In the boom times, executives riding a wave of fast money did their power lunches over hors d'oeuvres and chardonnay.
But with the 1990s bust, many have now taken to a slice of pizza, a hoagie, or what in Chicago they call a slider - a burger so greasy it slides right down.High noon just isn't what it used to be. And with recession fears growing and Mideast tensions driving up oil prices, the lunch business is getting as soggy as a leftover chicken salad sandwich.
"It's quite clear that lunch is off, in a variety of ways," said Malcolm Knapp, president of Malcolm Knapp Inc., a New York-based marketing research firm. "People see colleagues getting laid off, you wonder if you're next, so you cut back on the cash things you can control - gasoline, entertainment and eating out."
A Gallup poll for the National Restaurant Association in Washington, D.C., showed 22 percent of adults ate lunch out on any given day in July, compared with 30 percent in June. The polls were of 1,000 people and had a margin of error of 3.5 points.
"That drop comes at a time of the year that's usually very good for the industry," said Anne Curtis, an association spokeswoman. "It's a significant change. This is not the usual fluctuation."
The bust started with a crash.
"Up to the 1987 stock market crash there was a kind of conspicuous consumption game where people would boast about how much they spent on eating out," Knapp said. "Now that kind of consumption is frowned upon."
Expensive restaurants are hardest hit.
"People will trade down for lunch," said George Rice, a spokesman for Consumer Reports on Eating Share Trends, which tracks restaurant industry data. "It's Chez Paul's to Bennigan's and Bennigan's to Denny's and then Denny's to McDonald's. That's been going on for a few years and it will accelerate."
And restaurants are adapting to the changing tastes, Curtis said.
"We're seeing lower prices, more casual atmospheres," Curtis said. "Waiters aren't wearing tuxes, the food is more simple."
The winners may be cheaper eateries, a possibility not lost on restaurant chains.
Kentucky Fried Chicken, based in Louisville, Ky., long a mostly dinner-time chain, has added chicken sandwiches and spicy chicken wings to their noon menu to draw customers.
"At lunchtime people want convenience. That means portable, snackable items like sandwiches," said Dick Detwiler, a KFC spokesman. "Hamburger chains have always been big at lunch. Now we want to expand into this segment."