We all know that the spread of COVID-19 changed nearly every aspect of daily life. Of course, that includes the workplace. An incredible 68% of people working in an office or other in-person environment pre-pandemic are now working full-time from home. But, as employees start to make their way back to the office, there’s likely to be a marked shift in an important part of the workday: the lunch break.
Tech companies and startups often attracted workers with free buffet-style meals, bowls of candy, and group drinks at the end of the day. After all, the Google lunch was one of the hottest tickets in town at one point. But, with COVID restrictions likely in place for the foreseeable future, where do all those perks go? And what happens for those who would simply head to the company cafeteria for a midday bite?
It is clear companies are already trying to navigate the balance of maintaining office cultures (and giving people a reason to return to their desks) and maintain employee safety. Earlier this month, Goldman Sachs welcomed its employees back to the New York City office by parking almost two dozen food trucks out front for lunch with free fare from Cousins Maine Lobster, Poke Motion, and the Van Leeuwen ice-cream shop.
“It must be a special occasion if Tucker and I get to go outside for a lunch break,” top Goldman banker Stephanie Cohen posted on LinkedIn.
Meanwhile, Barclays’ Manhattan offices are keeping strict social distancing guidelines in place and only have half the stations open at the cafeteria. And this is the case across companies. Those salad bars are still widely closed (and maybe even a bit off-putting), and everyone’s a little rusty on the bagged lunch from not doing it for a year. In fact, consumer habits have shifted over the past year.
For example, early on in the pandemic, consumers were panic-buying, stocking up their freezers to minimize grocery store runs. There was a 94 percent increase in frozen food sales in March 2020. But even after “freezer loading” faded, demand for frozen food didn’t, with nearly 30% of Americans increasing the size of their freezers and stocking it.
“People have learned that they can eat well by not ordering out all of the time and that they can save a lot of money,” Jack Acree, EVP of frozen entrée brand Saffron Road, told me. Meal Kits also saw a nice boost in sales from the pandemic, and it’s holding steady too. Companies like HelloFresh increased sales by 37% in the first quarter of 2021.
Of course, even as restaurants are opening back up, this new way of dining is causing brands to react to ensure that excitement, quality, and ease are brought back into that lunch break. Companies like Saffron Road, who just announced three elevated frozen meals–Pineapple Fried Rice with Chicken, Butter Chicken, and Sweet & Sour Chicken–to provide a restaurant experience in the office.
“Consumers have now had enough exposure to frozen meals during the pandemic that [they understand] there is no real compromise in quality with the added convenience and flexibility,” said Acree.
While frozen meals are bound to make a resurgence in the office place as it’s a COVID-safe meal, other changes are likely to happen too. These include individually packaged snacks instead of shared candy jars and touchless food deliveries to avoid unnecessary interaction with people outside the office. And those kitchens where you’d heat frozen meals will now include plenty of sanitizing options to reduce the risk of the high-touch area.
After all, even the CDC recommends keeping water fountains off-limits. So, water cooler talk is nixed.