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Lunchtime options evolve with work habits

The View from Here

No dogs. No dogs. No dogs. No dogs. No dogs. No dogs.

It’s my early morning or late afternoon mantra – my feverish prayer as I run the backroads of northern Hinds County.

I have to run. It’s not that I hate running really, but I must run, or I’d weigh about 300 pounds. The reason? Terrible, disgusting eating habits – especially at lunch. A couple of Fridays ago, I went down the frontage road to the neighborhood Waffle House and ordered a pork chop dinner. Double order of hashbrowns with cheese and onions. Buttery Texas toast. Man, was it good. I also ate half of a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich that one of my lunch-time partners couldn’t finish.

A few days later, I was at the Chinese buffet. Wasn’t that hungry, but an “it’s-a-buffet-so-eat-every-item-twice” mentality set in. Why does it all have to taste so good?

Back in the office, I picked up a fax from the National Restaurant Association (NRA). It just happened to be about the lunch habits of America’s full-time employees. According to the association’s 1999 Lunch Study, “full-time employees are most likely to choose fruit for lunch (15.8%), followed by hamburgers (15%) and then wraps (14.8%).”

The findings make sense. Recent surveys have found that business folks are working longer hours and many are squeezing time from the traditional lunch hour. Foods that can be held in the left hand, while the right hand scrolls across a mouse pad, are popular in offices around the country. Fruit, burgers and wraps are pretty handy, easy to eat and cheap.

“The top three choices – fruit, hamburgers and wraps – point to the growing trend among American consumers to eat more portable and hand-held foods,” said NRA president and CEO Steven C. Anderson. The association is online at www.restaurant.org.

The lunch study also found gender differences in food selection. One out of five female employees (20.2%) choose salad as their typical lunch. Only 8% of males typically pile salad on their plates. Females (18.2%) were also more likely than males (14.1%) to eat fruit. However, males outdistanced females on hamburgers (17%), wraps (17.2%) and luncheon-meat sandwiches (14.7%). Thirty-five percent of respondents like to use food bars.

In addition to squeezing more work time from compressed lunchtimes, U.S. workers are also using it to take care of errands, shop and work out, the study says.

Should restaurateurs be worried about this trend? I don’t think so. It’s great that many restaurants are offering quick menus for their time-pressed customers, but I can’t imagine the lunch hour changing much more.

The social aspect of lunchtime can’t be replaced by a burrito and a quick trip to the post office for stamps.

Hopefully, we’ll soon realize that we’re all probably working just a bit too hard. Taking time out a few days a week for friends and colleagues, and even the much ballyhooed “networking,” is good for business.

And so I guess I’ll keep noshing on the pita wrap or a banana at the iMac with occasional trips to Waffle House and the buffet tossed in – for the camaraderie. And of course the running. Have to keep it up. And perhaps my runs will remain dog free. Unless it’s one of those chili cheese Coneys from Sonic. Those are pretty good, too, and worth the extra miles.

Jim Laird is editor of the Mississippi Business Journal. His e-mail address is jlaird@msbusiness.com.

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