Let's Do Lunch

If red roses and chocolates are not in the Valentine’s Day cards this year, fear not. While the Harvard dating
By Angela M. Salvucci

If red roses and chocolates are not in the Valentine’s Day cards this year, fear not. While the Harvard dating scene is decidedly lame, life won’t always be this way, at least not if the modern-day yentas at It’s Just Lunch have anything to do about it.

“There’s a lid for every pot,” says Daniel G. Dolan, Harvard Law grad (class of 1987) and CEO of It’s Just Lunch, a rapidly expanding dating service for busy professionals. If the company isn’t already in your post-graduation city of residence, it likely will be—nearly 50 franchises are located in most major cities across the country, with new offices opening in Harvard-grad hot spots Boston and San Francisco this spring.

Dolan, who was a teaching fellow for Ec 10 in the Larry Lindsey era, didn’t see much romantic action in his HLS days. “Harvard Law is one of those places that you have very mixed emotions about,” he says. “When I was there, some people were into studying; most people were not. I have some good friends that I met in law school, but I don’t think Harvard Law is the most conducive arrangement for romance.”

While working at a large corporate law firm, Dolan finally found romance— with the help of It’s Just Lunch. He married its founder, Andrea McGinty.

“I read the first article ever about It’s Just Lunch in Crain’s Chicago Business,” Dolan says. “Andrea had just founded it, and I thought, ‘God, she sounds like someone who’d be perfect for me.’” He continued to think about McGinty, and discuss her with friends, for two years. “My friends said ‘Dolan, either meet her or shut up!’” he says.

During some time off after a very long stretch of working 100-hour-plus weeks, he decided to finally try to meet her. “Since I didn’t know anyone who knew Andrea, I called and went in for an appointment. It was really just an excuse to meet her,” he says. Within two weeks the pair went on their first date, McGinty returned Dolan’s It’s Just Lunch registration fee, and less than four months later they were married.

Little by little, Dolan became involved with the business as it expanded, absorbing other services and opening new branches. He left his position as a partner at Winston Strawn in Chicago to head up the dating service, which has been featured on the Today Show, 20/20 and CNN, and has an annual revenue of over $20 million. Dolan says that now he probably spends more time playing golf than he does in the office.

Dolan uses sports analogies and the model of supply and demand to describe the tremendous growth and success It’s Just Lunch has experienced.

“I use this analogy: this industry is a lot like personal trainers at the gym,” he says. “Twenty to 25 years ago, if you walked in with a personal trainer, you would have been laughed out of the gym. Now it’s a status symbol. It means you are really serious about working out.” Use It’s Just Lunch as a personal trainer for your romantic life, Dolan says, and it shows “you’re serious about finding someone.”

“We live in a world where no one does anything for themselves anymore,” he says. The average It’s Just Lunch client is around 35 (client ages typically range from 28-48), makes a six-figure salary and has a graduate degree. “They hire us to find and arrange their dates for them, just like the personal trainer or the dry cleaner,” Dolan says.

If it’s a world where no one does anything for themselves anymore, it’s also a world where everything people still do happens online. But Dolan says the growth of Internet dating services doesn’t threaten It’s Just Lunch’s business at all.

“The Internet is like training wheels or the wading pool,” says Dolan. “I don’t look at them as competition because they aren’t competition for us. I think any non-traditional ways of meeting people are good—just like the fact that there’s a lot of gyms is good. It means that people are concerned about their fitness.”

If anything, the hassle of online dating sites encourages clients to use It’s Just Lunch.

“People who use Internet dating services are thinking about being proactive,” according to Dolan. “It’s like dipping your toe in the water. Then they say, ‘Now, I’m ready to get serious.’ The reasons why people come to us are because these sites take up a lot of time—it’s like having a second full time job—and that they are successful professionals who don’t want their picture put up for the world to see,” says Dolan.

Each client fills out extensive forms and is interviewed for 45 minutes to an hour by It’s Just Lunch directors. For $1000 to $1500 a year, they are guaranteed at least sixteen first dates with hand-picked potential love matches. It’s Just Lunch arranges for two people to meet at one of their city’s select locations, with the stipulation that the check will be split (according to Dolan, though, men most often pay the bill).

“The key about matching is that everybody has two or three things they really care about,” he says. “All the rest of it, they can kind of deal with. Some people care about looks, and that’s fine. For some people, it’s education.”

According to Dolan, with enough dates (sometimes as many as 25 in a year), It’s Just Lunch can usually find a suitable match for someone in their city’s client base.

So why just lunch? Actually, It’s Just Lunch also sends people out for a drink, but the It’s Just Lunch philosophy is that first-date dinner dates can be boring and awkward and are, in fact, unnecessary.

“The reason you go out on a first date is to decide if you like a person sufficiently to go out on a second date. You can tell that in an hour,” Dolan says. After lunch, the possibility of a future meeting is up to the couple on the date. They can exchange numbers if the conversation was as spicy as the mango shrimp curry or jet back to work for “an important meeting” if the best part of the date was when the check came.

After an It’s Just Lunch date, clients talk to the directors to tell them what was great about the date or what went wrong. Directors use this feedback to determine exactly what a client is looking for. If a woman was happy that her date was tall, handsome and enjoys some of the same water sports as she does but was just a little too quiet, the director will pick a slightly more outgoing good-looking water-skier for the next date.

Ultimately, though, a love match depends on the chemistry between two people. “Nobody can predict whether you will look into each other’s eyes and fall in love,” says Dolan.

Dolan’s advice for Valentine’s Day singletons is to get in the game. “Be proactive,” says Dolan. “That’s it, you have got to get out there. Tell yourself that at this time next year, you’ll have a Valentine’s Day date. That should be your February resolution.”