napkin in a diner," said Michael DeLuise, president of the Melville Chamber of Commerce. "I've watched people write on a piece of paper and see it become reality . . . I think that's part of the culture of Long Island."
For Michael Dowling, chief executive of North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System, restaurants provide a welcome contrast from the office.
"I'm a big believer in face-to-face communication," said Dowling, who heads New York State's largest private employer with 48,650 full- and part-time workers, according to the Center for Governmental Research. "It's also important to get people out of their place of day-to-day employment. When you're sitting over a cup of coffee and scrambled eggs, people" relax a bit.
"You may think you have a problem, [but] the problem kind of disappears when you talk it through," Dowling said. "But you have to do it outside the office."
A meal can spawn new projects. Dowling hatched plans for the Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine over a February 2007 breakfast at the Garden City Hotel with Hofstra University president Stuart Rabinowitz. A second breakfast there sealed the deal, Dowling said. "We basically walked away from the second breakfast and said, 'Let's go do it.' " The school opened in 2011.
Business hot spots also can be listening posts. Years before the 1994 merger of Bethpage-based Grumman Corp. with Northrop Corp., DeLuise said he was at the Inn at Fox Hollow, a hotel and catering complex in Woodbury, when he heard that the Grumman family was seeking an exit from the company.
A business people magnetWhat makes a restaurant a magnet for business people?
Location, by all accounts, is vital. The business breakfast rush at Sweet Hollow, which has an expansive menu and is located on Route 110 near the border of Nassau and Suffolk counties, can be so hectic that about six months ago frequent patron Kenneth Cerini, managing partner of accounting firm Cerini & Associates in Bohemia, began a meeting with the wrong person.
"I couldn't remember who I was meeting with, and he couldn't remember who he was meeting with," Cerini said.
About 350 yards north of Sweet Hollow is Frederick's, a 3-decades-old Melville business mainstay with a $24.95 prix-fixe lunch menu that includes dessert. One mile south of the diner is Jewel, restaurateur Tom Schaudel's new American eatery, whose crowd can range from TV personality Bill O'Reilly to Long Island Association president Kevin Law.
Schaudel, whose culinary memoir is titled "Playing With Fire: Whining & Dining on the Gold Coast," said business people demand inviting decor, prompt service and flexible price points.
"People have to get out of there in a finite amount of time," he said. "You have to be pretty price conscious. Jewel is the kind of place where if you want to spend a lot of money, you can do that. You can also order a pizza and salad and get out without making a mortgage payment."
Sitting near Jewel's tiled waterfall and marble bar is a crowd that -- as with most other restaurants catering to a business clientele -- is more male than female.
The reason is simple, said Dorothy "Dottie" Herman, chief executive of real estate company Douglas Elliman: Men are hungrier.
"The successful men I know . . . they don't miss a meal," she said, while women "don't want to eat that much."
Herman takes clients and prospects to classic spots such as Cipollini, a trattoria and bar at the Americana Manhasset shopping center, or Luigi Q, an old-school Italian restaurant in Hicksville, to forge a bond.
"Deals are more effective when people like each other," she said. "Not everything is numbers. Deals are also relationships."
To that end, Herman often will call ahead to ensure a welcome.
"I'll say I'm bringing people important to me," Herman said. "When you're with clients, you want them to have that personal treatment. The owner will make that a special experience. That's part of the deal."
Major deals, major mealsMajor deals warrant major meals, said Hilary Topper, chief executive of HJMT Public Relations in Melville. Topper said her "go-to" restaurant after clinching a big win for her agency is carnivore paradise Blackstone Steakhouse.
Though Northern Italian dining spot Giulio Cesare Ristorante is a longtime haunt of business and political heavyweights, including Alfonse D'Amato, the former U.S. senator and founder of lobbying firm Park Strategies, some see younger business leaders veering toward more casual options.
Jeffrey Bass, owner of Great Neck-based consultancy Executive Strategies Group, said that many in the new generation prefer places such as Starbucks and Panera Bread. One attraction: Wi-Fi service for demonstrating ideas on laptops or tablets.
Technology has its place, said Sharon Davis-Edwards, chief executive of Freeport-based employee benefits firm S.J.Edwards Inc., but the essential point is to maintain eye contact.
"My clients and my business associates become my family," said Davis-Edwards, who frequents the recently renovated Imperial Diner in Freeport and finds the sweet potato casserole at Ruth's Chris Steak House in Garden City nearly irresistible.
"It's what business is all about these days," she said. "Nothing beats a smile, and you can't see a smile through email."