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How to Combat a Slowdown in Lunch Sales

Colleen Egan, Writer

“Let’s do lunch!” Today, that once common expression is uttered about as often as “Let’s rent a video!” In fact, Americans went out to lunch 433 million fewer times last year, which translates to about $3.2 billion in lost business for restaurants, according to a report by the NPD Group Inc.

This drop in lunch traffic isn’t because we as a nation have decided to collectively skip a meal. Here are some of the reasons behind this dramatic shift in lunch behavior:

More people are working from home or eating at their desks

As the nature of the work day has changed, so has its rituals. Technology has allowed for more flexibility and enabled more people to work from home — and eat lunch there, too.

The power lunch era is over, and in today’s fast-paced business environment, employees are hyper-focused on delivering results, which means they often can’t sacrifice the time for a sit-down meal outside the office.

Restaurant prices are rising while grocery prices are falling

The average cost of a restaurant lunch has gone up 19.5 percent since the recession, due in part to increases in the minimum wage. At the same time, groceries are becoming more affordable, leading more consumers to eat at home or bring their lunches to work. According to a Reuters/Ipsos survey, more than two-thirds of respondents said they consider eating at home to be very or somewhat cheap.

True, the data isn’t encouraging, but that doesn’t mean you have to give up on lunch. Armed with an understanding of why people are staying in, you are better positioned to offer promotions that entice them to venture out. Here are some ideas:

Promote your guaranteed, superfast service

Two-hour, three-martini lunches are a Mad Men–era relic, and even a lunch hour isn’t so common. So appeal to the efficiency-minded and offer diners a deal.

For example, promise them they’ll have their food within 15 minutes of arriving at the restaurant or it’s on you. Make it even faster (and more appealing) by offering priority to diners who reserve a table online and order their food ahead of time.

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Showcase your smaller portions and healthier options.

When people go out to eat, they want to avoid a restaurant, and meals, that will slow them down — and we’re not talking about the time it takes to eat. Giant portions of rich, heavy dishes are out. Instead, offer a lunch menu with lighter fare and smaller portions, with prices to match.

Start a sad sandwich/salad campaign.

More people might be making lunch at home, but does it taste better than a restaurant meal? Doubtful. Highlight the vast differences between customers’ homemade lunches and your restaurant’s professional dishes by inviting your social media followers to take a picture of their subpar sandwiches and salads with a designated hashtag.

Choose the most pathetic of the bunch and award that person a free lunch (consult with your lawyer on the best way to run a contest like this). It’s sure to get people rethinking their tired PB&J.

Create a laptop lunch lane.

The necessity of working through lunch is unavoidable sometimes, but at least you can offer people a change of scenery. Try designating a certain counter or long table as a laptop lane, available only to people who have ordered lunch (not just a coffee) and are working while they eat. Free Wi-Fi is obviously a must, too.

Offer delivery and pickup options.

If people want to eat at their desks — or in the office — make it easy for them to still eat your delicious food by offering pickup or delivery options. You need to set up online ordering to do something like this, which might seem like an overwhelming proposition. But with delivery partners like Caviar, which provide the infrastructure, it’s easy to get this service going. (Plus it provides a new revenue stream.)

Whichever tactic you choose to pursue, make sure you promote it through your social accounts and via email to your most loyal customers. Posting the details on your website and online review sites also helps get the attention of new customers.

Colleen writes for Square, where she covers everything from how aspiring entrepreneurs can turn their passion into a career to the best marketing strategies for small businesses who are ready to take their enterprise to the next level.