The brief for this project was simple: create impact in the city of Pittsburgh. We were charged with the task of getting to know the city and its inhabitants with firsthand research, and to design a solution for any problems we came across.
Targeted towards working professionals in the downtown Pittsburgh area, we hope to reach those who want to eat healthy and enjoy home-cooked meals but don’t have the time or energy to prepare and bring food from home. We spoke to some professionals downtown, many of whom said they bought lunch out pretty frequently. This option is convenient but often expensive or unhealthy. Others bring lunch, which is more pocket-friendly and healthy, but is not as easy or appealing. LunchBox brings hungry professionals an alternative lunchtime option that is convenient, pocket-friendly, and healthy.
At LunchBox, lunchtime is about so much more than food. It’s about taking a moment for yourself and clearing your head. It’s about getting away from the hustle and bustle, making room for new faces and fresh conversations.
How It Works
We give our customers access to our ingredients and our space. We bring in fresh ingredients from local partner farms around the Western Pennsylvania region. The produce is pre-washed and pre-chopped to save time. And because it can be exhausting to figure out what to make, we provide customers with 5, 10 and 15 minute recipes that are crafted to meet their time constraints. The shared kitchen space has plenty of counter space and workstations with stoves, ovens, etc. to accommodate different types of cooking. Finally, customers can enjoy their meals either outdoors in Mellon Square or at the communal table.
During our visit to the Strip District, we spoke to a number of local vendors and people living in the Pittsburgh area. Of our many takeaways, we saw an especially strong sense of community, and support for local vendors. People have been coming here for decades, and exchange of value between customers and vendors transcend beyond monetary transactions.
Gathering information from people on the street and chatting with local vendors
We visited downtown and saw a lot of empty storefronts. Charlee Brodsky, a longtime resident of Pittsburgh, affirmed our belief that the empty spaces gives the people “a feeling of failing.”
Empty spaces downtown; people are gathered only around bus stops
We also came across under-utilized public spaces while downtown, such as Mellon Square. It’s a beautiful space and has been recently renovated, but we only saw a handful of people there, even though we visited multiple times to get a sense of the space at different times of day. During lunchtime, we saw a couple of people eating lunch on their own. The space wasn’t conducive to group interactions either due to the design of benches that lined the periphery of the square or the absence of any activity.
Mellon Square during lunch time
Our service intends to revitalize downtown Pittsburgh, one underutilized space at a time. A place feels occupied when people are present. And when the people who are present talk to each other, energy and vitality is brought back to the space. Our final concept, LunchBox, uses food to bring people together and foster interactions, connecting people and food in a way that brings customers and local businesses together.
LunchBox uses food to bring people together and foster interactions, connecting people and food in a way that brings customers, farmers, and chefs together in celebration of the food and culture local to Western Pennsylvania.
As we delved deeper into the details of our service, we wanted to design a novel value exchange for each of the stakeholders. The primary business model for LunchBox targets small and medium businesses, who could purchase subscriptions to LunchBox as part of a health and wellness benefits package that could help them retain and attract top talent. Secondary business flows would include a pay-per-use model, where customers who aren’t subsidized by their employers can walk in and enjoy the service as well.
Situating LunchBox in Mellon Square will provide local professionals with a green space to enjoy a relaxing lunch break, in turn bringing more vibrancy to the area.
Our relationship with farms in the Western PA region is at the heart of our service. We hope to bring publicity and cash flow to local farmers as well as bring fresh, healthy, locally grown produce to our customers. By featuring just-picked produce and the farms at which they’re grown, we bring a sense of seasonality back to the way we eat.
In seeking to support the local food scene, we will provide a platform for local chefs to share quick recipes based on available ingredients, and in exchange generate more excitement about their restaurants.
Our proposed design sits within one of the patches of grass opposite the fountain. Inside, the space is divided into four zones: a kitchen, a pantry, a prep area (for things that don’t require heating), and a seating area.
Floor plan. Highlighted area: pantry.
We have two staff members present at all times to make sure things are running as smoothly as possible. During the lunch rush, they are responsible for overseeing the cleanliness and hygiene of the space, answering any questions and helping out wherever they can, keeping the pantry well-stocked, and generally managing the space.
The pantry is the heart and soul of the shared kitchen. Key features of the pantry include:
- A wall that features a different farm every month and highlights seasonal produce
- Pre-washed and pre-chopped ingredients in the salad bar-style pantry that help save time
- Recipe boards that provide inspiration on what to make, as well as how to take advantage of seasonal offerings
Drawing of pantry interior
Also available are recipe cards: smaller versions of the ones shown on the board with step-by-step instructions on how to prepare the dish. They can act as takeaways, and will be collected on a website for reference as well. In addition to the standard recipes that LunchBox staff curates, we will feature recipes from local chefs to form a "Gourmet Chef Special" collection.
We staged a service demo at the end of the semester, setting up a miniature version of our pantry and kitchen area. We had a great response from the people at our presentations; here's a documentation of what happened there.
We spoke with five people downtown during the lunch rush, four of whom showed interest in the service moving forward. (The last one could see his coworkers being interested but wasn’t much of a chef himself.) From their perspective, our service would have to remain competitive with the $10–15 that many of them spend on lunch each day and would also have to contend with the flow and management of many people in the small space. We already anticipate selling ingredients and use of the space at a significantly cheaper price than most decent lunch places, and of course, if customers’ employers have purchased subscriptions, that wouldn’t be a concern for them at all. With regards to the flow and management of people in the space, that’s something we’d need to finesse as the service grows, and we plan to have our host and assistant present to keep things running as smoothly as possible.
At the Farmers’ Market Coop of East Liberty, we spoke to two farmers who co-own the space: Rick Zang, owner of Zang’s Greenhouse, and Timothy Hileman, president of the Penn’s Corner Farm Alliance and owner of Kistaco Farm. Both responded positively, saying that they're always looking for customers and that embracing the seasonality and locality of their produce might be a welcome change to the downtown food climate.
Rick Zang of Zang's Greenhouse
We see our space in Mellon Square as a pilot. Ultimately, our goal is to replicate this service in other locations both in Pittsburgh and across other cities in the country. We hope to develop a pop-up version of this service with a low cost structure: a branded shipping container to reflect each city. LunchBox is a way to help build a culture of eating healthy and sustainably — something we could use more of in the world.