Luring the lunch bunch

Move over, staid salads and sandwiches, lunch is getting a grocery refurb with restaurant-style options and more variety

For many, it’s the dreaded task on the nightly to-do list: making lunches. But now more grocers are realizing that their stores can be the ideal venue for consumers looking for a new lease on lunch.

At Loblaw’s flagship store in the old Maple Leaf Gardens arena in Toronto, lunch options range from gourmet paninis to braised lamb shank. Using fresh bread made in-house, the store features 20 different sandwich options. “We have all these beautiful ingredients already here so we use that to our advantage; we’ve taught our customers that we’re all about fresh food,” says chef Mark Russell. “Entrees that prove successful on the hot case are automatically turned into cold options customers can bring home.”

Indeed, in the current stagnant economic climate, customers are looking for ways to stretch not only their budgets, but their meals. Market analyst Joel Gregoire of the NPD Group says the biggest trend he’s seeing is the steady growth of leftovers for lunch. This year, he says, 30 per cent of Canadians are brown bagging their midday meals, up from 21 per cent in 2002. “Consumers are feeding into that notion of meal efficiency. They are not just preparing for one meal, but for the one after that.”

And grocers are betting on healthy fare to increase lunch-crowd traffic. Take Longo’s new Veggie Bar, recently introduced in Toronto’s Leaside neighbourhood, which aims to make healthy lunch choices as easy as possible. With veggies and fruit available in all forms – even paired in chef-inspired combos ready for the grill–a quick dinner and subsequent lunch becomes a feasible option. “We know people are on the go so it’s all about convenience,” says Brian Langley, Longo’s director of meat, seafood and foodservices. “Lunch is a big focus for us and in some locations our lunch business is equal to dinner now.”

Nowhere is the change in lunch showing up as much as in the good ol’ sandwich.Though it’s still the No. 1 item eaten at lunch (one-third of all lunches include a sandwich), Gregoire says the popularity of sandwiches is dropping slightly every year.

John Mastroianni, general manger of Pusateri’s Fine Foods in Toronto, agrees: “ The days of processed meat on a bun are long gone. People want something more and it has to be hearty and healthy.”

Mastroianni has noticed another trend, too: Customers are venturing in after work to pick up grab-and-go items for the next day’s lunch. “People don’t want to peel an orange, so we offer them fresh fruit cups,” he says.

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