Marc Halperin: Resident F&B Expert | April 2015 | By Marc Halperin

Break Out the Box

Introducing a few different takes on boxed take-away lunches.

The meal as we know it is in a state of considerable flux, if not outright decline.

Breakfast? Americans grab it on the go, often out of a bottle, bag, or box. Dinner? With kids and parents juggling uncomfortably hectic and often conflicting schedules, only 26 percent of U.S. households with children sit down to a family dinner every night, according to a 2013 poll by Harris Interactive.

But if a harried, snack-happy culture is chipping away at traditional meal occasions, one thing remains either refreshingly or disturbingly constant, depending on your point of view: the roughly eight-hour workday. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, American adults between the ages of 25 and 54 spent about 8.7 hours of the average workday working in 2013. And with so many of these workers no longer taking the traditional one-hour lunch—a 2011 survey by the ManpowerGroup found that a third of U.S. employees take no lunch break at all, and another third eat at their desks each day—it’s clear that there’s a robust market for good, quick, take-away lunches.

Whereas breakfast is a meal driven by routine and pragmatism, most of us crave more variety at lunch. And while most quick-serve concepts offer many more options for lunch than they once did, there are some opportunities for further expansion. Consider:

The bento journey

The Japanese bento is, to me, a small marvel—a compact, decorative box divided into sections that contain a starch, protein, vegetable, or sauce. There are endless variations on the basic theme, but the common link is that every bento is a complete meal that takes the consumer on a culinary journey of beginning, middle, and end. And believe it or not, some consumers relish (pardon me) the idea of getting away in the middle of the day, if even for a short time; this concept could provide the vehicle to do that.

For a society that places a premium on convenience and efficiency, the U.S. has been surprisingly slow to embrace or innovate around the bento concept. But that just spells opportunity for quick-serve chains looking to branch out. I can easily envision, say, a hamburger bento that offers two to four different sliders, a couple of different types of fried potato, a side compartment of sauces, and a cake pop dessert. Pizza chains could offer several small pizza bites, each with different toppings and dipping sauces. And Mexican concepts would have any number of options; I like the idea of three taquitos, each with different fillings, accompanied by a portion of refried beans, a small side of rice, and a variety of salsas. Wake up, America; the modified, U.S.-style bento is a natural for you!

International expressions

Sophisticated Millennials—those who favor varied tastes and textures and who know their way around the global menuboard—are quite comfortable with ethnic fusions and mash-ups, and many a food truck has popped up to serve them in recent years. Why not extend the idea to suit the boxed lunch format? I’m thinking of a single platter containing several sushi burritos, each with the contents of a typical sushi roll wrapped in little flour tortillas, complete with rice and black beans. Or what about an Indian-American fusion box consisting of little samosas packed with classic American comfort foods, such as a chicken pot pie or sloppy joe filling? Along with a legume salad topped with a quintessentially American dressing—Thousand Island or ranch, say—this could make for an interesting cross-cultural mealtime experience in a box. Again, if the idea is to create a complete meal ideally suited to carryout, it strikes me that variety can be a major part of the appeal. And both small bites and ethnic fusions lend themselves well to these sorts of applications.

Package, mix, and match things online

The ability to order food online with a smartphone app and have it delivered to your door is fast becoming one of the defining cultural experiences of our age, and it is only likely to become more commonplace as virtually every chain works to instill loyalty in their patrons with the carrot of convenience.

The question is, why are more chains and dedicated online delivery services not already offering boxed meals containing a range of pre-selected items from several different restaurants, rather than limiting customers to ordering from just one menu? Surely some clever operator could come up with a way to curate a range of meals comprising a main course from one chain, side dishes from others, and a dessert from still another? Yum! Brands, for instance, has long boasted multi-branded outlets where KFC, Pizza Hut, and/or Taco Bell coexist peacefully alongside one another. So why not offer consumers the option of having a boxed meal containing a taco or two, a slice of pizza, and some KFC mashed potatoes? Or why couldn’t a third party like GrubHub partner with chains to develop these sorts of boxed offerings?

If your restaurant tries any of these approaches, or if you’ve had success with a particular type of boxed lunch offering, I’d love to hear about it. Write me at [email protected].

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Marc Halperin

A classically trained chef who earned his Grand Diplôme d’Études Culinaires at Paris’s prestigious Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne, COO Marc Halperin brings considerable gastronomic expertise and more than two decades of restaurant-consulting and teaching experience to the table. Prior to co-founding CCD, Halperin’s culinary tenure included stints in such celebrated kitchens as those of Taillevent and Maxim’s in Paris, Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, and the Deer Valley Ski Resort in Park City, Utah, where he served as head pastry chef during the resort's inaugural season. Later, he was a chef instructor at Le Cordon Rouge cooking school in Sausalito, California, and at the California Culinary Academy.

Marc is a professional member of the Research Chefs Association and a member of the San Francisco Professional Food Society, and currently contributes each month to QSR Halperin holds a Bachelor’s degree in biology from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and a Master’s in music performance from Boston University.