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Driving lunch traffic in a work-from-home world

A shifting labor market forces restaurants to get creative

More people working from home, online shopping and limited time are transforming lunch, the daypart that holds the industry’s largest traffic share, according to market research firm The NPD Group.

“Lunch is changing,” said David Portalatin, vice president and foodservice industry advisor at Port Washington, N.Y.-based NPD. “It really reflects all of the change we are seeing in the labor force.”

Total foodservice lunch traffic was flat in the year ending March 2019, NPD reports. By segment, quick-service lunch visits were flat, and midscale/family dining and casual dining lunch visits were down three percent and one percent, respectively.

For context, the dinner and afternoon snack dayparts also saw flat traffic as well, with only breakfast seeing a 2% increase.

But lunch has been slipping for a decade. The typical American consumer uses a restaurant for lunch 11 fewer times annually than a decade ago. Annual lunches purchased at a restaurants per person stood at 61 in 2018, down from 72 in 2008, according to NPD research.

Baby Boomers exiting the workforce and Millennials and younger generations working differently — remotely, with flexible schedules and on-demand — has created a lot more fluidity around the midday meal.

“In the past, traditional patterns had a lot of sway over our behaviors,” Portalatin said. “[Today’s consumers are] very fluid in thinking about the time required for their work so it’s no surprise there’s no need for the old business lunch.”

The majority of lunches, or 83%, still occur between noon and 2 p.m., but the components of the meal have changed, NPD found.

Though sandwiches still dominate lunches eaten at home, more consumers are changing the makeup of their midday meal to include more snack-type foods — think fruit and a granola bar — the research shows. Top snack food choices include items that are portable, beneficial (for health or energy, for example) or are seen as permissible indulgences.

“The way lunch is composed has been changing over time,” said Portalatin.

“It’s an opportunity [for operators] to look at their menu and see how they can give consumers flexibility to compose lunch on their own terms.”

Traditionally quick-service operators have had success driving lunch traffic with deals, such as combo meals or buy-one-get-one offers. But while visits on a deal were up 1 percent for the year ended March 2019, Portalatin says it has becoming harder and harder to stand out on price.

“We may have dealed ourselves to full capacity,” he said. “It’s now standard pricing; it’s what’s expected.”

Instead of competing on price, some savvy operators are attracting lunch customers by meeting them where they are — figuratively and, very often, literally. Here executives from Rockville, Md.-based California Tortilla and Patchogue, N.Y.-based SoBol: Acai Bowls and Beyond share some of the less traditional tactics working for their brands.

California Tortilla heads to the office

“The hustle is getting fiercer and fiercer, said Karen Dawit, director of marketing for California Tortilla. “We’ve been trying to meet the need [and] meet our customers where they are.”

For the last year, the Mexican-style fast casual chain has been offering a program of grab-and-go box lunches in the lobby of an office building not far from its store in the Tyson’s Corner Center in Tyson’s Corner, Va. A partnership with the mall’s property management company, the weekly program is intended to be a convenient amenity for the building tenants, office workers who can’t escape the four walls for lunch.

On Tuesdays between 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. tenants can purchase a boxed lunch in the lobby for $12. Two options are available: A burrito box, with choice of Crunchy BBQ Ranch, Bacon Chicken Club or vegan burrito, with chips and pico de gallo, or a Southwestern Salad. Both boxes are $12 and come with bottled water and a cookie.

So far, Dawit says, the office offering has been “well worth it.”

“These are incremental sales, [they’re] not taking traffic away from our stores,” she said. “People who might not otherwise know us, get to know us.”

The chain sells between 45 and 75 boxed lunches each week depending on the weather, chief operating officer Keith Goldman said.

“We do more business when the weather is not nice out and people want to stay in the building,” he said.

Currently the program is only available at one office building, one day a week, but Goldman said the chain is open to expanding it to other office buildings in close proximity to stores and is considering giving guests the option to order and pay ahead.

SoBol gets personal(ized)

Meanwhile, SoBol, a 36-unit chain that specializes in açaí bowls, green bowls and fruit smoothies, is creating personalized delivery sheets for customers who are unable to leave their location to head to a nearby location in the afternoon.

For example, to help facilitate orders from a local parochial school, SoBol created a custom order form that enables the school staff to place a group order using a single form. Staffers collect the orders on the custom form, take a photo of the completed form with their phone and submit it to the store for delivery.

It may seem old-school or a lot of work, but the brand says it’s worth it.

“We are willing to customize,” SoBol director of franchise operations Paul Gucciardo said. “What we are finding is the competition is not willing to customize.”

As a result of the offering, the school has increased its order frequency to three times per week, Gucciardo said.

SoBol is also taking a similar approach with various summer camps, offering custom lunch meal forms that staff, counselors and campers’ families can use to order for delivery five days a week.

Additionally, a large piece of the SoBol’s current lunch business is curbside pickup, which it recently rolled out in 12 of its 36 stores. The chain also launched online ordering in the first quarter of 2019.

“No one effort to build lunch is a home run,” said Gucciardo. “I think the real takeaway is that nothing works a lot, but some things work a little.”

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