Eateries, Food Industry Cater to Brown-Baggers

The office gang isn't the only group putting heat on brown-baggers. Fast-food restaurants and major food companies are also looking to entice the homemade-lunch crowd.

Competing for a chunk of the estimated $800-million-a-year prepared-meal market, Stouffer's, StarKist and Oscar Mayer have unveiled prepared meals. They are comparatively less expensive than restaurant fare, say the food companies who tout their "ready-to-eat" meals as especially attractive to brown-baggers tired of fixing their lunches in the morning.

StarKist offers "Charlie's Lunch Kit"--a pull-top can of tuna, packet of mayonnaise, sweet pickle relish and six wheat crackers. Oscar Mayer meals called "Lunchables" come in a variety of deli-thin meats with cheese and crackers.

Capitalizing on the increasing access most office workers have to microwave ovens, Stouffer's this year launched "Lunch Express," a line of 24 microwaveable meals including such entrees as chicken chow mein and fettuccine Alfredo.

Microwave meals are one of the fastest growing trends in the brown-bag market, say food market researchers. The NPD Group, a Chicago-based marketing firm, reports 5% of brown-baggers in 1984 dined on microwaved meals. Today, that figure has jumped to about 13%.

"Leisurely lunches in the American workplace are becoming an outmoded tradition," says Edward Marra of Stouffer's Foods in Solon, Ohio. "Eating at the office is consistent with the increased demands on employees, due to cutbacks necessitated by the recession. This has created a big carried-lunch market."

Boasting low prices and speedy service, fast-food restaurants are also hoping to snare brown-baggers by trumpeting "recession-friendly" prices and convenience. For example, Costa Mesa-based Del Taco believes its "49-cent menu" has brought in its share of brown-baggers.

"It's tough to prepare a meal at home for 49 cents plus tax," says Paul Hitzelberger of Del Taco.

Other fast-food chains, such as Anaheim-based Carl's Jr., are experimenting with fax orders and office delivery.

Says Patty Parks of Carl's Jr.: "Everybody is fighting for their piece of the pie."

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