LunchBox

Final project for the MDes/MPS Interaction Design Studio taught by Austin Lee at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design

LunchBox is a shared kitchen that provides working professionals with access to locally sourced ingredients, recipe inspiration and all the tools they need to whip up good conversations over quick and healthy meals.
Our proposed space in Mellon Square

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.

We do this by giving 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.

Research

After finding inspiration in other art and design work and exhibits, we took a couple trips around Pittsburgh to better understanding of the needs around Pittsburgh before coming to the concept of LunchBox.

Anita Brecosky of Overhill Lane and her sister Andrea

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.

We also visited downtown and saw a lot of empty storefronts. We spoke with Prof. Charlee Brodsky, who affirmed our belief about how it gives the people “a feeling of failing.” We brainstormed a lot of ideas around how to revitalize these empty storefronts before redirecting ourselves towards something we felt more passionately about.

Mellon Square at the busiest we saw it: lunch time on a weekday

We also came across under-utilized public spaces while in 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, whilst a few others were taking a break outside by reading, or simply relaxing. The space wasn’t conducive to group interactions either due to the design of benches that lined the periphery of the square or an absence of any activity. We brainstormed many ideas here as well, focusing on trying to invite people in and adding seating to the space to get them to stay.

A study conducted on downtown Pittsburgh by Envision Downtown revealed that Market Square has 7 times as much activity compared to Mellon Square. The differentiating factor? Food. Market Square is filled with restaurants while Mellon Square is empty. Market Square has seatings that allowed for group interactions while Mellon Square has long linear benches.

We mapped out local businesses in the downtown area to give us an indication of the potential impact we could have and the size of our target market. We found that there are 92 businesses located within a 6 minute walk of Mellon Square that employ roughly 40,000 people.

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 (see earlier potential concepts and shaping of LunchBox here).

Service Details: Value Flow

As we delved deeper into the details of our service, we grappled with wanting to design a novel value exchange for each of the stakeholders that would allow each to benefit and contribute.

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. By helping startups and smaller businesses bring this service to their employees, we hope to support small and local businesses within Pittsburgh, a city with a burgeoning startup culture. 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.

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.

Service Details: Designs

Our proposed design sits within one of the patches of grass opposite the fountain. Inside, the space is divided into four zones; kitchen, pantry, prep area (for things that don’t require cooking), and a seating area.

Inside floor plan. Highlighted area: pantry.

Of course, the seating in Mellon Square will also be available once you leave the space.

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.

Illustration of our pantry

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. At this point, the boards show what ingredients are needed so that people can pick them up.

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 also act as takeaways, and will be collected on a website for reference as well.

We also will feature recipes from local chefs to come up with a “Chef’s Special” collection of recipes.

Validation: Downtown

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.

Validation: Farmers

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 Farms.

As you heard in the video, Rick spoke to the importance of knowing where our food comes from. His initial concern was that he wouldn’t be able to provide the same produce all-year round. So, when we told him about how LunchBox actually wanted to embrace seasonality and incorporate it into the recipes we provide, he was excited to hear more.

Timothy responded positively to our proposal, saying “you can start buying from us next week, if you want to…” He also mentioned the delivery issue, but described the Penn’s Corner alliance and that we’d be able to pick up ingredients from a centralized warehouse in Lawrenceville. It was really exciting to get feedback and ideas from both professionals and farmers as validation of our hunches this far and nudges in the right direction for the future.

Future Plans

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.

Check out our presentation deck for more details.

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