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Coping With the "Incredible Shrinking Daypart"

Lunch, the mainstay meal for virtually every noncommercial operator, has increasingly come under the gun in the downsized, time-pressed and increasingly multi-tasked American workplace in recent years, and the implications are not pretty.

Consider the lunch participation numbers in the most recent SFM (Society for Foodservice Management) benchmarking survey. Since 2001, lunch participation rates cited by SFM participants have declined from 46 percent to 39.4 percent.

Here's another statistic: a recent Steelcase Workplace Index Survey found the lunch hour "has become much more of a lunch break—just 31 minutes" for more than half of all workers. Of the reasons cited, most add up to the "harder, faster, leaner, cheaper" demands of corporate America. Time pressures also drive more workers to use lunch time for errands and other personal business than ever before.

Need more evidence? A new report from the market research publisher Packaged Facts, Revolution in Dayparts: Lunch in the Foodservice Market, describes lunch as "the incredible shrinking daypart," noting that it is "essentially a flat-lining market."

A closer read of the report suggests that commercial restaurants face a significantly greater challenge than onsite segments in this respect. Indeed, college dining programs, K-12 schools and business catering are among the few bright spots the report identifies.

As the SFM numbers underscore, this doesn't mean onsite operators can take it easy. But in a number of ways, they have certain advantages that can help them to compensate for the forces working against the traditional lunch daypart.

Among these: the fact that they are ideally positioned to tap "non traditional" lunch demand (the socalled 4th and 5th dayparts—in other words, snacking—in mid-morning and mid-afternoon). They can also offer forms of meal convenience (grab-and-go displays, non-cash payment options, convenience retailing displays in the workplace) that offsite providers can't.

Some other strategies to keep in mind:

Still tighter cost management. Time pressures are only part of the reason participation rates have declined. Another factor remains the perceived "value gap" of what it costs to eat onsite lunch, especially as subsidies have declined. Value is part perception, but you can't get away from the price point issue. The need to relentlessly manage food, labor and overhead costs will never go away.

Better packaging, merchandising and promotion. It's one thing to offer more grab-and-go, portable food and snack items, but it's another to have customers think immediately about buying them from you when

their stomachs growl. Strategies for keeping the full range of your cafe and kiosk offerings top-of-mind for customers is a critical skill and one that is not learned in hospitality schools. Directors need to emphasize the importance of such activities at every staff meeting and in every business plan.

Take-in Take-out. Onsite operators often assume that "brown baggers" choose that option because of its lower cost, but they should remember that another reason can be that bagged lunches are simply more convenient for workers who often end up "working through" lunch at their desks.

Some years ago we coined the term "Take-in Take-out" to describe meals designed for the increasing number of such customers. Strategies like online ordering, express line service and even in-house delivery will have an increasing role iserving them. Consider offering your own value-priced "brown bag" meals for mid-morning pickup (but don't neglect to merchandise add-on snack options that can help raise transaction averages at the same time.)

Pushing the "productivity advantage." As hard as it is to get the ear of top management and administrations, operators need to keep sending the message that a strong foodservice program improves the productivity of any organization. It's a message that can never be neglected.

A final thought. Lunch is going to remain the pillar of every onsite business, but to keep it profitable and growing is going to take more work than ever before. No reader of this magazine can afford to take it for granted.

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