Lunchtime Opportunities

Back in the late 1970’s U.S. President Jimmy Carter could score populist points by attacking the “three-martini lunch.” That phrase symbolized the noontime repast that big business executives were presumed to enjoy. As business meals were fully deductible as a legitimate cost of doing business, long leisurely lunches enjoyed with tax-deductible alcoholic beverages were an appealing target for politicians looking to win the favor of a harried population feeling overworked, overtaxed and underpaid.

Well, the tax laws were changed, which limited that deduction. Even more, the Zeitgeist of the times led people away from alcohol and into lighter beverages, such as iced teas and sparkling waters.

At the same time, increasing competitiveness of the age led businesses to look to become more efficient by “downsizing” or reducing staffing levels while attempting to maintain or increase the amount of work performed. Though to some extent, new technology and more efficient methods of operation were employed to obtain the higher productivity necessary to make this downsizing work – it also involved everyone working harder, longer and, in general, becoming more stressed. Add to this the growth in two-income families and the time stresses caused by having both parents working and one can easily see that something is going to have to give.

Today, current research is indicating that lunch is one activity that Americans have found they could cut back so they could have more hours for working and family. This phenomenon is having an important impact on the U.S. food industry and the nature of food product development. This, of course, means new products, and that means new opportunities for non-U.S. buyers of U.S. food and ag products.

Not all that long ago, the “lunch hour” was sacrosanct. Labor unions put in contracts and custom-awarded it to everyone. The latest surveys, though, are showing that the average American’s lunch period is running about a half an hour. What this means is that more people are eating lunch in the workplace and fewer are going out to restaurants. More people are bringing food from home or picking up something quickly at a deli or fast food restaurant, or having something delivered to the workplace.

All this is putting pressure on food manufacturers to create foods that A) Can be eaten cold or heated quickly in a microwave oven, B) Can be eaten without utensils, packaged with utensils and, in general can be eaten while one is at one’s desk doing work, and C) are packaged for one person in single-serving packages.

Examples of the kind of foods that have been developed range from single-serving, low-fat, frozen meals, ready to be popped in a microwave, to cold cut meat, cheese and cracker combos being sold as a lunch-time unit.

Will these types of food products find success outside the U.S.? Only time will tell, but certainly, there are opportunities for an aggressive importer looking to bring U.S. products to his or her own market.

First of all, many of these products are starting to show up in U.S. movies, TV and in American music. As these products of American culture are viewed around the world, interest in these novel food products is bound to grow.

Even more, as the economy has become global, the same trends that have pressed American businesses to become more efficient will be playing out throughout the world. Here in the U.S., we are envious of the long vacations that Europeans are able to manage but, also, vaguely suspecting that those vacations won’t last forever. After all, in a world economy, we all trade with and compete with one another – those who work less hard are probably going to be at a competitive disadvantage.

So we Americans are going to eat in our cars on the way to a sales call or grab something from a vending machine that we can eat at our desks. Maybe we’ll “Brown bag” it from home or pick up some “take-out” from a local fast serve restaurant. Whatever we will be doing, it will be with new innovative food products that will be available to feed the world.