a whole bunch of photos of women eating lunch and laughing
Who wants a salad? Sarah Holder/CityLab/Shutterstock

From the Automat to Sweetgreen Outpost, grabbing a bite during the workday has long sacrificed human contact and flavor to value and efficiency.

A few months ago, the New York Post’s Steve Cuozzo bemoaned the  death of the Manhattan power lunch. Gone were the long, decadent afternoons filled with networking and Negronis: “Suit-and-tie-wearing machers in media and Wall Street gave way to ‘influencers’—millennials in Untuckit shirts,” he wrote. The new Masters of the Universe preferred “picking at salads at their desks.”

But if you define the power in “power lunch” more like the power in “power walk”—an activity defined by arm-pumping and joyless, ruthless efficiency—Cuozzo’s wrong. Millennials have that kind of power lunch mastered.

For many young urban professionals in the U.S., the typical mid-day meal involves shoveling in a lightly-dressed salad alone at a desk, or maybe on a curb outside listening to a podcast on double speed. But it’s not because they hate drinking in the middle of the day. It is because they lack the expense accounts, disposable income, and stretchy sense of time that previous generations apparently had. Knowing all this, an entire ecosystem of startups and startup-adjacent food dispensaries has appeared. Together, the companies are working to kill the concept of waiting to eat, and optimize lunch.

The Sweetgreen Outpost, launched in 2018, is the most recognizable progenitor of these inventions. Inspired by the fast-casual salad company’s successful order-ahead app, which in 2018 was reportedly responsible for about 50 percent of purchases, Sweetgreen started installing minimalistic, wood-beamed kiosks in offices across its markets. Workers can order online and the next day, the biodegradable bowl of Kale Caesar will materialize frictionlessly on the white shelves in their office by lunchtime the next day.

Outposts further Sweetgreen’s quest to let customers “order in many, many different ways, whether it’s voice ordering, text ordering, Slack ordering,” Sweetgreen’s co-founder Jonathan Neman told Recode’s Kara Swisher in 2018. “We wanna take these trends we’ve seen in e-commerce and apply it to food, which is so huge.” As with Amazon one-day shipping, no brick-and-mortar retailer or contact with the outside world is required. In September, Foodservice Equipment Reports cited more than 400 operational Outposts in offices across the U.S., and said the company would be expanding to 600 by the end of the year.

Other lunch startups act more like middlemen. MealPal, which launched in the U.S. in 2017, emulates Movie Pass’s too-good-to-be-true subscription model. The app allows lunchers in cities like San Francisco, Toronto, and Singapore to sign up for various monthly plans where, for about $6 a meal, you can order lunch at nearby restaurants. Each establishment chooses one meal it wants to make available through the app each day; every night at 5 p.m., the “kitchen” opens, and you place your order. The portions are a bit smaller than most restaurant’s typical fare, and it can be hard to find a vegetarian option, but otherwise, you can basically pay half-price on a $12 salad or sushi burrito in downtown San Francisco. In Manhattan and Brooklyn, MealPal is also available for dinner-ordering.

The best part, MealPal advertises, is that you can skip the line at the restaurant. Instead, you scan a QR code proving that you paid in advance, and as a digital clock counts down, you’re handed your pre-packaged item. If the elevators are moving fast enough, a round-trip lunch run in the heat of mid-day rush can be completed in less than 15 minutes. If the Mad Men-era power lunch was a sluggish male display of decadence, today’s is a race-the-clock exercise in brutal efficiency that intentionally leaves you a little hungry. (MealPal co-founder Mary Biggins did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

Such innovations, and the feeling of being a cog in a vast calorie-distribution apparatus, are perhaps just the logical next step in the relatively short history of the American workday lunch.

For agricultural laborers, working hours were defined by daylight and the word “lunch” itself meant more of a snack—“as much food as you can hold in the palm of your hand,” according to Laura Shapiro, the author of What She Ate and co-curator of the New York Public Library’s 2012 Lunch Hour NYC exhibition. Eating on the job as we know it emerged with industrialization in the middle of the 19th century, as lunch became designed to be gobbled in between factory shifts: It “only became the day’s third fixed meal as society urbanised and industrialised, and workers were unable to return home for dinner (always the main meal of the day) until late at night,” Edible Geography wrote in 2012.

“Sunrise and sunset mean nothing anymore. The day is about the clock,” says Shapiro of that transition from agricultural labor into manufacturing. “Your meal break is fixed. You get 15 minutes, 20 minutes, maybe half an hour. But [the bosses] want to get you back at the desk as soon as possible.”

New York, a city where work is central to the culture, was the belly of the work-meal beast, she said—“quick-lunch” spots cropped up there in the late 19th century. “The idea was speed,” which led to “crush and chaos,” Shapiro says. “The whole emphasis on speed meant eating fast, and waiting as little as possible.”

No quinoa: New Yorkers lunching at an Automat on Sixth Avenue. (Courtesy New York Public Library Digital Collection)

The quick-lunch gave way to the Automat in the early 1900s, where giant coin-operated vending machines served meatloaf and five-cent pies prepared at a central commissary and trucked to locations citywide. “It was considered clean, safe, absolutely democratic, and fast,” says Shapiro. “You could choose exactly what you wanted, and never say a word to anyone.”

The democracy of these popular urban cafeterias was in their dining area, where rich and poor sat elbow to elbow, sometimes alone, together. But the workers—many of them African American or immigrants—were hidden behind the wall of little glass cases, deliberately kept invisible.

The echoes of the Automat can be heard in today’s Sweetgreens, which Jia Tolentino described in the Guardian as feeling “less like a place to eat and more like a refueling station.” In a move seemingly designed to make its restaurants feel even more like unmanned food kiosks, the company has opened an experimental incubator space in New York City dubbed Sweetgreen 3.0, equipped with digital kiosks and a hidden salad-mixing assembly line. “Here, on Park Avenue South, a patron can order via an app, walk in, approach a giant green shelf system, find their custom $15 Thai chicken bowl, and leave without interacting with a single human,” writes Ryan Sutton, reviewing the incubator in Eater. The salad-servers who are available for interaction are trapped “behind a grid-like metal structure that rises toward the ceiling” and have to “chat with patrons through the grates.”

Sutton calls this “bad.” But in the Wall Street Journal, Sweetgreen’s founders call their model, which involves more free samples and order-taking concierges in addition to grab-and-run options, smart.

Other apps allow consumers to partially subsidize their meals by pulling their own shifts as delivery workers. Ritual, a MealPal competitor, rewards people for picking up lunch for their coworkers—while you’re out getting a chicken wrap, you earn points for picking up extras for your team. The points can be redeemed for cash, or free snacks. JoyRun, which started on college campuses in 2017 and has since expanded into office-rich neighborhoods, is similar, except you can also deliver for random hungry people nearby. “Runners,” as they’re called, can ask to get tipped for their service, or not.

By packaging bulk orders, and disrupting the earlier disruptors like Uber Eats and Caviar, those who use these apps are conceivably saving delivery workers’ time (or stealing their jobs) and cutting carbon emissions. And, for their foresight and their service, they get to cut in front of all the low-tech losers who just wander in off the streets looking for food, like it was 1980 or something.

***

For a long time, my bid to take control of my lunch hour was to make my meal the cheapest and speediest possible, nutrition be damned. I’d save the Alison Roman recipes for dinner and the homemade egg sandwiches for the weekends; lunch came courtesy of the Trader Joe’s frozen aisle. A stash of frozen veggie burger patties in various flavors—Indian masala, Californian green pea, and my favorite, mealy-but-virtuous Quinoa Cowboy—lived in my D.C. office’s kitchen freezer. I’d microwave the soggy patties and slap them on a tortilla, sometimes garnished with Swiss cheese and hot sauce or wasabi mayo. On more ambitious days, I’d jiggle a soup out from a can or duck down to the subterranean deli to buy one. Then I moved to San Francisco and started working out of a WeWork, land of free snacks and bountiful booze.

There was one problem: I couldn’t find any freezers. If I left my frozen burgers in the office fridge, the patties would thaw into a shapeless veggie-mass by noon. I emailed WeWork to ask why they had no freezers, and if there were any freezers anywhere. Instead of an answer, I received a note that said: “Thank you for reaching out. We will politely have to decline comment at this time. Appreciate your understanding.”

It’s possible the company had other priorities at this time, but the “no comment” response obsessed me briefly; I became convinced that I’d stumbled on a conspiracy that revealed something larger about late capitalism. By depriving their office tenants of freezers to store their own microwaveable lunchtime larder, WeWork was essentially colluding with the Sweetgreens and MealPals of the world, I reasoned; perhaps this was part of the company’s unorthodox path to profitability.

Eventually, I stopped trying to fight and embraced the future: I signed up for MealPal. (They had a first-time user promotion where all the lunches were $3.89!) This isn’t a perfect solution. Every day it prompts me to order the Eggplant Plate from Sababa or the Arugula Grain Power Bowl from Le Boulangerie. Beaten down by its persistence, I comply, and feel healthy and productive.

When lunch has been so thoroughly optimized for time and value, though, the delicious vagaries of consumer choice are left out. What if, in the hours between 5 p.m. Monday and 1 p.m. Tuesday, I change my mind and decide I really want a 32-ounce lentil soup? What if the WeWork announces a free avocado toast bar and I wish I had just not ordered anything at all? Too bad: I’m locked into the Power Bowl.

And while my lunch is fast, actually getting the food is not truly frictionless. Here’s a recent example: To pick up the falafel platter I ordered via MealPal at a Middle Eastern place near my office, I first have to respectfully decline the business of another meal-optimizing startup whose representative is waiting by the door of the shop, offering me a discount. Ducking in front of the regular line waiters, avoiding their angry looks, I try to find the QR code I’m supposed to scan, but it’s sandwiched between a half-dozen other signs advertising Ritual and JoyRun and Caviar. When I’ve finally showed the glowing QR screen to the cashier, I’m directed around a corner, where two safe-like boxes sit. Inside are lukewarm falafel bowls, ready for the taking. (I could grab three at a time and it’s unclear whether anyone would notice: It’s a falafel-lifters paradise.)

The process takes, like, three minutes flat and involves no human interaction beyond grimacing and shoving wordlessly through crowds of other people much like me. I return to my desk to eat alone and look at my screen.

It’s not that bad. Since this is happening in one of the world’s greatest food cities, my lunch regime offers far more culinary variety than, say, chugging Soylent (or its “nutritionally complete” competitor, Huel). And though I often choose solitude, MealPal’s suffix is meant to inspire collegiality—it tells you when your coworkers are stopping by the same lunch spot and nudges you to eat together.

Desk salads, even sad ones, seem to be better than the quick-lunches of the early 20th century. Back then it was “every luncher for him or herself,” Rebecca Federman, the culinary collections librarian at the New York Public Library who co-curated the Lunch Hour NYC exhibit with Shapiro, told Edible Geography. “At the quick-lunch places, it was understood that you got in and got out as fast as you could and the normal rules were thrown out of the window,” she said. “You can … get a sense from the menus, which deliberately say things like, ‘We are not responsible for your personal property.’ You could drop your hat on a chair to save it while you got your food, but if someone else sat down faster than you, all bets were off.”

The Gilded Age had its own power lunches, too—visible representations of “edible inequality,” says Shapiro. “The white guys in suits went off and took all the time they wanted and spent all the money they wanted to talk to each other,” she said. “Meanwhile, the workers are confined to a very definite chunk of time.”

That should look and sound familiar to habitués of the Four Seasons in 1990s Manhattan, or venture capitalists gathering in Palo Alto today. Indeed, the power lunch cannot truly be killed, even if venues and menus change. For the elites, the Post recalls, it’s an opportunity to hobnob and cut deals and consolidate their dominion; for the rest, it’s every luncher for herself.

Even Silicon Valley’s ornate tech cafeterias, which are often framed as gated bastions of privilege, reflect 20th century urges to keep the proletariat on-site and working, lest they snag a midday beer or commute too far to home.

Shapiro says she mostly eats her homemade lunch—cheese, crackers, an apple or peach—at her desk at home. She’ll occasionally splurge on a Pret a Manger salad, and understands the appeal of MealPals, but sees such services as part of a wider American lunch alienation. “From the app to the packaging to the impersonality, you’ve lost touch with food,” she said.

After about a month of MealPal-ing around, I have slowly gotten hooked on meals that are subsidized by VC money. My veggie patties have been forgotten. Recently, a friend alerted me that my WeWork building did, in fact, have freezers. They were tucked carefully away on other floors, and appeared to have been rarely opened, stuffed with forgotten popsicles and freezer-burned breakfast burritos. When I tried to open the drawers, they were frozen shut.

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