Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Are you doing lunch?

The sandwhich
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The restaurant lunch

Do you get one? What do you eat? Where do you go? All this week, we examine who does what, starting with Joris Minne’s tribute to the day’s most delicious hour

Lunch. Just the sound of the word prompts appetite and hunger. It rings out full of squelchy, moist deliciousness and mouth-watering anticipation. Just writing the word makes me hungry already.

Some of us start thinking about lunch before we've even had breakfast. This is particularly so in the summer months when lunch can be a lengthy relaxed affair with all the components of a healthy diet — salads, fish, fruit — on the one hand and on the other, the sinful indulgence in hedonistic cold cuts, charcuteries, cheeses and other mouth-watering threats to human life.

Whatever your preference, there are countless ways nowadays of enjoying lunch. The solo pleasures of a desk-bound sandwich (brownie points for eating while working but everyone knows it's impossible to do both at the same time — you're having your lunch and that's it), meeting friends in a town centre cafe for a fry, cold coke and a gossip or a business lunch in the more hushed and gently lit surroundings of a posh restaurant — they all have their attractions.

My preference changes from day to day. Something light and tasty in Cafe Conor in Stranmillis may be hugely appealing on a breezy Tuesday between meetings but an hour away from work spent on three courses in Coco or Cayenne on at least one Friday in the month should be a human rights requirement.

Everyone has their constantly changing preferences and the hard part is for restaurants to predict what people will want one day over the next. It's easy if you're running a pizzeria or burger bar but how often will you get return customers for lunch? It's harder for, say, Nick's Warehouse in the city centre which has to keep up its attractiveness by changing its lunch menu enough times to maintain the weekly return of loyal clients.

So what do people do for lunch? A quick look around the Belfast scene shows a mixed and changing bag of noon-time habits.

The lunch tradition has been undergoing transformation for the last 20 or so years just as our appetites and desires have broadened. Where we used to have canteens at work, many of these have long since shut down along with the businesses which housed them. Many of us now turn instead to nearby chippies, take-aways and sandwich bars, restaurants, home bakeries and ‘food courts’.

For the hungry working man and woman the circumstances have changed dramatically. You will see vast roaming herds of lunch time office workers in the city centre grazing in McDonalds and KFC one day, going to M&S's downstairs cafe the next and possibly treating themselves to a barely more expensive trip to a quality diner such as Mourne Seafood Bar, Rhubarb, Ginger, Bert's Jazz Bar or Deane's.

The difference now is that whereas once there were distinct social groups such as ladies who lunch, business folk who entertain on expense accounts and general worker bees who need or just want sustenance, we now all dip in and out of the greater, broader choice made available to us.

So, a typical week might involve Burger King on Monday, packed lunch Tuesday and Wednesday, Long's Fish and Chips on Thursday and 27 Talbot Street on Friday. It means the class barriers of lunch have broken down and it's entirely up to us whether or not we want to be a lady who lunches one day and a take-away street grazer the next.

According to some chefs, this democratic approach to eating out at lunch time is making life more complicated than ever.

Niall McKenna, 2010 Great British Menu-winning chef patron at James Street South has the geographical advantage of being close to the working population of Belfast.

Yet he works hard to fill seats at lunch time with offers like £14.50 or £16.50 for two or three courses.

“You can't just print a value-for-money menu, stick it outside the front door and wait for the punters to form an orderly queue any more,” he says.

“We have to concentrate on our marketing almost as much as we have to focus on the quality of the offer and that means promoting deals such as our set lunches.

“That's because we are no longer just competing with the quality restaurants in town. We now compete with all restaurants, sandwich bars and cafes as people's tastes have become so much broader.”

The result of this is that whereas 10 years ago this kind of restaurant was confined to a certain strand of wealthy customers, it now draws in ordinary Joes (who, over the years of TV chefs and food programmes, have acquired more knowledge and interest in their meals).

The overall impact of lunch democratisation is that the quality being produced by greater Belfast's 420 or so restaurants, cafes and take-aways, has improved greatly. Victoria Square now has a great choice of lunch-time venues, bright, cheapish and quick.

There are dozens of lunch offers every day in city centre and suburban pubs and bars as well as the fast food outlets. But what of those who want to take their time and for whom a lunch should be savoured, sedate and well-lubricated?

Belfast is brilliant on this front. The choice is better than ever — Deane's has three city centre restaurants which seduce you into wanting to spend the rest of the afternoon there.

The Merchant is similarly endowed with a honey-trap atmosphere and the sheer cosiness of the Mourne Seafood Bar can shred any post-prandial attempts to get back to the office.

For comfort and indulgence, Cayenne lunches on Thursday, Friday and Sunday are hard to beat particularly if the mood takes you to prolong the event and take yourself into early evening and a taxi home.

Unless you have an eating disorder and whether it's for reasons more associated with hedonism than necessity, lunch is an inescapable feature of all our lives.

I don't know of anyone for whom lunch is a chore. It will always be a joyful affair no matter what form it takes and living in Belfast, we are blessed with choice of our daily bread.

A sandwich at desk for most

It’s half an hour long and often eaten at our desks. Jane Hardy on what our revealing survey says about working life now.

It was Gordon Gekko in the 1982 movie Wall Street who said that lunch was wimps, encapsulating that ruthless decade. But what has really happened to the business lunch at the tail end of the Noughties? Do people manage to get away from their desks or do they brown-bag while keeping one eye on the computer screen?

We conducted a survey with the Institute of Directors Northern Ireland to find out, asking their 1,000 members a series of questions about their lunchtime habits. And it appears that the traditional lunch hour is under serious threat.

Although 63% of the directors, managers and employers canvassed find time for some sort of working lunch, a hefty 37% don’t take a lunch break at all. And of those who do, the average lunch hour now lasts a mere 33 minutes.

The trend is towards a shorter break and the traditional 60-minute lunch hour may be on the way out.

A typical view was that of respondee Kate Houston, director of Belfast company Apple Recruitment, who said that because of increasing work pressure, the lunch hour was diminishing. “For me, definitely yes, but not for my staff.”

However, Kate feels that some sort of lunch break remains important in a well run workplace. “But there is flexibility, and if one of my employees comes in late, for example, they may take a reduced lunch break of 15-20 minutes, but you have to eat and everybody needs a break.”

Another shift in emphasis when it comes to the working lunch is where we take it. Of the IoD members who responded, the majority, a massive 88%, eat at their desk, which means this part of the work-life balance is definitely skewed towards work.

On average, these directors lunch at their desks three days a week.

The standby, the packed lunch, remains fairly popular. Some 29% of those surveyed said they still brought one into work, which may relate to economic factors as well as efficiency.

However, the sandwich has taken over and the largest percentage, 43%, buy a sandwich which explains the mushrooming growth of cafes and sandwich bars. And 29% go to a coffee shop come 12.30pm and only 9% head for the subsidised work canteen, a dying breed in the 2010s.

Northern Irish managers are a thrifty bunch, spending on average £3.65 on their lunchtime snack.

The results so far might seem to indicate that the business lunch was a thing of the past along with the lunch hour, but that isn’t entirely true. Our survey indicates that 77% of the IoD members had hosted a business lunch recently, with only 23% saying they didn’t ever conduct business over lunch. Breaking down the results of those who said ‘yes’, a healthy 64% said they often hosted a business lunch, while 21% said they sometimes hosted one and 15% rarely did.

In terms of costs, these business lunches are not the overblown sessions of the 1980s and 1990s, with lavish meals and plenty of drink, since the average bill for four people is £86.64.

Interestingly, the vast majority ( 90%) of employers canvassed said they had been invited to a business lunch. Clearly, this is still a fairly popular way of doing deals and conducting business.

In the past, going to the pub at lunchtime might have been an option, but now only 33% of managers make it down the Old Bull and Bush. So 67% never go to the pub during working hours, and of those who do, only 7% said they would have an alcoholic drink. So 93% remain teetotal at lunch, keeping a clear head for the afternoon’s work.

This is a dramatic shift in working patterns, as anybody who worked through the 1980s and 1990s will know. Anecdotally, senior employees with big firms recall lunches accompanied by bottles of wine throughout the 1980s and 1990s which were considered team-building exercises as well as ways of generating ideas. Today, the climate is different, with economic reality determining the length of the working day as well as its shape and composition.

So is the lunch hour a corporate Dodo? Not totally, since IoD members point to the value of a break in routine.

Some sort of respite from routine leads to greater productivity, according to Sara McKinty, founder of new business Sara McKinty Associates. “You need to take a break and get some fuel, otherwise you end up with square eyes. Also it refreshes the brain.”

She may be right. A British human resources firm undertook research into the lunch break a few years back and reported that a proper lunch break achieves three things — it recharges mind and body, helps people step back from work problems and find solutions, as you do after a good sleep.

But with the recession and increasing pressures on managers and workers alike, the valued lunch break seems at risk. Whichever way you look at it, working Northern Ireland is now rarely out to lunch.

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