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Trend Watch: Brown bagging it

As the recession takes hold, homemade lunches are on the rise

Taste, cost and convenience are driving consumers to
    carry lunch from home.
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 restaurant patronage."

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 negatively impacts."

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 declining.

"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 convenience.

"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 
is, too."

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 Columbia


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