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Lunch is too expensive

A salad and drink from Sweetgreen can set you back about $13. (Jeffrey MacMillan/The Washington Post)
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What’s for lunch? If it’s a homemade sandwich or last night’s leftovers, you may be in good company.

An increasing number of Americans are ditching $10 sandwiches and $12 salads in favor of food from home, according to new data from the research firm NPD Group. Lunch traffic is slowing at restaurants around the country, with weekday lunch visits down 7 percent compared to a year ago, the steepest decline since the beginning of the recession, data show.

The reason? Nearly 40 percent of Americans now work from home (at least on some days), according to Gallup, and lunch out is becoming too expensive for many to justify.

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“The price-value relationship at lunch has gotten out of whack,” said Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant industry analyst for NPD Group. “Part of it has to do with sticker shock. When you’re paying $12 for a sandwich and drink every day, well, who can afford that?”

Fast-casual eateries, which have had explosive growth for 15 years, experienced a 9 percent drop in traffic between April and June, as average lunch tickets rose to $8.36 nationally, according to the NPD research. In the District, a kale-and-chicken salad from Sweetgreen costs $9.63 with tax, while a cheesesteak sandwich and chips from Taylor Gourmet will set you back $12.19. A serving of macaroni and cheese from the food truck CapMac can range from $8 to $14.

“What I’m saying is, the bloom is off the rose,” said Riggs, who usually packs her own lunch. “Even during the recession, when every other segment was weak, fast-casual was continuing to grow at 7 percent, 8 percent.”

The Washington area has seen a boom in fast casual dining restaurants using a Chipotle-like model of building your own meal starting with a base, adding a protein and vegetables, and topping it with garnishes and sauces. The Chipotle-owned ShopHouse and D.C.-based Cava Grill are two newer outlets where customers can build a bowl. (Video: Jayne W. Orenstein and Pamela Kirkland/The Washington Post)

This start-up can get you a $6 lunch in Washington

Lunch accounts for one-third of all restaurant visits, according to the NPD. (Dinner accounts for 30 percent, while breakfast and afternoon snacks make up 22 percent and 15 percent, respectively.) “Lunch is the most popular meal to eat out,” Riggs said. “But it is also a time when customers don’t want to invest a lot of time, money or energy.”

The start-up MealPal, which expanded to the District this week, is hoping to solve at least some of those problems. The Miami-based company (formerly known as MealPass) has partnered with a few dozen local restaurants, including District Taco and Jose Andres’s Beefsteak, to provide pre-determined lunch options for a flat rate of $119 per month (or roughly $6 a meal).

“We know people have a finite amount of time, and they don’t want to spend a lot of money on lunch during the week,” said Mary Biggins, the company’s co-founder (who also co-founded popular fitness start-up ClassPass). “Those were the two complaints we heard over and over.”

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