Most of us don’t want to make a long day longer by wasting time eating.

Share story

FROM THE 15TH FLOOR of a Third Avenue high-rise in downtown Seattle, the choreography of the modern working lunch unfolds with predictable precision: Tiny figures emerge from buildings, migrate a few blocks and disappear under awnings. They reappear a few minutes later with brown paper bags, origami boxes and clamshell containers stuffed with offerings from dozens of nearby eateries.

Back in their offices, their cubicles will fill with the aromatic equivalent of the United Nations: Thai, Russian, Italian, Vietnamese, Mexican, Belgian, Japanese. The scents mingle with sandwiches and leftovers from home, including last night’s red snapper, nuked in the office microwave by the one guy willing to commit an olfactory crime against co-workers.

Meanwhile, six miles away, in North Seattle, Denise Simpson’s kitchen smells amazing. She’s just reheated a mug of homemade vegetable soup, which she carries downstairs to her basement office. There, she’ll spend the next 30 minutes eating and chipping away at her work email.

Simpson used to take power lunches with vendors and colleagues in the 1990s, when she worked downtown at an electrical engineering firm. Now, as co-owner of LightWire, a lighting design firm in Seattle, her lunch usually is just a pause in a day otherwise devoted to projects, proposals and meetings.

Editor’s note: In 2016, Pacific NW magazine will explore our world of work. In Seattle’s workplaces, one thing you can count on is change. We’ll try to help you make sense of it.

More from the series:

“It’s more of an aside,’’ she says. “I just like the break so I can go back and focus again.”

All around Seattle, the once-Great American Lunch Hour has gone the way of fanny packs and casual Friday. That hour-plus confab of conversation and cocktails? Try takeout and delivery, microwaves and lunch totes instead.

Sure, there are still people who carve out an hour in the middle of their day for a hot meal or a lunch date or an opportunity to close a sale or clear their head. But for most of us working stiffs, lunch has become something to be dispensed with quickly.

A tech worker on a conference call eats on the run, holding a power adapter and pizza box, which holds, obscured by a hand, his cellphone. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)
A tech worker on a conference call eats on the run, holding a power adapter and pizza box, which holds, obscured by a hand, his cellphone. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)

KOMO 4 investigative reporter Jeff Burnside, who knows a thing a two about eating standing up, recently asked his Facebook friends what they do for lunch. The overwhelming response: eat at a desk while working. Words such as “stuff a sandwich in my mouth” and “eat in the car between meetings in the field” perfectly capture the pathos that has become the modern lunch hour.

In fact, the rushed lunch has become so prevalent, there’s even a blog devoted to it: “Sad Desk Lunch,” which features photos of some of the most pathetic lunches you’ll ever see outside your own cubicle. The site’s author notes that “62 percent of American office workers usually eat their lunch in the same spot they work all day.” Also, “Eating lunch at your desk can expose you to more bacteria than a toilet seat.” (It’s true.)

One recent entry features what appears to be toasted cheese on a hamburger bun with a side of bell pepper. The accompanying caption precisely sums up the grim still-life: “One of the engineers I work with saw it and said, ‘I feel one step closer to death just looking at that.’ ” Another entry features a glass coffee pot half-full of ramen. Plastic containers are featured prominently. If only it were a cry for help.

We might mock our pitiful attempts at midday sustenance and the little time we devote to it, but the funny thing is, few people are crying about the ramped-down state of lunch. Instead of resentment or even resignation, we actually seem content with crumbs on our keyboards. It’s as if the crushing demands on our time at work and outside of it have given us permission to eschew the hard-fought gains of industrial workers, whose harsh working conditions set the stage for the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, and subsequent state laws regulating meal breaks.

John Tran, who owns Vietnamese restaurant Tigerly Ox, in Wallingford, checks his phone, which shows a group order from two nearby businesses. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)
John Tran, who owns Vietnamese restaurant Tigerly Ox, in Wallingford, checks his phone, which shows a group order from two nearby businesses. Tran participates in Peach, an online conduit matching a range of restaurants with office workers coordinating group deliveries. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)

Who needs to extend a workday already made longer by traffic, email and smartphones? And with lingering debts from the Great Recession, college loans and oversized mortgages and rents, a lot of us are still operating in savings mode.

“There seems to be more of a message of food as fuel to help get you through the day,’’ says Aimee Harvey, managing editor at Technomic, a Chicago-based research and consulting firm that tracks food-industry trends. “People are brown-bagging it. They don’t have time to take a full meal off-site.”

Darren Seifer, a food and beverage industry analyst with the The NPD Group, a food-industry research firm in New York, says most people are preparing and eating their lunch at home.

In 2010, the average person prepared and ate 142 lunches at home; in the fiscal year ending February 2015, that number was 156. Seifer says: “Fourteen more meals a year times millions of people — that’s a lot of lunches.”

“More people are working from home now, or telecommuting,” Seifer says. “The millennials pulled back from restaurants more than anyone. When the recession hit, they pulled back so hard that people over 50 were going out to restaurants more often than they were.”

People also want more control over their food, he says. We prefer fresher options and more choices than are typically available near work. That’s given rise to more “fast casual” restaurants such as Chipotle, and more grab-and-go options in convenience and grocery stores, which are looking more like cafeterias with their salad and hot-food bars, he says.

Lunch in Seattle is undergoing yet another transformation, one driven by the city’s food trucks, ubiquitous delivery services and tech workers who tend to view lunch as a distraction from more important work. Instead of complaining about it, they’ve done what you might expect: They made an app for that.

 

At the intersection of Westlake and Denny, with a cluster of restaurants and a Whole Foods store, workers carry their lunches. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)
At the intersection of Westlake and Denny, with a cluster of restaurants and a Whole Foods store, workers carry their lunches. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)

IT’S ONLY 10 A.M., but John Tran is already in full lunch-rush mode.

Tran, the owner of Tigerly Ox, a Vietnamese eatery in Wallingford, has two lunch rushes every weekday: one when he opens his doors to the public at 11:30 a.m., and one before that, when he prepares as many as 60 lunches a day for Peach, a Seattle-based lunch-delivery service started by former Amazon software engineers.

The Peach service allows employees working for a single company or in the same building to select one of two or three featured lunch offerings in the morning, and have it delivered to their office that afternoon. Peach operates on bulk, which allows it to keep prices less than $12, including delivery. No tips accepted.

Today, Tran will be making lunches for four workplaces along Elliott Avenue West in Lower Queen Anne, five miles away.

Tran, 30, checks his iPhone to see how many Peach orders have been placed, and starts slicing baguettes. Tran’s prep cook, Juan Mas Santos, 25, has been hustling all morning, preparing spring rolls and the ingredients that go into most of Tigerly Ox’s dishes. When the final Peach orders roll off Tran’s computer printer at 10:30 a.m., it’s showtime.

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Tran, who worked as a CPA in his former life, cuts up a few more baguettes and slathers them with homemade mayonnaise, chicken pate and a soy-sauce concoction. He arranges them on a baking tray for final assembly in the commercial kitchen attached to his shop.

Tran, Mas Santos and cashier Jim Munger work quickly, assembling 19 pork bahn mi, two tofu entrees and six salads. It’s a light day, says Tran, probably because people tend to telecommute on Fridays. The orders are packed in cardboard containers, then sorted and packed into special totes for pickup by a delivery driver.

Tigerly Ox doesn’t open for lunch for another 15 minutes, but Tran opens early to accommodate two Bastyr University graduate students who show up for noodles and bahn mi.

At 11:28 a.m., delivery driver Alex Ebmeier arrives in his black Honda to pick up the food and deliver it in quick succession. He leaves the lunches with the receptionist or in the lunchroom before tapping a button on his phone to let everyone know lunch has arrived. By 11:55 a.m., the 23-year-old is done and ready to resume driving for the ride-sharing company Lyft.

The seamless service and hassle-free ordering are exactly what Nishant Singh, 31, and his partners Denis Bellavance, 29, and Chenyu Wang, 27, envisioned when they left Amazon to start Peach last year.

At Peach, employees practice what they preach (and provide): ordering lunches through the online platform they created. (and provide): ordering lunches through the online platform they created. Peach’s founder and CEO Nishant Singh, right, says he enjoys sitting at a family-style table with employees. “Lunch hour is not dead. Lunch hour is starting,” he says. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)
At Peach, employees practice what they preach (and provide): ordering lunches through the online platform they created. Peach’s founder and CEO Nishant Singh, right, says he enjoys sitting at a family-style table with employees. “Lunch hour is not dead. Lunch hour is starting,” he says. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)

Singh, a self-described foodie who gets excited about trying new things for lunch, credits Bellavance, his polar opposite, for inspiring the idea for Peach.

“For four years of my life at Amazon, literally it would be me sitting here, and Denis sitting there, and I’d look at him around 11:30 a.m. and say, ‘You want to each lunch or whatever?’ and he’s like, ‘Yeah, dude; whatever you want. I’ll just walk with you.’ There were so many people (there) who were, ‘Just get me lunch, and let’s get back to work.’ ”

Bellavance, Peach’s chief technology officer, explains: “There’s always something to finish, I guess, so you don’t want to leave. As an engineer, one of the things is the context switch is a big deal. When you’re thinking about one thing, it takes about half an hour to get back into it because there’s so much going on — so many files, so many ideas that you have in your head.” So while his lunch was an hour, he says, he lost 90 minutes of productive time. The lost productivity meant he had to work later, which cut into his time for fun.

“It all just adds time,’’ he says. “It makes you feel not efficient. You feel like you wasted an hour because maybe you just ate fast food, and you wasted an hour on an experience that was just not that great.”

Singh, Peach’s cheerful CEO, says people don’t want to think about lunch because they’re already making so many decisions. The company works with as many as 80 restaurants a day, and offers customers two or three choices based on what people in a given building have previously enjoyed.

“It’s like when you go to your mom’s place,’’ says Singh. “You never tell her what to cook. She knows exactly what you like to eat. We are kind of like your moms.

“The upside is that you are not spending your time doing inefficient things. You’re not standing in the restaurants and in the line and getting the same damn thing every day. You can save that time for something else.”

Singh says he thought the idea would appeal only to tech workers, but found it appealed to working moms in Bellevue who deplored the time suck involved with driving to a restaurant and finding parking not once but twice — at the restaurant, and when they returned.

The potential lunch market is so big that Amazon, Singh’s former employer, is making a stab at lunch deliveries, as is Uber. There are also half a dozen other delivery services, including Munchery and Bite Squad, for people who still want to order directly from a restaurant.

Peach orders lunch from itself on weekdays, and turns the lunch hour into a daily communal experience for many of its 25 Seattle employees, who sit at a long lunch table. Singh says that wouldn’t be possible if they all went to a restaurant.

“It’s nice to sit and joke around because we are so intense here,’’ Singh says. “Like lunch hour is our chill-out time.”

The shared experience brings a little conviviality to the often joyless act of eating alone at a desk. You can eat with your co-workers for 20 to 30 minutes, then head back to the sanctuary of your pod to labor away until quitting time. You know, live a little.

GILLIAN ALLEN-WHITE is just starting to get the hang of the lunch break.

As co-owner and general manager of Grand Central Bakery, the West Seattle mother of two is often in perpetual motion. Until about a year ago, she didn’t always stop to eat, aside from grabbing a dark loaf of peasant levain in her car en route to a meeting.

“My car is a crumb-laden mess,’’ she says.

At Cactus, a Mexican restaurant near Amazon, the hungry compete for spots. The restaurant completely fills up for an hour at lunchtime, then empties out just as quickly when everyone must get back to work. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)
At Cactus, a Mexican restaurant near Amazon, the hungry compete for spots. The restaurant completely fills up for an hour at lunchtime, then empties out just as quickly when everyone must get back to work. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)

A year ago, her family gave her a cute lunch tote for her birthday, a not-so-subtle hint they wanted her to take better care of herself.

Now she loads it up on Mondays with a week’s worth of fruit, and anything that goes on bread: a can of tuna, some cheese, peanut butter, an occasional boiled egg.

“I get up in the morning and say, ‘Today, I will make time for lunch,’ ’’ she says. Then the day unfolds, and a million different decisions dissolve her resolve. She’ll start feeling hungry, and suddenly remember: She’s got lunch in the bag!

“When it hits me that I’ve got lunch, it’s like Christmas,’’ she says.

Still, Allen-White says lunch will always be expendable as long as there are more important things to do, like spending time with her busy family and singing with the Northwest Firelight Chorale.

“I’d love to have a beautiful, luxurious lunch time,’’ she says, “but I’d love to have it with my family.”

Sadly, there’s no app for that yet.