The happy future of the sad desk lunch

What becomes of a Pret a Manger without its lunchtime rush?
What becomes of a Pret a Manger without its lunchtime rush?
Image: REUTERS/Hannah McKay
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

When the coronavirus pandemic shuttered offices and prompted millions worldwide to work from home—grudgingly, gleefully, temporarily, or permanently—it didn’t just change the lives of office workers. It also changed the lives of the many waiters, sandwich makers, salad choppers, smoothie mixers, chefs, and food cart entrepreneurs that support the office lunch economy.

Pret a Manger, a chain ubiquitous in cities like London, had to pivot to delivery and special hot evening meals. At the height of the pandemic, New York City’s midtown parks, where office workers would fight over a few minutes of fresh air, were eerily quiet. So important was the “business lunch” that the UK government created a lockdown provision protecting it; it fast became a loophole allowing some British households to meet during restrictions.

Is the shock of the pandemic severe enough to kill the office lunch altogether? Or will a stretch of working from home prompt us to embrace the ritual of breaking for food when we’re back in the office, and perhaps even bring back long, lively midday meals?

We asked two experts to give us some food for thought. Megan Elias is a cultural historian, associate professor in gastronomy at Boston University, and author of several books on food, including 2014’s Lunch: A History. Laura Shapiro is a culinary historian, also the author of several books on food, and the co-curator of a 2012 exhibition at the New York Public Library titled “Lunch Hour NYC.” Below are edited excerpts from separate conversations with Elias and Shapiro.

Image for article titled The happy future of the sad desk lunch

Lunch and work go hand in hand

This isn’t the first time that historic events have shaped our eating habits; lunch itself is a byproduct of our changing work conditions. It was once considered a snack, with the main meal—dinner—happening at midday or in the afternoon. But as industrialization brought people into the cities, workers found themselves commuting, and increasingly eating away from home.

LS: People are coming to the city from small towns and villages and the rural countryside. And they’re coming with this idea of the midday meal being dinner. They get to the city and all that goes away. Life is not set up that way in a work-oriented center [like New York.] You couldn’t get back for this long meal and nobody had time. You had half an hour, maybe 10 minutes to eat something in the middle of the day. Well, that something that you ate became lunch. And so it was born in the work situation.

Just as farm workers would take a break to eat together during the day, different communities of workers have developed over lunch, Elias explains.

ME: The rise of industrialization places people in factories away from home. Then they began to have lunch with their coworkers at the same time. This produces a whole clerical class to deal with all the paperwork and register all the work that’s done in factories. And that class historically has their own kind of lunch culture. Then we can think of compulsory education where kids have to go off to school. That’s another kind of work—the work of getting educated and that creates another little lunch group.

And at the turn of the century, when middle-class women were shut out of productive work, they were no longer making all the things in their household and became more focused on consumption. So their work is the work of going out shopping during the day. And they stopped for lunch with other women, or to have other women over to their house. The rise in industrial work created a lot of different lunch cohorts.

Image for article titled The happy future of the sad desk lunch

A meal and a performance

ME: Lunch is our most public meal. No matter what your class, you are more likely to have lunch out of the house than you are to have any other meal. It’s a performance that a lot of people make everyday without necessarily thinking that they’re making a performance. Lunch is also most likely to be a meal eaten with other people. And those other people are people that we come into contact with through different kinds of work.

LS: Speed was always a major part of New York lunch. It was called the “New York quick lunch.” This meal—I never want to say it was invented in New York, but it certainly took on its modern identity in New York. The term “power lunch” [also] came into being in New York to refer to the guys in suits, the magnates who could charge their expensive lunches to somebody else. There were a number of restaurants that sprang up to promote that and allow them to do that. That was fading, though, long before the pandemic.

Probably 30 years ago, a lot of those people [started going] to the gym in the middle of the day instead of those big lunches. Drinking has changed in its shape and space in American life in maybe the last half century or so. And drinking at lunch really started to fade away because of the pressure on work, where you stay at your office all day long and you’re certainly not having a drink in the middle of the day. That really went out of style as the sort of all day stay at your desk work day kicked in.

Image for article titled The happy future of the sad desk lunch

Work culture was killing lunch

LS: San Francisco, as you probably know, is a great food city. Silicon Valley and all those tech companies that started planting themselves in that area, very famously, they wanted people there all day and all night. And they  took care of those people by feeding them on site all day and all night. As a result, a lot of the local restaurants started to feel that pinch. What you were seeing pre-pandemic was plenty of eating lunch, but not eating it out. Either you had it delivered—your lunch comes to you—or you run out, pick something up and bring it back.

ME: I found myself at my desk eating something that really couldn’t be at the desk. It needed a fork and a knife. But I was just trying to go at it with a fork and it just was like, “Why am I doing this? What is the culture that, you know, that I feel like this is how I must eat lunch?” And I’d argue that [eating at your desk] is not something people specifically wanted to do, but that it was something that work culture made an acceptable thing to do. The idea that one is always busy and if you’re not busy, it’s because you’re not working hard enough, or you don’t have enough ambition.

Image for article titled The happy future of the sad desk lunch

What we’ve lost in the pandemic

ME: I have no doubt that a lot of people are just still eating over the keyboard. But the food is probably a little bit different from what they were doing before. I think other people are taking the time to actually sit down and have lunch. People now have to think about their lunch a little bit in advance, in a way that they didn’t have to before.

The pandemic is already changing the way that people think about home cooking and changing certain gender dynamics around home cooking. It’s changing how people think about hunger and providing for the hungry. The place of food in our lives is going to change.

LS: So much of the life and personality of New York as a work capital came to life around the lunch hour. Between 12 and 2 you just saw the city swarming around. You see people from every part of the world. You see every age. It’s one of those stirring sights. And you just don’t have it anymore.

ME: We’ve gone through this long 30 to 40 year period in which food became entertainment. That’s shifting, because staying at home means cooking a whole lot more. Some people are rediscovering some joys of cooking, and some people are also longing for the joys of not cooking, you know, having all of those restaurants available.

Image for article titled The happy future of the sad desk lunch

After the pandemic

ME: People will be making their lunches more. You save money, you have some more choice, you can make something you really like, you can control the portions. I think people might hold on to that just because there are a lot of benefits.

But I also think people have really missed their coworkers. Everybody who’s working from home realizes that all of the work stuff can be done at home, and that part of the reason that we go to work, part of the thing that makes work okay, is the other people there. That connection is going to seem more precious, and may take the form of people having lunches, bringing in food, and finding spaces that they can share, even in the office.

Investors will be more cautious about getting into the [lunch office] business because they have seen how quickly it can close down. I think the big chains will remain because they have, to some degree, the money to withstand [a downturn]. But I think you might see a lot more temporary interventions in the lunchroom, more things like food trucks. People will return to it kind of provisionally and just figure out what people will want.

LS: One of the things I loved about working for Newsweek was going to an office. You pick up your coffee and you go in there and you just feel so grown up. It’s a way of feeling human, you know. Eating, even at your desk or going out to eat. You’re bringing humanity into your work life. It doesn’t happen so much at home.