The "sad desk lunch" is now even more depressing as employees return to the pandemic-era office

Both office employees and restaurants in business districts report struggling with the "new normal"

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published September 14, 2020 3:00PM (EDT)

Salad at desk (Getty Images)
Salad at desk (Getty Images)

The Tumblr "Sad Desk Lunch" hasn't been updated since 2015, but the images featured still feel familiar enough: a wheat English muffin covered in a single slice microwave-singed white American cheese, week-old salmon eaten cold from an aluminum foil packet, a single turkey burger served in a coffee filter because the office kitchen ran out of paper plates. 

Going out to lunch had already been something of a dying tradition. As the Wall Street Journal reported in 2017, Americans made 433 million fewer trips to restaurants at lunchtime compared to the prior year, the lowest level of lunch traffic in at least four decades. There are several reasons for this — post-recession frugality, a widening gap between the cost of eating out versus supermarket items, more employees working from home, the ever-shrinking line that divides work/life balance and increasing pressure to always be on the clock. 

Regardless of the reasons, the "sad desk lunch" is an obvious byproduct — enough so that food publications like Bon Appetit have compiled multiple guides to eating a better "lunch al desko" — and it's only becoming more depressing as employees begin to work out the safest ways to eat in a pandemic-era office, and as restaurants in business districts struggle to survive

Danny Groner works in public relations for SquareFoot, a New York City-based commercial real estate company that helps companies find office space that fits their needs. In July, he returned to his office. Typically there are 59 employees working from assigned desks, but due to social distancing requirements, they are down to 27. 

Groner said there have been other changes around the office, like the closure of their communal kitchen. 

"We usually have two refrigerators here — one that is stocked with free LaCroix and other beverages, and one that is a communal fridge for people, like me, to put their lunches in," Groner said. "Those refrigerators are off-limits right now. So, when I'm packing my lunch for that day, I have to put things in bags that don't need refrigeration. That actually really narrows the scope of what you can bring — it's a lot of peanut butter and jelly." 

Nick Holmes, a Louisville-based employee who works in design and construction, went back to work in May. He used to spend his lunch hour with his office-mates, but now he spends it alone in his car. 

"Every day I eat lunch in the parking lot, in my car, in my own air. It's not a bad view, there are some fields and forests to look at and NPR to listen to," Holmes said. "I pack a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, some chips, a granola bar, and an apple every day. It's a lunch more practical than pleasurable, reminiscent of an elementary school field trip, but it is comforting and predictable." 

The sad lunch isn't just about missing an element of one's work routine — though that's a valid feeling as many of us are grieving for the loss of normalcy and predictability in our day-to-day lives. Underpinning the observations around how work lunches are changing is a bigger-picture analysis of the ways in which office morale will be impacted as more employees return to work. 

"I think the absence of shared lunches with coworkers has made the biggest difference post-COVID," Holmes said. "It feels like we are a little less cohesive as a group, and maybe it's partly the economic strain on our business, but I think the absence of shared food makes us feel less secure in our positions." 

Holmes described his lunch hour with colleagues as a place where they could let loose a little and share their "real-life personalities" and give insight into who they were outside of the office. 

"I believe that without this bonding we are less confident in our roles within the office," he said. 

In contrast, the pandemic is also causing office designers and businesses to consider the practicality of communal eating spaces. According to Groner, it's still too early to know what the next iteration of offices being built post-pandemic will look like, but the SquareFoot office currently has tape over the kitchen entrance asking employees to refrain from entering. 

He recalls speaking with a client in April 2019 about a build-out she envisioned for her office.

"I remember this client talking specifically about wanting to put an island in, in addition to the little kitchenette area, because she recognized in their previous office, that this was one of the little sparks of joy for the team, to be able to have a place that they can pull up away from their desk to be able to sit together," Groner said. 

"So, I definitely think that these build-outs with a focus on kitchens are going to go away," he continued. 

Groner said he obviously doesn't see offices taking on extreme measures like banning communal refrigerators and coffee stations. 

"But I do think, to your point, people are starting to rethink, 'Hey, we don't have to dedicate 500 square feet to this area — what can we do with that additional 500 square feet?'" he said. "And I think what that's going to go towards is additional social distancing, where everybody can spread out a little bit more." 

Both Groner and Holmes describe missing going out for the occasional lunch. "I have always been told that buying lunch for a potential client is the best investment you can make," Groner said. 

But restaurants in business districts have been hit especially hard by the pandemic, as most non-essential workers transitioned out of their offices to working from home. Allison Casale, the co-owner of Another Place Sandwich Shop in Louisville, Ky., described that as an immediate slash to her business' bottom line. 

"From last year from June 1 to August 31 — so the entirety of summer from 2019 compared to 2020 — we're down 70% in number of transactions," Casale said. 

There are days that she only sells five sandwiches. 

She says that there are several contributing factors. Tourism is down because of the pandemic, and her restaurant is just a few blocks away from Jefferson Square Park, where protesters have been holding daily gatherings in response to the death of Breonna Taylor. The protests have been largely nonviolent, but unfounded rumors of riots have caused surrounding businesses to board up their windows and doors. 

But office closures have had the biggest impact on her business; Downtown Louisville is largely commercial, so there isn't much foot traffic these days, and many large companies located there — including Humana Inc. — haven't determined an exact date for when they will be operating with a full staff in-office. 

"Our regulars, as they do come back in to work at the nearby museums or law firms, we ask them all the time, 'What's the building at?'" Casale said. "'What is the population back at?' And for the most part, it's only about 30%." 

When asked how long Another Place Sandwich Shop could stay open at this current level of business, Casale's response was frank: "Not very long." 

She was able to get a small business grant to cover some of the expenses of the shop, as well as her other business, a jazz club called Jimmy Can't Dance. That should last for about six months and during that time, she plans on saving as much money as she can to hopefully make it until the spring. 

"Hopefully, there's tourism that starts back in the spring or in the summer," she said. "And if there isn't, then we would be completely reliant on our government  — whether that's city, state, federal — to support. And if there was no tourism to return at all next summer, well, we would close for sure." 


By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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Desk Lunch Lunch Office Office Culture Pandemic Reporting Restaurants