The Great Recession has really lowered Americans’ expectations of life at work. Nobody expects two week vacations anymore (and most people are afraid to take it all at once anyway). The era of the expensive Christmas parties thrown by thankful CEOs haven’t been seen since the dot.com era (or Die Hard take your pick.) Individual birthdays that used to warrant funny hats and an office wide lunch at the local family restaurant have been reduced to a melting ice cream cake in the break room that says “Happy March Birthdays.” Even lunch breaks have been turned into feverish gobble fests as workers try to eat a sandwich in their cubicle and get work done. But all of that is about to change. According to recent marketing trends, the workday lunch is making a comeback. Thanks to those brave souls at your local food-court.
Since 2007 the Great Recession has kicked the Dinner Restaurant business where the shone don’t shine and shown no signs of stopping the beat-down. Despite 2 for $20 deals and a whole host of marketing campaigns and discounts Ruby Tuesday’s, Macaroni Grill, and various Steakhouses (Longhorn, Texas etc.) have all seen sales drop or flatline. Why drop $35.00 on “Blazin Asian” chicken breasts for two when you can cook at home with the Food Network? More and more commercials show young and hip people dining inside, cooking for themselves and forgoing the casual dining motif that defined the 90’s. The whole movie Waiting was about how suburban casual dining was purgatory for the recession worker, and when Hot Pockets can start making fun of TGI-Friday’s you know there has been a cultural shift about where we get dinner.
So with dinner officially out of the disposable income category what about lunch? That’s where restaurants and marketers have started to make their stand against the recession, and a slight uptick in employment numbers have led the way. McDonald’s, Applebees and a host of other restaurants have started running ads to promote going out to lunch again as a mini-revolution against the stress and tension of the recession. Just a few months ago McDonald’s started their “It’s YOUR Lunch, TAKE IT” campaign. The ads feature a young black woman bravely declaring to her office, Jerry McGuire style, “I’m GOING TO LUNCH”. As her co-workers try to stop her, pleading that the days of lunch breaks are over, a fellow employee stands up, throws off his headset declaring he will join her. “I don’t want to be chicken, I want to eat it!” he proclaims.
But it gets even bolder. Kentucky Fried Chicken will soon be featuring an American version of their “Lunch is MY time” ads. Already running in Australia, these commercials feature employees telling off their bosses who dare encroach on their ability to sit down and actually EAT during the workday.
And in case you’re not feeling all “Occupy Wallstreet” brave there’s even the new Applebee’s commercial featuring the “Lunch Decoy”. The advertisements feature a series of fake decoys that you can put in your chair to fool the boss while you sneak out to have a full enjoyable lunch. The decoys were so popular that Applebees sold out of them in a week.
So does this mean the recession is over and everyone is going back to lunch? Or are desperate restaurants just trying to lure us back into their high cholesterol funhouse by co-opting Dilbert-esque anger of the 99%? It’s a little bit of both. On the one hand, food advertisements tend to reinforce behavior that is already going on, more than try to convince people to do something new. Taco Bell had been the 3:00 post nightclub food place for years the company finally decided to start their late night “Fourth Meal” campaign. So in reality slowly Americans are beginning to feel more secure in the state of the economy and thus things like going out to lunch are seen as less risky than before.
But since people are still looking for a deal, Subway and now even 7-11 will continue to promote themselves as cheap lunch alternatives. On the other hand, the Occupy Wall Street movement and the general frustration of the American worker is now so commonplace that even companies will find a way to exploit in order to get you to start spending money again. The idea that interminable economic stress is being pimped and co-opted by corporations in order to sell you a product you don’t need is never really a good thing. However, if telling people that asserting a basic right (a meal) at work is a new form of mini-revolution then maybe for once corporate America is actually working for us. Even if it’s just to get us to buy a Big Mac.