When the Food Critics are Deskside, New York Times

When the Food Critics Are Deskside

Published: February 18, 2007

BRIAN KUTCHA does not mean to annoy his boss with his eating habits, but he is a struggling actor and worries about his appearance. So he eats five little meals daily to stay slender, nibbling on couscous or chickpeas at his desk.

Brian Kutcha, left annoys Stephen Viscusi,
his boss. (photo: Suzanne DeChillo)

Never mind that his boss, Stephen Viscusi, who runs his own headhunting firm in Manhattan, would prefer that employees not pollute the workplace with lunch. “Bringing food into the office dynamic makes things too familiar, more like the free-for-alls that might have taken place in your family kitchen growing up,” Mr. Viscusi said.

He rattled off his food peeves: “Serial eaters” like Mr. Kutcha, who loudly chomp through the day. “Show offs” who feel they deserve points for lunching at their desks. And people who can’t decide what to have and poll the entire office for ideas.

These days, more and more employees consume their lunches from the comforts of their cubicles.

“I see it all the time,” said Joseph Gibbons, the research director of the FutureWork Institute, a consulting firm in Brooklyn that focuses on workplace issues. “We’re used to eating alone and having everything we need right there and being very self-sufficient. That carries over to the workplace.”

Other reasons people dine “al desko” vary, said Robin Jay, author of “The Art of the Business Lunch.” They need to high-tail it out of the office at 5 p.m. sharp to pick up the kids. They want to save money, or they are just too stressed to leave.

“The power lunch of the ’80s, where people would have three martinis and blast through the afternoon, is dead,” Ms. Jay said.

In the last decade, the lunch hour has become a misnomer. A 2005 study conducted by Opinion Research Corporation for Steelcase, an office furniture manufacturer, found that 55 percent of 700 office workers surveyed took 31 minutes for lunch, down from 36 minutes in 1996.

But that precious half-hour was not devoted to dining. Instead, workers ran errands, read or made personal calls. Jeanine Holquist, a spokeswoman for Steelcase, said “we assume they ate at their desks while multitasking.”

Eating at the office has its own stresses. No matter how private you think it is, what you eat — and how much — sends telltale signals. People make assumptions about your character, whether you’re driven (grilled salmon) or lazy (pepperoni pizza).

“Food is a constant topic of conversation at our office,” said Margaret Wilesmith, the president of Wilesmith Advertising/Design in West Palm Beach, Fla. “Each individual’s identity is somehow defined by his or her food choices.”

A co-worker noticing your third cheeseburger of the week is annoying. But a boss sizing up unhealthy choices carries far more influence.

“In a workplace context, the effect of such judgment is not just social but also potentially economic,” said Philip N. Cohen, an associate professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has taught courses on the sociology of food. “Why would a co-worker or manager trust you with responsibility at work if they see you making bad decisions in your self-management enterprise during meals?”

Gayle A. Brandel, the chief executive of Professionals for NonProfits, a staffing company, said that what her employees eat reflect their diligent work habits. Her vice president begins his day with a cup of oatmeal, Ms. Brandel said, boasting.

Mr. Viscusi was more blunt. “When I’m interviewing someone and I see their bones protruding, I know it’s a good hire,” he said. “They’re extremely disciplined.”

Ms. Wilesmith welcomes deskside dining because she views it as a sign of dedication to the company. “If someone goes out to eat here, it’s an oddity and almost annoys people because it means you’re not available 24/7,” she said.

Lunching in your cubicle isn’t necessarily a career booster. “What’s going to make you more money in the long run, a lunch that you spent working and billing $350, or having face time with clients and building a better relationship?” said Ms. Jay, who often dines out at midday.

Eating in isn’t always smart nutritionally, either. Dieters can end up sharing barbecue takeout instead of choosing their own fare.

“Small offices or companies can make lunchtime a big deal, where everyone puts in their order, it gets delivered and everyone eats together,” said Geri Brewster, a dietitian and nutritional consultant for Northern Westchester Hospital in Mount Kisco, N.Y. “It’s really easy for some to get caught up in the ‘What are we going to order for lunch today’ mode.”

Fewer people would eat at their desks if they realized what lurked near their iMacs. Charles Gerba, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona, has swabbed various everyday surfaces for bacteria. A 2006 study conducted by Dr. Gerba, and financed by Clorox, found that the most germ-laden places are telephones, keyboards, computer mice and desktops.

Some lunchtime habits are conspicuous no-nos, like hogging the company refrigerator. A colleague of Mr. Kutcha’s used to bring a whole chicken on Mondays, microwave it, then nibble on the refrigerated carcass till Friday. “Clients would come in and it was like, ‘Welcome to KFC junior,’ ” he said.

Lara Dyan, co-host of ChickChat, a syndicated radio program, knows what it is like to be on the receiving end of such wrath. For a dozen years, Ms. Dyan, 37, worked at a telecommunications company where typing through lunch was encouraged.

Trouble was, she loved Chinese food, and she was an achingly slow eater. “I’d get chow fun with everything in it and graze,” she said. “Everyone in cubeland would be smelling the MSG.”

Still, her boss preferred to suffer through her pungent meals rather than have her leave the office for a half-hour. “He said, ‘No, No, don’t do that,’ ” Ms. Dylan recounted.

Things are a little bit different at Food & Wine magazine. One would expect that employees would try to outdo one another with brown-bag lunches of homemade duck terrine or by ordering in from E.A.T. on Madison Avenue. In fact, an editor recently broke ranks and ordered a turkey sandwich from Subway.

“It inspired others of us to check it out,” said Dana Cowin, the editor in chief. “We thought she discovered something.”