Lunch at Work: Sustenance or Status Symbol? Comment
People might say that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but, in the world of work, your petit dejeuner is nothing more than a trifling insignificance. Lunch is everything. But why is our choice of lunch at work so important? Do we choose to eat certain things because it physically helps us to stay alive? Or do we chow down on expensive grub to prevent ourselves from committing social suicide? Jack Collins tries his best to settle the ultimate lunchtime debate…
The popularity of the ready-made sandwich alone is enough to demonstrate the importance of lunch for Britain’s workers. According to British Sandwich Week, “over 3,000,000,000 sandwiches are purchased from retail or catering outlets eachyear,” costing us “over £6,000,000,000” in the process.*
But is lunch only important because we need the nutrients and energy to get us through the day? Or is there another reason why we spend our hard-earned cash on sarnies, samosas and superfood salads?
Cheese & status
Lunch at work means different things to different people. For students on work experience, it’s an opportunity to lurk around the aisles of Tesco for longer than usual in a desperate attempt to fill an hour-long lunch break. For some seasoned professionals, lunch provides salvation from the tedium of the daily routine. “Lunch is often a failsafe way of cheering myself up at work,” says Ruby Bamber, Publicity & Sales Manager at Robert Hale. Finally, for others, lunch is an opportunity to flaunt their financial success and keep up appearances.
Ok, this last one might sound a bit ridiculous, but, based on my personal experiences, I’ve concluded that lunch is the new status symbol for London’s affluent professionals. Previously, a Montblanc pen, a Rolex watch, an Audi, or a D&G pinstripe suit was the sure-fire way to let everyone know how much money you were earning. Nowadays though, a carefully selected bento box or ‘posh’ cheese and pickle baguette is the method of choice for those wishing to reaffirm their financial superiority and sense of good taste.
In a previous life, I worked in recruitment. At the time, I was a fresh-faced, young whippersnapper who had just left university. Sporting a cheap Topman suit and a messy haircut amongst a team of experienced and affluent recruitment consultants, I was instantly nicknamed ‘Student’. Considering the fact that I wasn’t earning mega bucks like my colleagues, I decided to stick to the student lunchtime classics, which had guided me through university so successfully: sausage rolls from Greggs and cheap sandwiches from Tesco.
As a result of my budget lunch choices, I consistently suffered derisory sneers and looks of disdain from my colleagues as they tucked into the preposterously expensive sandwiches, Mediterranean salads and bowls of miso soup, which they wore (sometimes quite literally) like a badge of success. If I ever had the audacity to ask if anyone wanted something from Greggs, the response would consistently be something along the lines of: “We don’t eat that kind of crap in this office ‘Student’! Go to M&S and get yourself something decent.”
The great sustenance vs. snobbery study
Since moving on from my job in recruitment, I started wondering if this kind of scenario was played out in other offices? Did people at other companies regard their choice of lunchtime snack as a reflection of their success? Consequently, I decided to conduct a little study into people’s lunchtime habits. I interviewed 50 professionals, including accountants, recruitment consultants, media professionals and NHS staff, all of whom are established professionals in relatively ‘well-paid’ jobs.
The results were pretty interesting. 75% of people who took part in the study said that they would prefer to buy lunch at M&S rather than Tesco. Furthermore, when it came down to pub lunch preferences, 75% of people said they would rather go to a ‘gastropub’ than a Wetherspoons. Most importantly, 78% of people said that quality was more important than price when it came to choosing their lunch.
Streets apart, yet worlds apart
Now, I’m not here to say which shops and pubs provide the best quality lunches. After all, I think Tesco and Wetherspoons produce some world-beating cuisine (ok, maybe the word ‘cuisine’ is going a bit too far), but the numbers clearly match up. M&S and gastropubs are the kind of places that hungry workers go for a quality lunch without caring too much about the added expense. In these tough economic times, you’d think that the UK’s workforce would be wary of forking out for expensive snacks and sundries. But clearly, bargains take a backseat when it comes to buying ‘statement lunches’.
This trend matches up perfectly with the clientele that I see storming into the M&S on City Road every single day: suited and booted ‘City’ types, who splash their cash on pricey treats and elaborately packaged sandwiches without giving a second’s thought to what price is flashing up on the screen of the self-scanner.
Compare this scene with the bargain hunting action that can be witnessed at the Tesco on Shoreditch High Street (just around the corner). The kind of place where a designer suit is seen as rarely as a panda is seen in the wild. Instead, studenty-looking characters and scruffy ‘first jobbers’ (i.e. still plagued by student debt) raid the shelves, each eventually coming away with a £2.50 meal deal.
This might all sound a bit like I’m relying on stereotypes, but as Shakira once said: “My hips [statistics] don’t lie.”
The Greggs barometer
Finally, I decided to use my former ‘Student’ fondness of Greggs as a barometer of snobbery. Unsurprisingly, 91% of the people that took part in the survey had not been to Greggs in the past month. Don’t get me wrong, I love Greggs, but its cheap and cheerful snacks are clearly not the kind of midday fodder which helps modern day professionals look good in front of their colleagues.
In fact, Greggs’ tasty treats are quite often the subject of scorn and ridicule. Indeed, when asked why they hadn’t been to Greggs in the past month, two senior recruitment consultants, Nikola Southern and Matthew Alcock, separately said “I’m better than that.” Furthermore, Emma Marijewycz, an experienced press officer, told me that “Gregg’s is the antithesis of good food,” before admitting that she was “a self-confessed food snob.”
Rate my lunch
So where do I sit on the sustenance-to-snobbery spectrum? Well, for my lunch today, I went for a bit of a hybrid. I brought sandwiches from home (Mature Cheddar and Sainsbury’s Basics Tomato Chutney), I purchased a Greggs-esque chicken slice from Tesco (if there was a Greggs nearby, I would have gone there) and I bought a bag of Percy Pigs and a bottle of Gastropub Lemonade from M&S.
Oh yeah! Now try to pigeonhole me, suckers! You can’t can you? Maybe it’s because I’m a renegade, a rebel, a non-conformist. Maybe it’s because I’m not quite successful enough yet to care about how my choice of sandwich affects my social status? Maybe it’s because I’m only partially plagued by student debt? Maybe it’s because I’m addicted to supermarket browsing and I like to visit more than one shop during my lunch break? Who cares? Who’s hungry? I know I am.
Image courtesy of Sarah Marriage, ‘Lunch, Apparently’
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