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Brown-Bag Lunch Makes A Comeback

Monday, 27 Oct 2008 | 9:19 AM ET

Goodbye power lunch. Hello brown bag.

As hard times prompt Americans to cut spending, more workers are bringing their lunch to work rather than buying it at a food outlet, or even the company cafeteria.

Major food companies, like Kraft and Conagra are looking to capitalize it, launching new portable meals and advertising campaigns targeted at the brown-bag crowd.

"In terms of value, it’s always going to be cheaper,” says Harry Balzer, an analyst at market researcher NPD Group.

Americans ate about 8.5 billion brown bag lunches last year, about 38 per capita compared with 35 the year before, according to the NPD Group. A survey found that 93 percent of those who brought their lunch to work did so for financial reasons.

Besides saving money, consumers are also looking for convenience, says Balzer. Although sandwiches are still the most popular lunch item, he says growth has stalled, as time-strapped consumers move toward more precooked products that require little, if any, preparation.

No wonder, then, that companies are touting their products as time saving, as well as inexpensive. Many of the new products retail for under four dollars.

The brown-bag trend has encouraged New World Pasta, manufacturer of a number of pasta brands including Ronzoni and San Giorgio,to launch Ronzoni Bistro, a microwavable pasta meal in a pouch, that doesn’t require refrigeration.

“In terms of true interest, out-of-home eating is one of the biggest opportunities initially for us," says company CEO Peter Smith. "It is driving our advertisements."

The new product is being marketed through television commercials that take place in an office break room.

Smith expects Ronzoni Bistro, priced at $2.79, to generate $20 million in sales within a year.

Kraft launched Oscar Mayer Deli Creations, a create-your-own sandwich in a box that comes with a roll, deli meats and cheese. Sales are up to $100 million since its introduction in March, said Jared Baker, a brand manager at Oscar Mayer. The price: $3.29.

Last month, ConAgra Foods launched Healthy Choice Fresh Mixers, microwavable pasta and rice dishes that require no refrigeration and retail for $3.49. The marketing campaign shows an office environment with the tagline: "Made fresh from your desk."

The company also hired an unlikely spokesperson for the brand, Ivanka Trump, the daughter of real estate mogul Donald Trump. Trump was hired to create buzz and "target busy working professionals," says Mike Locascio, vice president of marketing at ConAgra.

The economic downturn has had a positive effect on classic brands like Campbell Soup which is currently adding newer varieties and flavors to its line of microwavable-bowl soups. Sales are up to $250 million since the launch.

“Brown bagging is back in,” says Campbell’s spokesperson Anthony Sanzio. “It’s a badge of honor in some places these days.”

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