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Maybe you’ve spotted the recent signs of spring in Midtown — chirping birds in Central Park, daffodils and crocuses on 10th Avenue, and the true sign of New York’s reopening — a return to alfresco lunch breaks. But before you plan to stop at Sweetgreen prior to sunning at Bryant Park’s lawn, beware — thanks to lunchflation, it’ll cost you more.
W42ST canvassed workers back in the office to find out what’s changed about their daily midday break and how prices — which have risen by as much as 11 percent, according to payment service Square — have changed their spending habits.
Midtown office workers Nick, Ian, and Josh, found enjoying $14.45 bowls from nearby Cava, have definitely noticed a difference in pandemic pricing, forcing them to adjust how much they allocate to workday lunches. Due to the hefty price tag, Nick and Josh now bring their lunches three days a week: “I look forward to splurging once a week,” said Josh. Ian acknowledged his routine hasn’t changed: “I’m somewhat unaffected…but maybe I should be,” he added.
According to the Wall Street Journal, lunch-friendly franchises like Sweetgreen and Potbelly have raised menu prices between 5-6 percent. Square reports that the average price of wraps is up 18 percent, sandwiches are up 14 percent, salads up 11 percent and the cost of burgers has risen 8 percent since last year.
Inflation has spiked sharply, surging at a level unseen since 1981, according to Bureau of Labor statistics. The overall cost of consumer goods increased 8.5 percent from the previous year, and wages, though rising, have yet to catch up. While worker pay has increased 5.6 percent as of March, the outsized cost of goods has created a 2.7 percent decrease in pay for most employees.
Eliana, taking a lunch break in Bryant Park with visiting friend Mary Rose, has noticed a difference in purchase prices, “especially if you’re adding a tip.” Eliana, who currently works in the office several days a week through a hybrid work arrangement, tries “to keep [lunch] to $15 a day — though today was not that day,” she added — including beverages, her lunch from Bluestone Lane totaled approximately $20.
Other workers clocking the cost of food in Midtown were grateful to be given an occasional freebie. “You caught us on a good day where our office is letting us expense our lunches,” said Justin, dining with co-workers Steve and James. The prices “creep up on you,” noted James, as the three diners lunched on sandwiches from “New York’s Lunch Flex” Alidoro and Omar’s Mediterranean. “I maxed out my sandwich at $35,” laughed Justin. James’s sandwich cost $18, while Steve went for a $25 chicken platter.
Across the way, co-workers Matt and Mike took a popular approach to saving money — snagging free beverages from the office. Their Cava bowls, which cost $12-$13 each, inspired Matt to be “more conscious of where I go and the reward programs that they have,” adding that he’s had to return to the office five days a week. Mike, who has just returned to in-office work three days a week, agreed that if he was in every day, “I’d probably make a little more of an effort to be financially responsible.”
Between lunch, the cost of dry cleaning, and the time spent taking the MTA, it’s unsurprising that many workers are resistant to returning to the office at all. According to a report from office security firm Kastle Systems, as of April 6 only 38.3 percent of New York workers had made their way to the office, compared to a pre-pandemic high of 80 percent.
Some New York leaders have dismissed the permanence of remote work models. At an event outlining the city’s economic recovery plan, Mayor Eric Adams recently stated: “You can’t stay home in your pajamas all day. That is not who we are as a city. You need to be out cross-pollinating ideas, interacting with humans.” But while Mayor Adams and Governor Hochul have enthusiastically touted a return to full-time office work, many high-profile companies looking to retain talent have revised their remote work philosophies — including prominent global consulting firm PwC, internet and cellular giant Verizon, and tech monolith Facebook.
Aside from derisive comments about staying in pajamas all day, there are indeed economic consequences to a lack of daily commuters to Midtown. According to research from economists at Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México, Stanford University and the University of Chicago, the average New York office worker is expected to reduce work-adjacent spending by as much as $6,730 (down from $13,700 pre-pandemic), significantly affecting the neighborhood’s economic ecosystem of retail stores, pharmacies (several of which have recently shuttered across Midtown), and lunch spots.
Despite an uptick in tourism and foot traffic from Broadway’s reopening, a lack of regular Midtown crowds and a reluctance to spend more at area restaurants endangers the allocation of the area’s tax resources, including green space and educational funding. One potential solution floated has been the conversion of office towers, which are currently sitting at a record 17.4 percent vacancy, to residential housing — though despite support from both Mayor Adams and Governor Hochul, there have yet to be any changes to zoning laws to support the process. According to the New York Times, the $100 million fund authorized to convert offices and hotels into housing has been obstructed by regulatory issues and not been used.
New York’s comptroller Brad Lander says there’s a need to reimagine Midtown’s purpose altogether, suggesting the repurposing of office buildings for other commercial needs, such as educational facilities, entertainment venues, or start-up incubators. Lander told the New York Times, “We are not going back to 100 percent Midtown office occupancy. The sooner that stakeholders come to grips with that reality, the sooner we can take smart action.”
And as for Midtown’s workaday citizens? While some will continue to brave the return to dry cleaning bills and Sweetgreen sticker shock, others are determined to limit the need for an expensive office routine. Michele, a director of marketing who used to regularly commute to her Midtown advertising agency said: “People are used to having their own lunch at home — if you have to go into the office, I think you’re going to bring lunch or look for more affordable options that are under $20, rather than relying on Sweetgreen.” Assessing the need for hybrid work options, she added: “People will go into the office when it makes sense for them — going into the office is going to be centered around big meetings or projects, instead of going in to sit on calls by yourself all day.”