It’s lunchtime at Chez Cubicle, and Pamela Ziogas has a marvelous little table for one with a panoramic view of her telephone, her computer and a pile of paperwork.
“Every day of my life is one big rush - rush, rush, rush,” said Ziogas, a 24-year-old public relations account executive at Leo Burnett USA.
She takes a bite of spinach pizza, which came from a vendor her employer brings in to feed workers too busy to leave their 6-by-10-foot cubicles.
“Everyone is so busy all the time,” she said. “Everything is so hectic.”
This is her lunch hour. It will last several minutes.
People realized years ago that the family dinner hour had been nuked by the microwave-age demands of ever busier lives. And breakfast preservationists have been struggling to revive the practice of eating in the morning since the end of the agricultural age, it seems.
Now, more and more people feel that another American institution - lunch - is being squeezed and squished like some baloney sandwich at the bottom of a briefcase. The “lunch hour” has become as oxymoronic as its current, flimsy accouterments - “plastic silverware.”
“Lunch as we knew it in the ‘80s is definitely not around anymore,” said Wendy Webster, spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association.
“Corporate culture has changed utterly,” she said. “There have been staff cutbacks everywhere, and people can’t afford to leave their desks. They also have to be at their desks to put in that ‘face time.”’
Add to this some other trends - health consciousness that leads many to forgo big midday meals, general disdain for multiple martinis lunch breaks - and the old lunch has had a toothpick driven through its heart.
So, it seems, the Power Lunch of the 1980s has yielded to the Desk Lunch. When a worker can loosen the shackles long enough to slip away, it is often for variations of the Errand Lunch - perhaps the Dry Cleaning Lunch, the Banking Lunch, or even the Grocery Shopping Lunch.
Bruce Glickson has been in the fast-food business in the Chicago suburbs for 18 years. He finds that the disposition of the lunchtime crowd has been changing. “People definitely are in more of a hurry,” said Glickson, owner of Hot Dog Place West in Hoffman Estates. “They want something as quick as possible, and sometimes I wonder if they care about the quality. I see what they eat at convenience marts and gas stations and wonder if they care.”
As those slowly spinning, grease-glossed hot dogs at gas stations prove, even fast-food restaurants are no longer fast enough for some.
Elsewhere, restaurants are turning more and more to take-out food and brown-bag catering. “It’s clear that improving lunch business will take creativity and ingenuity on the part of the restaurateur,” warned the National Restaurant Association in a publication last year.
“There is greater pressure to accomplish more within the workday than ever before,” said Jan Yager, a consultant and author of books on time management and business protocol.
Part of the problem is that the Neanderthals who invented lunch, oblivious to productivity goals, put it smack dab in the middle of the day.
“There is this growing reluctance to break the workday when you have your rhythm going,” Yager said.
Here, then, is her advice for lunch in the ‘90s: “I think it’s important, even if you eat at your desk, to try to take 20 minutes for lunch.”
Twenty minutes, she said.
Two years ago, a detergent company did a study of people’s eating habits and found that 49 percent of working American workers eat at their desks.
“There is an ambivalence about lunch,” said Mildred Culp, a lifestyle and workplace expert based in Seattle. “People are either cramming work into it, or they are cramming an hour with a friend they haven’t seen in three months, or they are cramming personal business into it.
“For many people, it is not the leisurely experience it used to be or probably should be,” she said.
As more families try to operate with both parents working, men and women often have to devote part of their workday to keeping their household running.
Working through lunch can also help a parent hit the ejector button on their desk chair in time to catapult them out the door toward the day-care center that holds their child.
“There is an integration of personal and business lives,” Culp said. “People are making personal phone calls, trying to find arrangements for their children. People are cramming more into their day whenever and wherever they can.”
Her own lunch break lasts about 10 minutes.
“It’s embarrassing to admit it publicly, but I have diversified my work so that lunch is not a priority,” Culp said. “I go long periods of time, I mean months, where I do not leave my office for lunch.”