Desk lunches are making a comeback, but restaurants will likely never see midday sales at pre-pandemic levels again

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Desk lunches are making a comeback, but restaurants will likely never see midday sales at pre-pandemic levels again
Richard Baker/In Pictures via Getty Images
  • The desk lunch is slowly making a comeback as people return to the office and to schools.
  • NPD Group data shows that visits to restaurants during lunch rose 4% over the last year.
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The desk lunch is slowly making a comeback, but it may never return to pre-pandemic levels.

Market research firm NPD Group studied the future of lunch and found that people are beginning to buy their lunch again now that offices are reopening and schools are in session. Visits to restaurants during lunch hours - both online and in person - rose 4% in the year ending September 2021.

It's only a single-digit uptick, but an uptick nonetheless: During the same period a year ago, those visits were down 11%. And early on in the pandemic, 78% of lunches were being made at home, NPD Group found.

Still, the desk lunch has not made a full comeback, and it's possible it never will - the data showed that lunch traffic is still 8% lower than it was in September 2019. NPD Group's forecast shows that while lunchtime restaurant visits are expected to rise by double-digits through 2024, those gains will still be 2.4% lower than before the pandemic.

Restaurants that cater to lunch crowds were hit hard in 2020 as offices emptied and the typical crowds stayed at home. In New York City, restaurant owners reported significant dips in sales and only a handful of customers coming in each day, a far cry from the lunchtime rush pre-pandemic.

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The fast-casual chains were impacted too. Location data from Placer.ai found that popular lunch spots like Sweetgreen and Chop't were seeing significantly fewer visits in the early months of 2021 compared to the same period in 2019.

But by August, those chains were slowly starting to recover, and now, Sweetgreen is preparing for an initial public offering. The chain hasn't totally escaped the secondary impacts of remote work, however, and warned in its S-1 prospectus that it may permanently close some of its most affected locations.

At the same time, getting food to-go has drastically changed amid the pandemic. Restaurants like Starbucks and Cheesecake Factory have begun to rely more heavily on mobile orders for takeout food, and in some cases, it's led to unhappy customers and employees feeling overworked, Insider's Mary Meisenzahl reported.

Plus, restaurants that offer takeout are being hit by shortages of items like takeout containers and plastic cups, and are having trouble filling vacant positions, making to-go orders challenging to fulfill. At Chipotle, a popular lunchtime option, employees told Insider that they often struggle to keep up with the onslaught of mobile orders, sometimes having just 10 minutes to fulfill 20 online orders.

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