Lunchtime Food Goes al Desco
If you’re reading this at a desk, with a cheese sandwich in one hand and your computer mouse in the other, you’re not alone. According to research by officebroker.com. 90% of office workers usually eat lunch at their work stations.
This statistic is highlighted by market analyst Brahm in a new report, Eating Al Desco, which says millions of us are desk dining instead of taking our lunch to the staff room or heading lo a local cafe.
In fact, it seems the lunchbox is becoming more popular with adults than it is with children, particularly 17 to 34-year-olds, according to TNS. The overall market grew 6% to ┬ú5bn in the year to February, according to TNS. The market for children’s lunchboxes, conversely, slipped 0.2%, suggests the data, though other sources, notably Yoplait, claim the reverse (see p41).
So what’s driving us to juggle the falafel with the filing? Are we a nation of workaholics who think lunch is for wimps? Not necessarily. The Brahm survey, conducted through a Facebook poll, indicated that the internet had the greatest influence on a worker’s decision to .eat at their work station. Fifty-nine percent of respondents said they used the web while eating their lunch, while just 14% said they kept working. The findings are clear: when it comes to lunch at work, turf and surf are firmly on the menu.
“A lot of this is about people getting a work-life balance,” says Gemma Teed, strategic planner at Brahm and author of Eating Al Desco. “People are staying at their desk to catch up on their email or do some online shopping. These days, you can run your life from your desk.”
Manufacturers and retailers must now take account of Britain’s expanding army of desk diners when developing products to be eaten at the lunchbox occasion, Teed says. Focus groups organised by Brahm to explore attitudes to desk dining found that two of the biggest consumer concerns were dirt and smell. “People had a lot of issues about food dropping on to their desk, because they do consider their desk to be an unsanitary place. Someone in one of our focus groups said: isn’t your desk supposed to be worse than your toilet for germs?”
Manufacturers should think about developing packaging that addresses this, she says. Lunchtime options should also be ‘low smell’, because “office etiquette demands you don’t stink the place out all afternoon”, she adds. In. terms of practicalities, lunch-time options must also be easy to eat one-handed. “Desk diners are doing something else while they’re eating lunch and they want a hand free to type or to use the phone. Dishes need to be fork-friendly or ideally have their own fork.”
The rise of desk dining has dovetailed with a boom in sales of pre-prepared lunch options. Although millions of us still make up our lunchboxes at home, it seems many of us don’t have time or can’t be bothered. Hence the market for pre-packed sandwiches rose 4% to ┬úg4ini (Nielsen year to w/e 17 May). Other options such as pre-prepared salad meals and sushi are also generating impressive sales growth. Sales of food-toga salads, the kind that contain pasta, rice or couscous, rose 8% to ┬ún8m in the same period, while sushi sales shot up 19% to ┬ú40m (Nielsen).
Ready-made sandwiches, salads and sushi are popular because they tick all the right boxes as perfect desk-dining meals, says Richard Esau, director of marketing at Greencore Sandwiches. “If you have a sandwich in a cardboard skillet, it’s very easy to take to it your desk, open, pull the sandwich out, take a bite and put it back in,” he says. “Sushi is possibly even more suitable for desk dining. And the pasta salads we make come with forks.”
With 67% of lunchbox meals eaten at work. (TNS), companies are eager to take account of the needs of the desk diner in their NPD.
The rise of eating at the desk prompted Proper Cornish to change its recipes. ”The pastry for our pre-packed range was specially adapted to be less flaky than traditional Cornish pasties,” says marketing manager Mark Muncey.
Princes Foods’ ambient ready meals also target deskbound lunchers and can be microwaved in two minutes and eaten straight from the pot, -says Neil Brownbill, marketing director.
Del Monte, meanwhile, provides a ‘spork’ -a hybrid of a spoon and fork – with its Fruit Express ambient pots of fruit, allowing desk-diners to eat their fruit with one hand and hunt for bargains on eBay with the other.
Health, as well as convenience, is becoming an increasingly important driver and not just in the adult lunchbox market. A growing number of schools are policing much more closely what goes into kids’ lunchboxes, as are parents. Manufacturers are responding with products that are convenient, tasty and healthy. They’ve also revamped their marketing tactics to counter the Ofcom restrictions.
“Healthier options are becoming more .common. In packed lunches, especially in those of children, with parents favouring products such as fruit juices and smoothies instead of carbonated drinks and un- healthy snacks,” says Data-monitor consumer markets analyst Michael Hughes.
There is evidence youngsters are starting to prefer healthier options, with 76% of UK children saying fruit is their favourite lunchbox food in a 2007 survey by Yoplait Dairy Crest.
There’s also an onus on retailers – particularly those near schools – to offer a wider range of healthy options designed to appeal to school-age children.
“No matter how much parents and teachers beat the healthy-living drum, kids still want their food and drink to be fun, exciting, taste great and have the vital element of street cred,” says Richard Cooke, Calypso sales and marketing director.
Boots may have found a winning combination. It has just started stocking a range of sandwiches aimed specifically at children. Organic sandwich brand Fresh Naturally Organic is behind the product, which is aimed at children between 18 months and six years and sold under its new Fresh for Kids brand. “There was a dear opportunity to cater for the childrenΓÇÖs market,” says founder Chantelle Ludski.
Kids’ sandwiches have a long way to go to match sales of adult sandwiches but at least the health message is getting through. This as well as the focus on convenience should help lunch-box sales resume a healthy growth trajectory.