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Confessions of a Professional Plate-Licker

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Earl BronsteenEarl Bronsteen had a rather unique New Year’s resolution in 2010. He planned to do something many thought impossible, even unthinkable. He set out to eat 50 free lunches at financial seminars. That’s right, Bronsteen became public enemy No. 1 to some financial advisors. He became that thing that causes many in the seminar business to lose their lunch. For one year, Earl Bronsteen was a professional plate licker.

When I caught up with the 86-year-old Bronsteen an obvious question came to mind: “Did you gain any weight?”

The question got Bronsteen laughing. “No. The meals all balanced out. For every dinner of filet mignon, I had a couple of soggy tuna salad sandwiches.” In other words, not all seminar meals are created equally.

I tracked Bronstreen down in his Florida home for this interview where he was pondering his next book project. A trek to Mt. Everest is one idea he returns to, but current health limitations put that one on the backburner. For now, the Brooklyn-born, Yale-educated Bronsteen is content digesting his year of the seminar. He’s written a book titled, “The Adventures of a Free Lunch Junkie.”

The project came about after Bronsteen received a mailer to attend a reverse mortgage seminar at The Cheesecake Factory. “The food is to die for there,” he tells me. And, although he didn’t need or want a reverse mortgage he was looking for a new book idea. After retiring from his career as a business executive, he’d written his first book, “Contemporary Art Appreciation 101,” which is held in leading libraries, including The New York Public Library and The Library of Congress, among others.

So, he decided to give the free lunch gig a shot, thinking this could lead to a book. After all, there is “nothing cheaper than a free lunch,” he says. As he developed the book, he knew the tone he wanted to take: “I didn’t want to write an expose. I wrote it as a satire.”

Instead of stepping into this project with a “gotcha” attitude to uncover potential “bad practices” of advisors, Bronsteen went for the funny bone. You see this in one of my favorite chapters, “Seniors Advised to Spit Out Free Lunch.”

As Bronsteen writes: “AARP and the North American Securities Administration Association issued a report, ‘Protecting Older Investors: 2009 Free Lunch Seminar Report,’ which details that six million Americans age fifty-five or older attended a free lunch or dinner investment seminar over the past three years. I felt depressed when I read the report, because it meant I missed out on at least 5,999,992 free lunches.”

These are the kind of nuggets Bronsteen sprinkles throughout the book. Instead of complaining about unsuitable practices, he writes: “What strikes me as particularly distressing about this extensive report is that there isn’t one word about either the poor quality of the food or the undersized portions that some of these sponsors try to pass off as lunch or dinner.”

While his family supported the idea for the book not everyone was on board to attend the seminars with him. “My wife didn’t like the idea of mooching. She only went to one event and then never went back,” he says.

This idea of a “free lunch” carried an interesting dynamic in the wealthy Florida suburb where Bronsteen lives.

“It puzzled me why there weren’t more people at these seminars. There were very few people at some of the meetings. I couldn’t understand why until it finally hit me. I have a feeling that people who have real money, the millionaires, are embarrassed to go to a free lunch. The people in my community who have real money are either already taken care of or are too proud to attend.”

Although Bronsteen set out to write his satire about eating free food, one seminar he attended on health care struck a nerve. “I wound up taking out a long-term care policy for my wife. That particular (topic) made sense to me. We’re both seniors. All you need to do is look around at all the people needing healthcare, and, with healthcare being so expensive, this one just made sense.”

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