In the belly of Plaza de Cafes food court in Irvine, Melissa Halle's five colleagues puzzle over what to order for lunch. Will it be the shrimp Creole from the Ragin' Cajun, the eggplant Parmesan from Bernando's Food of Italy or the kung pao chicken from the Orient Express?
For Halle, there is no such lunchtime quandary. It will definitely be the turkey and lettuce on wheat from her Tustin refrigerator.
Halle is the only one in her group to brown-bag it, but food market researchers estimate one in six American workers carry their lunch to work three times a week or more, amounting to about 8.4 billion homemade lunches a year.
The brown-bag experts--and there actually are such folks--agree that we're packing more lunches nowadays.
The NPD Group, a Chicago-based food marketing firm, reports that the average American now brings 11 more lunches to work a year than he or she did 10 years ago.
"We can't be sure, but it's probably because of the recession," says Dave Jenkins, vice president of the firm, which has monitored national lunchtime eating patterns since 1980.
David Lyon of the Brown Bag Institute in Green Farms, Conn., says his data--11,000 brown-baggers surveyed over seven years--indicates the recession has meant fewer workers to make their own lunches, "but the people that are working are brown-bagging more often."
Regardless of numbers, the rationale behind brown-bagging seems as steady and reliable as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Finances, convenience, nutrition and a sense of control all weigh into the decision to brown-bag on a regular basis, say enthusiasts.
Talk to most brown-baggers, and the first word out of their mouths is money. They estimate they save about $100 a month on average.
"It's just cheaper," says Halle, a 26-year-old USC graduate student in social work, who brown-bags at least four times a week. "It only takes a few minutes to pack a lunch. It's a pain, but it's not a big deal, really."
"It's financial. Definitely financial," agrees Kevin Spencer, 29, an Irvine locksmith, who brings his lunch almost every day. "I like having a lot more money in my pocket at the end of the month."
For others, the often frenzied pace of the office--and their schedules--demand they bring their lunch frequently. These brown-baggers--sometimes referred to as "desktop diners" by researchers--find themselves forced to lunch at their work stations to keep on top of their jobs.
"It can get extremely busy around here," says Sgt. Scott Nicgorski, 41, a reserve recruiter for the Army in Orange. "Most days I don't have the time to go out to eat, so I usually stay in, but it's not so bad since my desk is right by a window."
For Daphne Cumberland, 40, manager of human resources for the Irvine Co., brown-bagging becomes a virtual necessity in her efforts to juggle work, caring for her two children and staying fit.
"I like to work out during lunch because it's really the only chance I get to do it," says Cumberland, who brings her lunch three times a week. "So when I get back to my desk I usually start eating and working."
Lyon, employed for decades as a packaged food consultant before founding the Brown Bag Institute in 1980, argues that saving time and money are not the chief motivators for bringing a lunch to work. Rather, Lyon contends, brown-bagging is an assertion of personal independence.
"People have the misperception that brown-baggers are driven by poverty," Lyon says. "That's not true. It's a psychological type."
"People who brown-bag are people who take pride in taking care of themselves. There are people who have a feeling that they are beating the system. That they won't be manipulated into going to a fast-food place or a restaurant," says Lyon. "It is a pain to do, but at least you are your own person."
If that's true, Pat Fanelli, a district administrator for Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove), demonstrates her individualism at least three times a week with a brown paper bag containing fruit and yogurt.
"First of all, I do it because it's convenient," says Fanelli, 55, a Yorba Linda resident. "You get what you want, and you don't have to go through a big deal at lunch wondering where we are going to eat and what we are going to have."
Like many brown-baggers, Fanelli resists pressure from her office mates to go out and buy lunch at a restaurant. A frequent dieter, she says the offers can be tempting but are rarely successful.
"They try to talk me out of bringing my lunch. They always are trying to get me to go to Carl's or something," she says. "But I like being healthy, being disciplined. I'm trying to lose weight."
Dietary concerns also rank among the top motivations for brown-baggers. Many complain most restaurant menus--especially fast-food places--are clogged with dishes too high in fat. Also, many brown-baggers confess to being very picky, and most eateries just don't have exactly what they want.
To avoid dealing with most restaurant food, Christi Gordon, 30, a hospital fund-raiser from Orange, says she prefers to cook her own, healthier lunches.
"I'm an avid brown-bagger," says Gordon, who at most eats out twice a month for lunch. "Primarily, I do it because it gives me more control over the kinds of food I eat. I don't like fast food. I hate McDonald's. Even if I had a million dollars and was skinny as a rail, I wouldn't eat there."
Of course, plenty of brown-baggers lunch with their office-mates in conference rooms or the company cafeteria, but still there is the pull to separate from the herd.
"It's personal time," says Bill Damron, 30, a loan underwriter from Garden Grove. "A lot of the time, I like to eat by myself, read a book and just get out of reality for a while. It allows me to come back (to the office) refreshed."
Helga Refaie, an Irvine executive secretary, says she often welcomes her solitary lunches as a time to escape the pressures of the office.
"I usually eat by myself," she says. "I'm glad when I don't have to talk during lunch because I talk so much during the day. It's very relaxing."
In fact, many brown-baggers realize they pay a social toll by occasionally not joining the group for lunch--a time when many office relationships are often enhanced. Gerry Tschopp, an assistant account executive with Hill & Knowlton in Costa Mesa, admits he can feel left out, but to him it's still worth it to carry his lunch in twice a week.
"Sometimes, you think I would like to go out with the other people," says Tschopp. "But I would rather feel lonely than regret it later because I missed a deadline."
Bruce Hammer, 43, a computer draftsman from Culver City who was working in Irvine for the day, agrees.
"There's always a price for independence, " says Hammer, a former motorcycle road racer. "You might miss out on some tidbit in the office, but on the other hand you won't have to listen to what television program somebody watched last night."
Electrician Mike Regan points out the most satisfying benefit of brown-bagging in a region notorious for traffic jams and being overcrowded.
"You don't have to wait in any lines," says the 39-year-old Mission Viejo resident. "That's what I like."
Ironically, non-brown-baggers point to virtually the same reasons as brown-baggers--social, financial and convenience--in justifying why they never pack their own lunches. In the competitive business world, common sense tells executives they are much more likely to close a crucial deal over an elegant lunch as opposed to a couple of homemade ham sandwiches and a bag of chips.
"Eating out for lunch is a valuable networking tool, too," says Grant Freeman, 31, a commercial real estate agent from Newport Beach. But dazzling clients isn't the only reason Freeman dines out for lunch every day. "I get enough of my own cooking at home," he says.
When Margaret Edwards, 30, of Newport Beach entered the working world, she used to bring her lunch. But today, as a marketing director with the American Cancer Society, she rarely does so.
"It makes you feel left out," Edwards says. "I remember feeling alone and sad. It made me feel like a loser, almost like I didn't have any friends."
Finally, many non-brown-baggers admit they don't have the discipline required to make their own lunch on a consistent basis.
"I've never done it once in my life and I'm poor," says Fullerton resident Larry Golan, 26, a USC graduate student in social work. "I hate making my own lunch."