"Eating out? What's that?" Sue Ann Guildermann said when asked about the current state of work lunches. "It doesn't happen anymore."

Actually, she added, there are exceptions. "At professional conferences, I am seeing much more 'on your own for lunch' rather than 'lunch provided.'"

In this economic climate, the experiences of Guildermann, director of education at Empira Inc., a consortium of nursing homes based in Eden Prairie, are hardly unusual.

When the going gets tough, it seems, the tough bring in their lunches, or grab something in the office cafeteria (or both) in lieu of a spendier meal at a nearby restaurant.

"Our people are now more likely to eat at our cafeteria than to drive out and get lunch," said Andrea Miller, director of corporate communications of the investment firm the Petters Group in Minnetonka, where she said cafeteria business is up markedly this year. "Whereas before they would say, 'Oh, it'll be a nice break to get out,' now they're eating in and taking breaks at other times."

Meanwhile, a Warners' Stellian salesman reports that sales of small refrigerators to individuals (noncollege-dorm division) and larger fridges and microwave ovens to businesses also have risen during the past year. "These are hot items for us right now," said Mark Stage.

Whether brown-bagging or dining at the office cafe, employees throughout the Twin Cities are scaling back on lunch costs. And the savings can add up quickly. Investment and personal-finance firms such as Family Credit Management and Bankrate.com estimate that workers can save $70 per month based on 20 meals with an average cost of $3 for a "brown-bag" vs. $6.50 for a purchased meal.

With that economic backdrop, it's no surprise that food vendors are scrambling, as well. Per-capita sales had been slipping at the 60 office cafes that Aramark operates in Minnesota, district manager Pat Woods said.

The company is responding with a Subway-type push focused on cheaper and more healthful eating.

"Our steady users are going from four to five days a week to two to three days a week and bringing in lunch the other days," Woods said. "We have come up with a strategy of five [meals] under $5, like the fast-food places are doing.

"People look at that as a double dip: It's a bargain, and it's good for me. So now we're promoting something like a sandwich with a salad instead of promoting chocolate cake, or putting fresh veggies instead of French fries at the grill."

Supplemental noshing

At one company, workers are employing another kind of "double dip": buying a few smaller items at the cafeteria to augment a brown-bag main course.

"We're finding that employees often are using the cafe to supplement their lunch from home more often," said Target spokeswoman Laura Otsahl. "For example, they might bring in leftover spaghetti and come in and buy garlic bread or a salad and a soda to complete the meal."

That helps explain why transactions are up by 8 to 12 percent, but revenues are flat at Target's three corporate and campus cafes in the Twin Cities. The cafes have added or augmented "grab and go" sections, salad bars and grill items, Otsahl said. But the biggest bump has come in "Healthy Corner" meals under 300 calories, which "have gone from 30 a day last year to anywhere from 95 to 190 a day," she said.

"There's no question," Aramark's Woods said, "that if people are making a choice right now, it's toward a healthier choice."

Woods also said that brand-name items are on the wane. "We're seeing the same thing that grocery stores are seeing. We're seeing people go from Starbucks to generic coffee."

Bringing in lunches more regularly, several sources said, has also helped alleviate the age-old problem of moldy-oldie items befouling the office fridge, which is now used and thus monitored more often.

Not only are individuals buying more smaller refrigerators and businesses larger ones, but companies such as Empira Inc. are starting to stock the coolers with items such as frozen dinners, individual pizzas and soups that employees can purchase.

It might make employees feel a wee bit better to know that their bosses appear to be scaling back, as well. Although none of the dozen companies contacted for this story provided specific information about executives' eating habits, several local restaurateurs said that high-end business lunches have dipped a bit.

"We're down about 10 percent," said Craig Ritacco, general manager at Mission American Kitchen, perhaps Minneapolis' foremost power-lunch mecca. "We're still filling up pretty well, but not that mob where there's 60 people standing at the front door and there's room for about 10 of them."

And it's not just the savings in food that have workers shying away from eating out.

"Our employees also like eating in," said Target's Otsahl, "because they don't have to leave a tip."

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643