Aftershock: What’s Next for a Hungry Nation
As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded this year, food retailers and foodservice operators experienced a massive swing in market shares. A situation that had taken decades to achieve, in which food away from home had overtaken food at home, suddenly diverged sharply. Food retailers could barely keep shelves full as Americans ate virtually all of their meals at home, while restaurants with indoor dining sat empty due to social-distancing restrictions.
- Progressive Grocer’s parent company, EnsembleIQ, conducted a major foodservice study to gain insight into Americans’ future behaviors regarding retail foodservice and restaurant usage by gauging current sentiment across a range of eating and food preparation behaviors.
- The research findings suggest a high probability that nearly 40% of consumers will continue to cook homemade meals more often than they did prior to COVID-19.
- The study also found that one-third of Americans increased their use of prepared foods during the pandemic.
The extremes of this situation were most evident in March and April, before gradually lessening in May and June. By July and August, Americans weary of being exiled at home ventured out more regularly to restaurants that had reopened, many having found inventive ways to accommodate diners. Meanwhile, retailers also found inventive ways to adjust their foodservice operations with new approaches to presentation, packaging and service.
Throughout the pandemic, lingering questions for retail foodservice operators and restaurants have centered on how Americans’ eating behaviors would change once the COVID-19 situation is resolved. Would shopping patterns return to normal — meaning the way people shopped and dined out prior to the declaration of a national emergency on March 13 — or would the behaviors established during the pandemic stick, leading to further transformation in the way that America eats?
These were among the key areas of exploration in a major foodservice study conducted by researchers with Progressive Grocer’s parent company, EnsembleIQ. The goal was to gain insight into Americans’ future behaviors regarding retail foodservice and restaurant usage by gauging current sentiment across a range of eating and food preparation behaviors. Researchers also employed a unique approach by assessing satisfaction levels with the quality of in-home food preparation and related product purchases, which offer hints as to how the balance between retail foodservice and restaurants could shake out this fall and beyond.
“We’ve seen the world of food retailing and foodservice undergo tremendous disruption since March, and we wanted to better understand how Americans feel about the new eating behaviors thrust upon them by the pandemic,” says Laura Nicklin, VP of research, insights and innovation with Chicago-based EnsembleIQ. “The research shows us that the new behaviors we’ve all learned the past few months are likely to have profound and lasting effects on food retailing and prepared foods.”
The survey of 1,072 consumers, of which 80% said they do most of their household’s meal planning and cooking, was also strategically timed to gather responses during the latter part of July. The logic behind when the survey was fielded, according to Nicklin, was to better assess satisfaction with behaviors established during the earlier months of the pandemic, as a means to gauge future behaviors with a higher degree of accuracy.
This approach came to life in the findings by asking survey respondents about their eating behaviors before and during the pandemic, but then going beyond such base-level insights to find out about their satisfaction with their new lifestyles. For example, some of the key insights from the research showed:
- Nearly 90% of those surveyed experimented with new recipes and ways to cook food during the pandemic.
- Close to 70% said that they enjoyed “a lot” the meals they prepared.
- Roughly half said that they got a lot of enjoyment out of cooking.
- One reason for this is that close to 35% said they bought new utensils, countertop appliances and cookware to “play with.”
- Roughly 42% said that they generally prefer their household’s home cooking to that of restaurants, while only 13% said that restaurant food is far better than home cooking.
Despite this broad and high level of satisfaction with home cooking, a fatigue factor was also evident. When asked if they got tired of cooking at home, 28% said that they were very tired of cooking, and 45% said that they were a little tired.
All things considered, Nicklin contends that the research findings suggest a high probability that nearly 40% of consumers will continue to cook homemade meals more often than they did prior to COVID-19. A key reason for this has to do with lingering safety concerns about eating at restaurants. Roughly 40% of those surveyed in late July indicated that they weren’t comfortable yet eating in restaurants, and only 22% said that they were eager to return to restaurants.
Retailers with foodservice operations fared somewhat better in terms of usage, despite adjustments made to restrict self-serve options. Even so, findings showed that one-third of Americans increased their use of prepared foods during the pandemic, typically to save money versus restaurant food, and from a desire to have the sensation of home cooking without the effort required to cook.
“The key driver of increased use of prepared foods uncovered in the research is that roughly half of those surveyed viewed it as more affordable than restaurant food,” Nicklin says.