Restaurant lunch finding strong competition

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 25th July 2008

Packed lunch

As time-pressed workers try to cut costs and eat healthier, carried lunches are becoming increasingly popular in the American workplace, according to a new study from The NPD Group – a leading market research company. NPD reports that the rise in lunches carried from home is contributing to the softening of the mid-day meal business at commercial restaurants.

According to the NPD study, entitled, “How Brown-Bagging Is Affecting Foodservice Lunch”, weekday lunches carried from home reached a new high point in 2007, increasing from 35 bagged lunches per capita in 2006 to 38 in 2007, which translates to 8.5 billion brown bag lunches a year for adults, 18 and over. Adult males carry brown-bagged weekday lunches most frequently, but adult females have driven gains over the last few years. White collar professionals with mid- to high-incomes tend to have the greatest interest in carrying their weekday lunch from home. The most frequent “brown-baggers” pack their lunch an average of three times per week.

“There are a number of factors adversely affecting the mid-day meal business at restaurants, and brown-bagging is one of them,” says Harry Balzer, vice president, The NPD Group, and author of ‘Eating Patterns in America’. “Certainly the economy, growing unemployment, slow-down in number of women entering the workforce, more telecommuting options, and the erosion of disposable personal income are also influencing consumers’ lunchtime behaviors.”

Among consumers who typically visit restaurants for their weekday lunch, nearly half said they were visiting less often, a pattern that applies to quick service and full-service restaurants. NPD reports that the declines in foodservice weekday lunch are largely the result of fewer meals being ordered from both commercial and non-commercial outlets (e.g., workplace cafeterias) to take back and eat at the workplace.

Consumers cite financial concerns as the top reason for carrying their lunch from home more often, with health and nutrition ranked second, according to the NPD “brown-bagging” study. Other reasons include convenience, taste, diet, quality and environmental concerns.

“Consumers are definitely in a cost-cutting mode,” says Balzer. “And, make no mistake about it, making lunch at home and carrying it to work saves money. In addition, consumers can control what and how much of it is in the bag.”

“Brown-baggers” report that financial reasons are behind why they no longer visit or have cutback on visiting casual dining, midscale and fast casual restaurants. They also suggest that health and nutrition concerns are why they are cutting back on visits to convenience stores and fast food restaurants. “Consumers haven’t wanted to invest a lot of time, money or energy into lunch, which is why, historically, fast food restaurants have been so successful,” says Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst and author of the report. “The QSR (Quick Service Restaurant) segment is heavily dependent on lunch, typically capturing nearly 80% of the total lunch business, and it’s this segment that brown-bagging most negatively impacts.”

Ms Riggs points out that even if the economy improves and consumers begin to feel more financially stable, there are longer-term behavioral shifts restaurants need to address in order to compete with the home-made lunch. “A major challenge for foodservice operators is to overcome the perception that ‘what’s in the bag’ is better, fresher than that ordered from a restaurant,” she says. “Restaurants need to offer variety and healthier/lighter menu options at a fair price point, and the food needs to taste great too.”

Reasons for bringing lunch from home, according to the survey:

Financial: 93%

Health/Nutrition: 68%

Convenience: 64%

Taste: 58%

Diet: 50%

Quality: 49%

Environment: 38%