A global anatomy of health and the workday lunch

FT reporters in Paris, Tokyo, Mexico City and Nairobi assess the state of the main break of the day
© Scott Chambers

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Exercise is good, but diet is at the core of physical and mental strength. A healthy lunch enables employees to return to work at their most productive, properly refreshed, fed and hydrated.

Socialising with colleagues and friends over a meal can also help, yet lunch breaks are often squeezed by work pressures and high costs. Employers have a role to play in subsidising food, providing canteens and permitting a pause in working hours. We asked FT correspondents in four global cities — Paris, Tokyo, Mexico City and Nairobi — to assess the changing workday lunch.

Robert Williams in Paris

© Scott Chambers

To judge by fairly recent lunchtime developments, you might think that Parisians have succumbed to the 21st century trend of grab-and-go in the Anglo-Saxon mode. Pret A Manger, the UK sandwich chain has grown to 17 stores in the Paris region in just four years since crossing the English Channel. Cojean, the upscale fast food company, has four locations in walking distance of the FT’s Paris bureau not far from the Elysée Palace, the president’s official residence. These are just two of an array of outlets providing ready-made lunches that have sprung up between the city’s traditional pavement cafés and brasseries.

Parisian workers, however, are doing their best to hold fast to their traditions in how they use their lunch breaks. They usually eat in pairs or small groups and are much more likely — far better, surely, for the digestion — to sit at a table, even on days when they are pressed for time.

“The days of one-and-a-half or two-hour lunches are gone,” notes Stéphane Klein, head of Pret A Manger for France. “But this remains a moment of conviviality.” People remain attached to the old and balanced formulas of “entrée-plat” or “plat-dessert”. The average Pret customer purchases a little under three items, as opposed to just over two in the UK.

That said, time is becoming increasingly pinched. “I have to keep an eye on my watch,” says one middle-aged diner taking lunch with four colleagues on the terrasse at one of the Cojean outlets. “Some of the brasseries have healthy options but I can’t always risk getting stuck with slow service.”

Even at the George V hotel’s legendary three-star restaurant, now directed by Christian Le Squer, hostesses are quick to tell you that at lunchtime, you can be in and out in under an hour. French labour law requires many companies to subsidise either a canteen or meal coupons for employees by as much as 50 per cent. Even when employees bring a packed lunch from home or take food back to their offices, they are much more likely to eat with colleagues in a meeting space or kitchen than to gobble food down at their desks. Eating at the desk does not just go against cultural norms — it’s officially forbidden by many companies for being “unhygienic”.

When I visited the canteen at the headquarters of the French pharmaceutical multinational Sanofi in the 8th arrondissement, the dining room was brimming with workers chatting in groups while they ate.

“At our location in New Jersey about half of people would take their lunch upstairs to eat at their desks,” says Jack Cox, the pharmaceutical group’s head of media. In Paris, his co-workers tease him when he eats in front of his computer, calling it his “American lunch”.

Fixing meetings between 12:30pm and 2pm is still a no-go in France, he adds. Certainly if you are thinking of arranging anything between 12:30 and 1pm, you may be advised to reconsider. Half of the French population is eating at that time, according to a 2010 study by the sociologist Thibaut de Saint Pol.

“The lunch break for French workers appears to be incompressible,” argues Anne Lhuissier, a sociologist at the French National Agronomic Research institute. Even if many French workers say they feel pressed for time, some 77 per cent still take more than 30 minutes for lunch, says a survey of by the lunch voucher company Edenred. This compares with 27 per cent in the UK.

Kana Inagaki in Tokyo

© Scott Chambers

Half an hour before the clock strikes noon, employees at the Japanese online retailer Rakuten are forming queues at the canteen, determined to grab a healthy but tasty meal without paying a penny and wasting an extra minute.

Among the 8,000 employees that regularly use the canteen is 41-year-old Keiko Yataka, who plans to be back at her desk in 20 minutes. She claims she does not bother to keep track of her calorie intake and it does not take long to figure out why. In front of her is a tray of low-fat healthy Japanese dishes: grilled fish, tofu, a bowl of rice with barley and, not least, natto (foul-smelling fermented soybeans). “I want to get out of the office but I do not have time,” she says, adding she has lunch at a restaurant once a month at best.

Located at the residential outskirts of Tokyo, the stylish canteen managed by Rakuten, a Japanese rival to Amazon, has the feel of a Silicon Valley internet start-up. The food, from Japanese rice bowls, Chinese noodles, Italian pasta, to Thai and Indian curry, caters to users from more than 60 countries. Vegetarian (though no vegan) and halal options are available along with fruit, freshly baked bread and biscuits. Three meals a day are provided essentially for free and menus include calorie, fat and protein data that can be checked on a smartphone. 

“It is challenging to meet everyone’s needs,” says Yuki Tokaji, who helps to run the canteen. More than 70 per cent of Japan’s large companies have canteens. Those such as Rakuten increasingly focus on healthy dishes to reduce consumption of calories, salt and fat. Reducing health risks such as obesity and diabetes are viewed as imperative.

“To keep healthcare costs at a manageable level, it is necessary to ensure that employees stay healthy,” says Koji Nishikubo of the University of Yamanashi, who does research into work canteens.

Japan has one of the lowest rates of obesity — at less than 4 per cent of adults — among OECD countries. But long working hours and late night drinks have led to higher cholesterol and blood pressure, particularly among middle-aged salarymen.

Workers, thanks to time pressure and tighter purse strings, often turn to ready-made food at convenience stores, says Nishikubo. Japanese men spend an average of less than Y600 ($5.9) and women below Y700 for lunch, according to a Shinsei Bank survey in June.

About 35 per cent of Japanese men bring in home-prepared lunch boxes. The figure has been gradually dropping as more women go to work and have no time to make meals for their husbands.

Tanita, a healthcare equipment maker, urges all its workers to wear a device that measures their steps and calories and overweight employees are encouraged to go to the gym. Lunch at its canteen contains less than 500 calories and is comprised of chewy food to make employees satisfied with smaller volume. Tanita’s canteen recipe books have sold more than 5.4m copies in Japan.

The company has reported a 10 per cent drop in annual medical costs for employees since it launched a healthy food programme in 2009. “Work productivity rises,” says Tomonori Ueki, head of Tanita’s canteen business. “Corporate profits also increase.”

Jude Webber in Mexico City

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Clutching a styrofoam container, Diego Delgado hurries towards Mexico City’s Chapultepec park. It is lunchtime and he is looking forward to eating the national staple, corn tortillas, with the meat stew he has just picked up from a café.

He eats out most lunchtimes. “Mexico has a very strong food culture,” the communications co-ordinator at a nearby digital cultural centre says. “Employees at all levels go out. Some pay 250 or 300 pesos ($14-$16) per dish, some 100 pesos and some 20 pesos . . . It’s a social event.”

Near Delgado’s workplace, there is no shortage of eateries — a vegan taco stand, a fruit bar, two ladies dishing up tortillas a dozen ways. Grabbing a sandwich at your desk sounds like madness to a Mexican.

By the time lunchtime rolls around — usually at 2pm or 3pm — a typical employee has already nipped out for a mid-morning coffee or snack. “You always see people eating — you don’t have to be hungry. There are more and more healthy options but there should be more vegetarian food and salads.”

Mexico has tried, without much success, to establish “five-a-day” programmes to encourage consumption of fruit and vegetables says Héctor Bourges Rodríguez, a high-ranking nutrition expert at the Mexican health ministry.

Diabetes is the top cause of adult death in Mexico, which leads the world in child obesity and is second only to the US in adult obesity. Taxes on junk food and sugary drinks “do not seem to have made much impact yet,” Bourges says. “People do not eat more than 90g per head of fruit and vegetables a day when they should be eating 400g.”

His father and grandfather, in the 1940s and 1950s, used to come home every day for lunch. “The city was smaller then. There were only 3m people.” Metropolitan Mexico City now has nearly seven times that.

Jesús Rodríguez, a systems administrator, has a 90-minute commute. He praises his employer, bank BBVA Bancomer, which has just moved its headquarters to a gleaming tower on the city centre’s Reforma avenue, for its subsidised canteen. “Lunch costs 30 pesos, or maybe 25 — soup, a main dish, a salad and a fresh fruit drink. It’s cheap and balanced.”

Unesco recognises Mexico’s fine traditional cuisine as an “intangible heritage of humanity” but its large neighbour, the US, is the natural home of fast food and the skilled marketing of it. When McDonald's opened for Mexico City business some 30 years ago in an upscale area of the capital, the event attracted large crowds.

Verónica Bueno, an insurance manager in Mexico’s second city of Guadalajara and who is visiting the capital for meetings, says a 90-minute lunch break in her home town is standard. “I’m the boss, so I ensure everyone takes it.”

Most people look puzzled at the notion they could skip lunch and they feel little pressure from their bosses to do so.

“You can’t not eat,” shrugs Martha Esquivel. Her managerial post at the attorney-general’s office comes with a two-hour lunch break perk which she is taking in a tiny restaurant that spills out on to the street. Then again, Mexico has some of the longest working hours in the OECD and she is expected to be in the office from 9am until 10pm.

Greasy taco stands — on nearly every street corner — do some of the briskest trade. But whatever the menu, as Delgado says, “lunch is sacred.”

John Aglionby in Nairobi

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To gauge how lunchtime is changing in Nairobi go no further than Moktar Daddah Street in the heart of the central business district and the 150-seat Java House. It is part of a 41-outlet chain whose chief executive, Ken Kuguru, describes it as a casual diner-cum-coffee shop with an African feel.

People eat a variety of sandwiches, TexMex, salads and local fare such as fried chicken and ugali — cakes made out of maize flour and hot water. It is full virtually every work day, in spite of the average bill per person being about Ks800 ($7.8). Most city workers earn about Ks40,000 a month. “It’s pricier than the lower class can afford,” says Kuguru, “but you sit down and get pampered. And Kenyans like that. “You could get a similar meal across the street for Ks300 but the quality wouldn’t be the same.” Aspiration is important, the desire to treat yourself at least once a week, if not here then perhaps at a nearby mall.

For most people in Nairobi, however, the most prevalent lunchtime fare remains the food they bring with them from home — “whatever’s left over from the previous night’s dinner,” according to Kui Kinyanjui, who works for Safaricom, Kenya’s dominant telecommunications company. “Pretty much everyone does the same — some carbs, meat and veggies. When I started working I used to go out for lunch a lot more. Now it’s much more al desko.”

Auma Owono, who works in the legal office at the city’s KCA University, says eating out is not only too expensive to manage every day, but is also not considered that healthy. “When people want to eat healthy food, they bring it in from home,” she says. “My problem is I’m obsessed with fries and so I go and look for them a couple of times a week.”

As for time pressures on the digestion, lunchtime continues to be a fairly relaxed affair for many Kenyans. “Two-hour lunches are still pretty common”, says Owono. “People like to socialise and so they go with the flow. The problem is they might not be able to work in the afternoon.”

Daniel Szlapak, the Africa director for Branch International, a fintech start-up, says he does not worry about how long his 30-odd staff take for lunch: “We don’t watch hours, we watch matrices and goals.” The start-up world is very different to his previous one, the hotel industry. “It’s a lot more loose.”

Szlapak believes lunch is not to be skipped. “It’s important because if you don’t eat, your productivity falls in the afternoon.”

Bigger companies like Safaricom and KCA University have cafeterias. Kinyanjui says her office canteen food is “edible” but mass produced. “So, it’s not something you’ll run downstairs for.”

Some of the old standards prevail. Owono says some of her colleagues like to go to the canteen, both because they only want to spend Ks200 and because it is the easiest way to get Kenyan staples. “If they haven’t had their ugali some people say they haven’t eaten.”

Other culinary cultures are butting their way in, not necessarily with anything healthier to offer. “Tuesday is pizza day — two for one,” notes Owono.

Whatever it may bring, Nairobi’s dining out culture is likely to expand. “The middle class is growing strongly and the number of new restaurants entering the market is enormous,” says Kuguru. “I spent 10 years in China and what I’m seeing now is what I saw at the beginning in China.”

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