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Lunch Is Dead: How American Food Habits Killed the Midday Meal

March 28, 2017, 4:00 PM UTC

Once upon a time, when the clock struck noon, American workers would set aside their tools, sit down, and eat lunch—maybe a burger or a salad—possibly with a beer. But the halcyon days of lunch could soon be ending.

Restaurants’ lunchtime traffic dipped 2% in 2016, a slump the industry has largely blamed for its recent slow growth. Part of the problem, analysts say, is that e-commerce has cut down on trips to physical stores, hurting once-popular mall restaurants. Also not helping: An increasing numbers of Americans are working from home—and eating there too.

But lunch’s largest existential crisis is the millennials and Gen Z-ers who are replacing the midday meal with snacks. There are now 12 billion annual visits to restaurants and food-service outlets that amount to just a quick nibble. Instead of three-martini lunches, younger consumers are opting for faster, cheaper alternatives like fresh fruit, yogurt, and chips.

Industry watchers say the trend shows no signs of abating. “Lunch is likely ceding share to breakfast,” says Fitch Ratings director Carla Norfleet Taylor. The firm has called out breakfast, coffee, and snacks as industry bright spots.

To compete, restaurants are getting promotional. Starbucks (SBUX) has a new $8 “Power Lunch,” and Buffalo Wild Wings (BWLD) is promising that if lunch isn’t served in 15 minutes or less, the meal is on the house.

In times of desperation, it turns out, there really is such a thing as a free lunch.

A version of this article appears in the April 1, 2017 issue of Fortune with the headline “Lunch Is Dead.”