As time-pressed workers try to cut costs and eat healthier, brown-bagging is becoming increasingly popular in the American workplace, according to a new study from The NPD Group, a market research company. NPD reports that the rise in lunches carried from home is contributing to the softening of the mid-day meal business at commercial restaurants.

According to the NPD study entitled, “How Brown-Bagging Is Affecting Foodservice Lunch,” weekday lunches carried from home reached a new high point in 2007, increasing from 35 bagged lunches per capita in 2006 to 38 in 2007. Adult males carry brown-bagged weekday lunches most frequently, but adult females have driven gains over the last few years. White collar professionals with mid- to high-incomes tend to have the greatest interest in carrying their weekday lunch from home. The most frequent brown-baggers pack their lunch an average of three times per week.

“There are a number of factors adversely affecting the mid-day meal business at restaurants, and brown-bagging is one of them,” says Harry Balzer, vice president, The NPD Group, and author of Eating Patterns in America. “Certainly the economy, growing unemployment, the erosion of disposable personal income, slow-down in number of women entering the workforce, and more telecommuting options are also influencing consumers’ lunchtime behaviors.”

Among consumers who typically visit restaurants for their weekday lunch, nearly half said they were visiting less often, a pattern that applies to quick service and full-service restaurants. NPD reports that the declines in foodservice weekday lunch are largely the result of fewer meals being ordered from both commercial and non-commercial outlets (e.g., workplace cafeterias) to take back and eat at the workplace.

Consumers cite financial concerns as the top reason for carrying their lunch from home more often, and health and nutrition ranked second, according to the NPD study. Other reasons include convenience, taste, diet, quality, and environmental concerns.

“Consumers are definitely in a cost-cutting mode,” Balzer says. “And, make no mistake about it, making lunch at home and carrying it to work saves money. In addition, consumers can control what and how much of it is in the bag.”

Brown-baggers say that financial reasons are why they no longer visit or have cutback on visiting casual dining, midscale and fast casual restaurants. Health and nutrition are the key reasons they say they are cutting back on or no longer visiting convenience stores and fast food restaurants.

“Consumers haven’t wanted to invest a lot of time, money, or energy into lunch, which is why, historically, fast food restaurants have been so successful,” says Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst and author of the report on brown-bagging. “The QSR segment is heavily dependent on lunch, typically capturing nearly 80 percent of the total lunch business, and it’s this segment that brown-bagging most negatively impacts.”

Riggs points out that even if the economy improves and consumers begin to feel more financially stable, there are longer-term behavioral shifts restaurants need to address in order to compete with the brown-bag lunch.

“A major challenge for foodservice operators is to overcome the perception that ‘what’s in the bag’ is better, fresher than that ordered from a restaurant,” she says. “Restaurants need to offer variety and healthier/lighter menu options at a fair price point, and the food needs to taste great too.”