The death of lunch

America has turned lunchtime into errand or work time. 'People are expected to produce so much that they forget to live,' one restaurateur laments.

By MSN Money Partner May 5, 2014 2:03PM
Image: Office worker © Digital Vision, Getty ImagesBy Charles Passy, MarketWatch

Forget the fact that she comes from a country where a leisurely lunch is considered a cultural birthright. 

These days, when Marianne Fabre-Lanvin, a native of France now living in New York, heads out for her midday "meal," she’s more likely thinking in terms of a haircut, facial or manicure -- or better yet, all three -- than steak frites and a glass of Bordeaux.

"I have so little time for myself to do the things that are necessary," says Fabre-Lanvin, executive director of the U.S. office of Sud de France, a trade group that promotes the southern France region.

And sure enough, Fabre-Lanvin is a regular at New York's Julien Farel Restore Salon & Spa, a high-end house of beauty that specializes in "Power Hour" lunchtime sessions (starting at $155) that combine multiple services, all with the busy executive in mind. If time is really of the essence, the Farel salon will also see to providing a quick lunch during the appointment: After all, salon customers still need to eat, the Farel staff notes.

Or do they? America has become a country that has turned lunchtime into errand or work time -- and a rushed one at that. A recent survey by OfficeTeam, a staffing agency, found that 48 percent of employees say their typical lunch break is 30 minutes or less. And another survey of the general workforce by office-supply giant Staples (SPLS) found that 19 percent of employees say they don’t break for lunch at all.

Not unexpectedly, restaurants, especially higher-end, sit-down eateries that helped make the three-martini lunch a mainstay a few decades ago, are the ones feeling the pinch. Some report declines of 20 percent or more in lunchtime sales over the last few years.

Adding insult to injury: The Great Recession prompted a cutback in personal and corporate spending, restaurant executives say. "The big lunches on business accounts are a thing of the past," says Jean Goutal, who runs Le Colonial, an upscale French-Vietnamese restaurant in New York.

At the same time, shifts in lunch-hour habits and behaviors have benefited many businesses. Indeed, salons and spas are seeing plenty of customers like Fabre-Lanvin who are forsaking that leisurely lunch so they can tend to life's multitude of chores. And the "Power Hour" concept of piling on treatments only ups the appeal of a midday trip to the beauty parlor, explains salon owner Julien Farel. "People want more in less time," he says. (The concept isn't limited to women, either: Farel has express packages for men, as do other salons.)

Another new wrinkle -- or anti-wrinkle -- to the trend: specialty salons that focus on one area of service, but in super-speedy fashion. Consider how Lydia Sarfati, founder of the Repachage skin-care line, has been behind "Facial Bars" that offer "age-defying treatments" in 30 minutes or less. Sarfati has overseen the opening of more than 40 such bars nationwide and plans to launch another 250 in the coming year. The bars are "the future of the skin-care industry," she has written.

Of course, as much as the lunchtime squeeze is hurting high-end eateries, it's actually boosting the bottom line of other restaurants and food-service providers -- namely, those that can offer a quick bite. For example, grocers have seen their lunchtime business for prepared food (think salads and sandwiches) jump by 28 percent since 2008, according to market researcher NPD Group. (By contrast, there’s been only a 2 percent uptick in prepared food sales for breakfast during that same time.)

The boom in lunch-on-the-go has also been one of the major drivers in the rise of fast-casual restaurants like Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) and Panera (PNRA), which are seen as a quality alternative to the fast-food chains that pioneered the speedy midday meal. (The fast-casual category grew by 13 percent in 2012, according to the most recent data from Technomic, a research firm that tracks the restaurant industry.)

In other words, fast-casual is like full-service dining without the hour-plus commitment. The category "exists today because it does a better job at lunch than full-service," says Darren Tristano, a Technomic executive vice president.

Which is not to say full-service restaurants are giving up all hope. Many are trying to level the lunchtime playing field by offering their own speedier options. A case in point: Reserve Cut, a steakhouse in New York's financial district, now has a "$40 @ 40" lunch deal -- a three-course midday meal for $40 that's served within a guaranteed time frame of 40 minutes. "It's brought in a lot of business," says Reserve Cut general manager Rick Bruner.

Additionally, some high-end restaurants are starting to offer lunchtime delivery service. Such is the case at Le Colonial, the French-Vietnamese eatery in New York. Proprietor Goutal says he's happy to do it if it will help his business regain some lost midday revenue. But the French native does express a certain sadness that lunch is losing its place in the culture as a necessary respite -- not just in the U.S., but even in France. It goes contrary to everything he was taught about food and work.

"People are expected to produce so much that they forget to live," he says.

More from MarketWatch

May 5, 2014 2:57PM
It looks like most people have gotten the message that packing your own lunch saves a lot of time and money.  The average worker's salaries stagnant or going down (that is if you're lucky to have a job).  Having lunch out is a splurge instead of a regular event thanks to high food prices, high gas prices, high health care costs....etc. etc.     
May 5, 2014 2:56PM

It's all thanks to companies becoming so big that they will fire someone who looks at someone the wrong way and replace them with someone who will work for less.

Big companies created this disaster of an economy and it's exactly where they want it.

People clawing and scratching at each other for the same job for as little as possible wages.

Companies working people to the bone also not allowed to have any life outside of work...or barely any.

May 5, 2014 3:01PM
What is this article even about? On one hand they are talking about people feeling too much pressure at work and skipping lunch. But on the other hand they are talking about fancy trips to the spa during lunch. The author is going off in two unrelated directions.
"More Shoddy News" strikes again.

May 5, 2014 4:27PM
I've packed my own lunch in my dinner bucket for years. I used to be one of those guys who skipped lunch to keep working. Then one day I had a stroke and had to relearn how to walk and talk all over again. I have recovered 100% count my luckey stars, but I learned the hard way to slow down and enjoy life. I still work where I did before, but no longer manage. I do not miss it and am a lot happier having slowed down to eat my lunch.
May 5, 2014 3:20PM

Power Hours? At a salon? That is SERIOUSLY the stupidest thing I've ever heard of. First of all, the cost is mind boggling. Secondly, who would want those kind of services in an hour? I certainly wouldn't get very much work done after a massage/manicure/facial/whatever.

Incidentally, lunch is not dead. Every day I get up 5 minutes early (yes 5 minutes) and make myself a sandwich. If my boss is going to be a p---- about me leaving for lunch, I have a sandwich at my desk.

There is NO WAY he would let me leave for an hour to "do chores and/or errands".

Maybe the people who can afford these power hour lunches should quit griping. Wait until AFTER work to primp like the rest of us.

May 5, 2014 3:12PM
In some cases by skipping lunch you can reduce the time spent at your office and actually have a smattering of a life.

(Of course once noticed by co- workers, they will complain resulting in an office edict dictating hours. The conclusion being some folks don't want to go home).

May 5, 2014 3:39PM
Thats right! Us working people are now the new slaves.
May 5, 2014 4:14PM

I feel that because of all the downsizing you just don't have time for lunch in order to finish the additional task allocated (thrown) at you.

It's horrible the way the American Worker is treated with no compensation whatsoever. Just a grateful you got a job...


This will blow up in Corporate Americas face, and it will not be pretty.

May 5, 2014 4:06PM
Until people wake up and decide to take this country back from the corporations (they are the enemy), they will continue to whittle away at what few employee benefits remain and the American standard of living. As the late George Carlin often said, "We know what they want. They want more for themselves and less for everybody else."
May 5, 2014 3:46PM
Certainly glad we retired before this horrible cultural shift occurred. How uncivilized will the world through dinner?
May 5, 2014 4:39PM
Life in America gets worse every year.
May 5, 2014 4:43PM
   Stores open at all hours during the holidays so people can't spend any time with their family and now no lunch ? I just simply walk out and stay away from the job until the break is over end of story. The job has no cell phone for me and what ever it is they or the client can wait after all most lunch breaks or least mine anyway is not paid so why would I gave them 5 free hours a week. You get what you pay for and you don.t get what you don't pay for it is that simple. Besides when it is slow they cut back or lay off by saying sorry but its business nothing personal. Well its the same here sorry but it is not paid for, I don't work for free it's just business.
May 5, 2014 4:38PM
Those in 'upper-level' management never seem to have any trouble taking long lunches or finding other ways to be 'out-of-the-office' from my experience. They also are masters at attending meetings and doing nothing else but drinking coffee and nodding.
It's a shame that this is accepted in corporate culture. Look at the most recent mistake by GM with their President new hire. She's set women back in that industry by decades!

May 5, 2014 4:10PM
And yet this article doesn't even mention the fact the many people just call in an order and pick it up. You can do that at a large chunk of restaurants now. Applebees even has their curbside to go. Places are even starting to go further and let you order on your phone and set the time you want to pick it up.
May 5, 2014 3:10PM
While the idea of a 3-martini lunch sounds fun, it's probably a good idea we have moved away from that.  Less employees driving drunk back to work and making stupid decisions when they get back on the job.  There is quite a bit of liability in a litigious society such as ours.  Go back to accepting people having a few drinks at lunch, and the lawyers will love it.  They would have more work than they could handle.
May 5, 2014 4:27PM

i leave the office every day, shoot some hoops, take a walk, do something, anything

that is not at my desk for an hour or there abouts.

May 5, 2014 4:59PM
I think these people have been reading too much of their own copy!!!  How many people do you know skip lunch on a regular basis?  How many people do you know who go to the "spa" ANYTIME?  If I wanted to eat lunch, I ate lunch.;  If I didn't want to eat lunch, I didn't eat lunch.  It is as simple as that.  Why make a big to-do about this anyway?  Most of us can do without those "lunch" calories anyway.  Its your life, live it the way you want, not some writer for MSN.
May 5, 2014 4:14PM
I thought legally you are supposed to take a lunch break??
May 5, 2014 6:11PM
May 5, 2014 4:25PM
Oh Well Guess these employees must learn How to make and bag their own lunch---bummer!
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