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Trend Watch: Brown bagging it
As the recession takes hold, homemade lunches are on the rise
By Lauren Kramer
December 01, 2008
Many consumers have cut back on spending as the reality of
an economic recession sinks into the American consciousness.
The daily lunch hour is one place where eating habits are
changing. According to a July NPD Group study, the brown-bagged
lunch is becoming an increasingly popular workplace accessory.
In 2007 Americans carried some 8.5 billion brown bag lunches,
most citing financial reasons for doing so, according to the
Port Washington, N.Y., research firm.
"How Brown-Bagging is Affecting Foodservice Lunch" noted
that 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. Among consumers who typically visit restaurants
for their weekday lunch, nearly half said they were visiting
less often, a decision that could heavily impact the
quick-service restaurant (QSR) segment, according to NPD.
"The current economic environment is the most challenging
for the restaurant industry since the early 1990s," says Hudson
Riehle, senior VP of research at the National Restaurant
Association. "Consequently, consumers' cash-on-hand position is
tight and will remain so for the next six to nine months. When
this happens, consumers look at how they can control their
spending, and they tend to pull back on their traditional
According to Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst and
author of the NPD report, "the QSR segment is heavily dependent
on lunch, typically capturing nearly 80 percent of the total
lunch business, and it's this segment that brown-bagging most
But there was no hard data from restaurants on how
brown-bagged lunches are affecting their mid-day patronage. At
Rubio's Fresh Mexican Grill on the West Coast, Linda Duke,
company spokesperson, said quarterly sales earnings for the
fast-casual restaurant chain were good.
"We just introduced a grilled gourmet taco for Rubios' 25th
anniversary, available in shrimp, chicken and steak," says
Duke. And at Captain D's, spokesperson Sandra Smith says the
QSR chain has not seen a change in restaurant patronage.
At CKE Restaurants, neither its Carl's Jr. or Hardee's QSR
brands have experienced a decrease in lunchtime traffic, says
Kristen Harmony, public relations specialist.
"We've seen an increase in sales. Last month we had a report
of positive same-store sales of 1.6 percent for the third
quarter at Carl's Jr., while Hardee's same-store sales
increased 0.8 percent," says Harmony.
The NPD Group published another study in July to examine
what, precisely, Americans are carrying in their brown-bagged
lunches. In it, Arnie Schwartz, who heads up the food and
beverage unit at NPD, noted that yogurt and frozen entrées are
gaining in popularity while lunchmeat sandwiches are
"You might think that lunchmeats would be on the rise, but
in fact the sandwich has been declining in the carried meal for
a long time," says Harry Balzer, VP at the NPD Group.
"True, the No. 1 thing we carry is a sandwich of some kind,
with fruit coming in at No. 2. But it's not as important as it
was a generation ago. It's being replaced by a number of
packaged good products, among them food bars," Balzer adds.
As consumers look anew at their food budgets, they are
revising their old habits for three reasons, he says: taste,
cost considerations and changes to those costs and
"At the end of the day, it's about making lives easier," he
says. "With rising food prices, the carried meal is offering
major savings as well as convenience, because in addition to
having more packaged foods available, with a brown-bagged lunch
you don't have to travel anywhere to get it."
Another advantage to the brown-bagged lunch for
nutrition-conscious consumers is the precise knowledge of
what's in their lunch.
"It enables people to have full control over what goes into
the bag, as many are concerned about eating better," Balzer
says. "Brown bagging is an extension of Americans now preparing
and eating the majority of their meals at home. Home is not
only where the heart is, it's where the food
One out of three American adults are not using restaurants
as much as they would like to, suggesting pent-up demand,
according to NRA surveys.
"As soon as the cash-on-hand position eases, those consumers
will start redistributing their income flow toward the
away-from-home market," Riehle says. "And common sense will
tell you that consumers much prefer a restaurant-prepared meal
than one prepared at home. The restaurant industry has a
competitive edge when it comes to taste, seasoning and flavor
that cannot be duplicated at home."
Contributing Editor Lauren Kra m er lives in British