Long Spanish lunch falls victim to tightening belts

Tue Jul 17, 2012 12:13pm EDT

Revellers sleep on a bench after the second running of the bulls during the San Fermin festival in Pamplona July 8, 2012. REUTERS/Susana Vera

Revellers sleep on a bench after the second running of the bulls during the San Fermin festival in Pamplona July 8, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Susana Vera

MADRID (Reuters) - Soaring unemployment, rising taxes and belt-tightening family budgets across Spain could finally spell the end of the traditional Spanish lunch and siesta.

The two-to-three-hour midday breaks with time built in for a snooze during the hottest part of the day were once the Spanish worker's universal way to beat the afternoon heat. But it is becoming a luxury for cash-strapped employees who are working longer hours and having to make do with less in the country's steepest downturn since the 1930s.

Many Spaniards still start work at around 9 a.m., and don't leave work until after 8 p.m., in part to allow for a long lunch, and restaurants cater for them with three-course set-price menus from 2 p.m.-5 p.m.

But restaurants are being forced to rethink their formats and pricing, as more workers opt for once frowned-upon sandwiches at their screens, or lunch brought from home.

"You save a little every month and that's really good for the family budget now the country's in crisis," said Margarita Pallas, who works in a small shop in Calle Mallorca in Barcelona.

The "siesta", the afternoon nap to cope with baking midday heat, has practically died out, but many office workers still take the time to eat a big meal together in groups and consider lunchtime snacks less healthy and anti-social.

A typical 10-euro set menu in the Spanish capital includes two savoury main courses, a beer or a glass or carafe of wine, dessert and a coffee - good value compared to lunch in many other European capitals.

The set meal was once the most popular format since lunch is traditionally the largest meal of the day, supplemented by an early light breakfast, a mid-morning snack, a mid afternoon tea and a late light supper.

Restaurants, though, are shedding their faithful set-menu clients in a country where one in four workers are jobless. Those in work are being forced to tighten their belts to compensate for family members out of work, tax rises and continued economic uncertainty.

"The crisis has hit citizens so hard that people haven't had any choice but to get over the embarrassment of taking food to work and once someone has lost the shame factor, it makes it easy for everyone else," said Rogelio Barahona, chef and owner of the restaurant Urkiola Mendi in Madrid.

Barahona says restaurants like his which cater to lunching office workers have lost 50 percent of sales during the crisis and many are being forced to replace home-made cooking on site with bought-in meals from bigger kitchens to save on costs.

"I pay my taxes, my suppliers, the rent and in order to pay my staff I haven't earned a salary for the last year," said Barahona.

Four years into Spain's economic downturn, with the country now in its second recession, restaurants are offering cheaper options like single dishes or cut-price menus using cheaper ingredients in order to win customers back.

FAST FOOD AND DOGGY BAGS

Emilia Cordero, owner of the La Fuente del Collado in the picturesque mountain town of Bustarviejo outside Madrid, says she has never seen such an abrupt change in eating habits since she opened her restaurant in the 1960s.

In the last few years, Cordero says new habits have crept in to her restaurant include shared children's menus, people asking for doggy bags, a single bottle of wine split between seven people and even fast food.

"I used to sell four or five sirloin steaks in just one weekend, but now, forget about it. I'll be lucky if I sell one a week and we've even started offering hamburgers," she says.

The advertising industry reflects those changing habits in a TV commercial for San Miguel alcohol-free beer. In the advert, Spanish basketball star Pau Gasol, who plays for the Los Angeles Lakers in the United States, asks to take his leftover meal with him, almost unheard of in Spain until recently.

"The world is changing," says the voiceover.

Nor are schools immune to the changes. Spanish school children, who have classes until 4-5 p.m. every day, still eat a three-course meal during their two-hour lunch break.

State-run schools charge as much as 150 euros a month for a full meal leading some struggling parents to send children to class with packed lunches, a move resisted by staff.

Part of the problem is logistical, with soaring summer temperatures forcing some schools to buy fridges to store food brought from home, though what has really fuelled the resistance to the "Tupperware kids" - named after a brand of plastic food containers - are concerns that they risk an imbalanced diet in a country with rising child obesity rates.

"There's a risk that the kids start to change their eating habits, because in Spain we eat a big meal at midday with a lighter supper. The tupperware lunch is turning meal times on its head and that's an important change for our culinary culture," says mother-of-two Eloisa Hurtado who works closely with her school's committee.

Some schools have even banned packed lunches, meaning those on tighter budgets are forced to take their children home during the dinner break. Hurtado admits this is not a solution as budgets get tighter.

"Not all families have someone to pick their children up midday," said Hurtado. "So what do those families do if we ban packed lunches?" (Additional reporting, writing by Paul Day; Editing by Sarah Morris and Paul Casciato)

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