When our ancestors were peasants in the earliest days of agriculture, the daily schedule was: work in field all day, eat midday meal in field, continue working in field.
Today, after centuries of human advancement, it goes something like: work in coffee shop all day, buy and eat lunch there, continue toiling away on laptop until the sun sets.
Though it may seem like the tech boom and gig economy ushered in this modern mobile work style, working and dining have always been intertwined.
Now they’re entangled in lunch meetings, coffee networking dates, and independent workers using neighborhood eateries as offices. And, in major cities like New York, Washington D.C., Sydney and Hong Kong, restaurants are converting into official co-working spaces during off-peak hours.
The historical relationship between these cultural practices — from trade at ancient marketplaces, to mercantile “coffee houses,” to the iconic three-martini lunches of the 1950s and 60s — can shed light on exactly how we got to where we are now.
Dining, from ancient civilization to industrialization
Dr. Megan Elias, director of the gastronomy program at Boston University, says food and business have been linked since as far back as the ancient Sumer (who established civilization as we know it around 4000 B.C.)
“What we think of as street food has always been part of human civilization,” she says. “There have always been marketplaces where humans came together to conduct some kind of business — like trading grain, trading animals or building houses. As long as there have been marketplaces, people have been eating at them while also doing business.”
The first example of a brick-and-mortar “restaurant” came during the merchant economy in the 15th and 16th centuries, according to Elias. During this stage in European, African, and East and South Asian history, inns allowed merchant businessmen to rest — and of course, eat — throughout their travels.
During the colonial era of the 1600s and 1700s, concrete examples of American restaurants emerged as “Coffee Houses.” There, tradesmen who docked in East Coast harbors ate meals and sold goods.
“[Coffee Houses] were places that had newspapers, which at the time were very small and commercial,” author and social historian Jan Whitaker explains.
“They were near where ships came in, and merchandise was brought in and announced in these newspapers,” she says. “These were definitely places of business and they served food too, not just coffee. So you can see how there’s always been a connection between business and eating in a public place.”
Coffee houses remained tradesman staples throughout the early 19th century, with simple menu items like rolls and meat pies. More “grand meals,” as Elias calls them, were still taking place within homes for non-traveling folk. But, when the U.S. began industrializing in the 1840s and people stayed near workplaces during the day, eating establishments popped up around factories.
“Industrialization of the city is also restaurantization of the city,” Elias says. “Places sprung up to serve a business lunch crowd and an after-work dining crowd … again, still doing business.”
The age of more work, less eating
As obtaining more business (and therefore, more money) became main priorities, going home for a large meal was too time-consuming. In order to be as efficient as possible, different workers ate lunch at different times and therefore at different price points.
According to Elias, factory workers brought food from home and ate it on the stoop. Clerks grabbed something quick — which led to the development of the iconic “sandwich” — from a coffee house or sandwich wagon. And factory owners could afford to spend more time and money on lunch out, either at private men’s clubs or chop houses — meat-and-potatoes restaurants serving middle-class businessmen.
Things stayed that way, more or less, until the 1960s. This time marked the end of “post-war prosperity,” says Elias, and the age of lavish lunches waned as people became more money conscious. Though most business leaders stepped back from traditional large meals, it didn’t stop the wealthy from going out, same as usual.
Business lunches continued through the years, to the famed Four Seasons power lunches of the ’70s and ’80s and even into modern times. Elias notes that going out to meals has always been public, and becomes about sending a message.
“Being seen with someone is almost as important as making a deal with someone,” she says. “To be seen having lunch or dinner with a certain person adds value to you and to them.”
Dr. William C. Sanderson, Hofstra University psychology professor, says this notion aligns with our evolutionary instincts.
“As food becomes less scarce (certainly true of the modern environment), it can also be used to increase one’s status,” he says. “For example, ordering an expensive bottle of wine at a restaurant demonstrates wealth/success, which may be important in business relationships and dating.”
Today: working alone, together
Though this power dynamic certainly still occurs — and lunch meetings and happy hours remain prominent parts of business life — the co-work era presents an interesting development.
About 41 million Americans (approximately 13% of the population) work as freelancers, consultants and contractors, which equals more people seeking temporary workspaces. This, in turn, could change the role of eating establishments in society (i.e.: determining a good coffee shop is just as dependent on electrical outlet availability as the taste of its joe).
Restaurants are taking this to the next level as tech apps like Spacious, Reset and WorkChew turn their dining rooms into co-working offices during off-hours. Most participating restaurants only serve dinner, so they function as workspaces from 8 or 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., at which point workers must leave.
N.Y.C. Czech restaurant Bohemian Spirit has been using Spacious for about three months. It didn’t take much work on their end — Spacious brought in high-powered WiFi, copious extension cords, and manages the crowds. Owner Vit Stuchl says he only provided a few elements like coffee cups.
“There are not really a lot of offices around, so for me it makes no sense staying open for lunch during the weekdays,” he says. “The restaurant was empty, so I figured I’d try it. I haven’t seen the ConEd bill for air conditioning yet this summer, so I’ve got to see if it will make financial sense for me, but I think it’s a good idea. People are [working from] here, there, everywhere now.”
Companies like Spacious are catering to that “working from everywhere” trend, of course. Still, the sense of community established while working alongside others is something they were especially conscious of.
“Spacious provides places where we can get online through our screens, while still maintaining a physical proximity with others in the same space,” CEO and co-founder Preston Pesek says. “We’re learning a lot about how people naturally use our spaces to connect in both realms: online and offline at the same time.”
Users tend to agree — like web developer, actor and filmmaker Gayatri Patel Bahl, who had a Spacious membership (which costs $199 per month or $129 per month annually) for the past year.
Patel Bahl says people often interacted at the water cooler and coffee area like typical offices. Spacious also hosts specific events that encourage separate networking.
“It’s a great place to have meetings, [and] allowed me to separate home and work life,” she says. “The biggest dislike is just that restaurants tend to keep the temperature super cold, because they are cooking and prepping for dinner. So … you kind of have to go with layers to keep yourself warm.
“I networked a lot during my time at Spacious,” she continues. “I loved working near others and chatting with others throughout the day, and I connected with professionals from different backgrounds.”
Sanderson says even this phenomenon references our primal needs.
“This points to our social nature and the fact that many feel isolated and just want to be around others,” he explains. “The alternative would be working alone at home. So the mismatch idea — that our modern environment is very different than that which we evolved in — has led to people feeling isolated and desperate for ‘social connection,’ even if it’s merely sitting around others.”
Claire Leaden is a freelance journalist living in New York City who writes about food and culture. Find more of her work here. You can also follow her on Instagram @ClaireLeaden for reading recommendations and budget-friendly meal ideas.
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