Some workers can't afford to go out for lunch with colleagues due to soaring food costs — and it's forcing companies to rethink how their teams bond

Some workers can't afford to go out for lunch with colleagues due to soaring food costs — and it's forcing companies to rethink how their teams bond
Lunch costs, from salad bowls to sandwiches, are on the rise as a result of "lunchflation."Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images
  • The higher cost of lunches has prevented some employees from eating out with their colleagues.
  • One worker, Mariah Hagan, said she previously enjoyed going for lunch with her team.

Increasing lunch costs are not only hurting people's wallets but office dynamics too.

This is the result of "lunchflation," a recent trend coined by payments company Square, which is making it harder for workers to afford their regular salad bowl or sandwich.

The data obtained by Square analyzed sales of popular lunchtime meals in the US over a two-year period, from March 1, 2020 to March 1, 2022, and found lunch items are rising faster than the average cost of all other items. According to the data, the average price of wraps increased by 13%, while the cost of sandwiches rose by 14%, for example.

"Restaurants have been among the hardest-hit businesses over the past few years, and now they're facing rising costs across all parts of their business due to labor shortages and supply chain constraints," said Bryan Solar, head of restaurants at Square.

The price hikes have been a real burden on the budget of Mariah Hagan, an employee at a Colorado-based mortgage lender platform Neat Loans. She told Insider she's noticed a rise in price by a few dollars at some of her favorite lunch places, especially at some of the larger chains.


It's subsequently stopped her from eating out with her colleagues. "I have definitely declined meals with coworkers or team members here at Neat Loans, as a result of trying to keep my budget tight, and not overspend on small things, like lunch," she said.

She added: "Before the pandemic, I would try to keep lunch under $15 but I've noticed that's a lot less manageable, even at some of my favorite chains, where things reach nearly $20 with taxes and fees."

As a younger professional in the office, however, Hagan said she's still able to go for team lunches expensed by the company but as lunch prices have risen, she said those invitations are "a little more few and far between."

"Going out to lunch is something I really enjoy, so cutting out that piece of joy was hard," Hagan said.

For Hagan, fewer lunches with her colleagues have prompted more team meetings, whether it's to brainstorm ideas or just check in with each other.


"My manager has also been making sure we each get enough 1:1 time with her, and regularly checks in on how we are doing personally, professionally, and in this ever-changing team environment."

Though "lunchflation" has prevented some employees from eating out with their colleagues, it has fostered new ways of team bonding at the office, according to Hagan. This includes doing a "teamwork power hour," where employees sit together for two hours every week to collaborate on work projects and "just be in each other's presence," Hagan said.

The team at Neat Loans have also been able to enjoy more happy hours at work. Decreased team lunch spending has meant the company can reallocate that budget for larger events, more fun events, like an annual ski day, Hagan said.

Hagan said she's been bringing in more homemade lunches to tackle increasing lunch costs, but they don't quite hit the same as the fresh poke bowl she used to grab downtown.

"I'm trying to be increasingly creative about bringing lunch," she said.


"While I don't go off-campus as much anymore, it's still important to make lunch valuable. So, now I spend my lunch break eating with friends in our large break room," she said. There, she can converse with co-workers outside of her main team and make new connections every day, she added.