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Busy Tokyo office workers let lunch come to them

Bento delivery services thriving as Japan seeks to address working culture

Aivick's Okiben packed lunches get stored in office fridges and will keep for up to four days.

TOKYO -- Skipping lunch or wasting half a precious break are all-too-familiar, not to mention tedious, experiences for most of Tokyo's busy office workers.

Now, many companies in the Japanese capital are turning to delivery services to make sure employees get a square meal if they have no time to step out -- or would simply rather spend their break doing something more fun than waiting in line at a restaurant.

Visiting vender

At the headquarters of management consultancy Link and Motivation in the upmarket Ginza district, about 250 packed lunches are brought in and stacked in a corner of the office in the morning through a service called Shashokuru.

The bento boxes come in 10 varieties and staff can pick up their lunch with minimal fuss. All are priced at just 500 yen ($4.60), half the average cost of eating out in one of Tokyo's fanciest neighborhoods.

"It's nice to have such a wide variety, so I don't get bored and it's fun choosing," said one employee.

"It's great because it helps save time," said another, who uses the service nearly every day. Before it started, she had to spend nearly half an hour taking the two elevators down from the 12th-floor office, walking to and from a nearby restaurant and standing in line.

She now spends the time on things she likes to do, like participating in the company's English conversation program.

Getting staff to have a decent meal and take a break is one of the many ways Japanese companies are trying to move away from a culture of excessive work at the cost of personal well-being. Enabling people to do something fun on their lunch break is all part of that. 

According to a survey carried out in June by Shinsei Bank, male company employees spend an average of just 22 minuets on lunch, 11 minutes less than they did in 1983.

When asked what they had eaten in a recent average week, only 16.2% of their meals had been taken outside the office, down 2.6 percentage points from 2014.

Shashokuru has some 500 different bentos on its menu priced between 450 yen and 1,000 yen, about 50 of which carry the brands of well-known stores and restaurants. Every day, a different selection gets delivered to the company's 115 clients in city.

Stocking up

Kyoto-based Aivick takes a different approach. Instead of sending meals out on a daily basis, its Okiben service delivers a batch of pre-ordered packed lunches with a four-day expiry period. They get stored in fridges at the clients' offices, either their own or leased, for employees to pick up whenever they like.

They can be ordered online, either individually and billed directly to a personal account or by a company in batches.

Star Festival's Shashokuru service delivers bentos from well-known restaurant and shop brands to offices around Tokyo.

The company prepares one type of bento every day to deliver to all its customers from a list of 600 different Japanese, Chinese and Western dishes. The healthy meals cost 600 yen and stay fresh thanks to a sealed package filled with inert gas. 

Veltra, a travel reservation website operator, is a regular customer. Every day, two to three dozen bentos arrive at its central Tokyo office.

"There are lots of restaurants in the area, but they are all expensive," said one employee. "But I can eat an Okiben when I like, so I never have to skip lunch."

A colleague of his said she appreciates being able to get a healthy meal as she "worries about the health impact of fast food and what you get in convenience stores."

In another recent survey, this one carried out by packaged foods manufacturer Fujicco, some 70% of the 400 respondents said they wanted to spend their lunch break doing something they like to do, not just eating.

A company spokesperson said it also found many people stock up on its Basta Deli range, which has a refrigerated storage life of up to 45 days, to put in their office fridge so they do not have to waste time standing in line on their break.

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