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Marketing Whiz David Lyon Is Giving Class—and Clout—to a New Generation of Bag People

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David Lyon is 72 years old. Three years ago he had two heart attacks in the space of one week. Yet his prospects are rosy. In fact, you might even say his future’s in the bag.

As the president and founder of the Brown-Bag Institute, Lyon is the self-proclaimed unchallenged maven of an old-fashioned practice: the brown-bag lunch. The institute interprets results of telephone surveys that reveal what people bring in bag lunches and why, then sells the fruits of its research to major food companies on a quarterly basis. Sound crazy? Nabisco Brands and Oscar Mayer, to name just a couple of Lyon’s 13 clients, don’t think so. Each corporation pays $20,000 a year to peek at Lyon’s profiles of lunch contents, brown-bagger demographics, brand data and information on how the competition is doing.

A former Madison Avenue ad man, Lyon lives with third wife Ruth in West-port, Conn. and got the idea for the institute while recuperating from his heart attacks. He discovered that remarkably little was known about what he estimates to be a $14 billion industry. So he cornered the market. His findings? Well, only his clients get a full report, but Lyon will reveal that kids still like peanut butter and jelly, adults prefer meats, and salads are on the upswing. Lyon says brown-baggers claim to save an average of $1.80 per lunch. “A lot of people think they’re beating the system,” he explains. “People are adjusting to reduced circumstances, and they feel good about successful adaptation to misfortune.”

While business thrives at the Brown-Bag Institute, Lyon has been approached by a publisher about writing a guide to the sack lunch. Says Lyon, “I want the book to achieve for brown-bagging what Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance did for motorcycles.” It will not, however, be based on recent personal experience. Lyon works—and lunches—at home.