Sometimes I have to pinch myself, Bret, when I’m reading the latest news reports on consumer behavior during the COVID-19 closedown. From the point of view of grocery purchases, it’s as if we’ve all gone down the rabbit hole and emerged squarely in the 1950s as we contentedly slurp chicken noodle soup chased by a tall glass of milk.
There must be some pinching going on in C-suites as well, as executives of many blue-chip, packaged-goods brands that have hemorrhaged sales over the past few years have seen a dramatic reversal of their flagging fortunes. Housebound customers have rediscovered the joys of classics like ready-to-eat cereals, canned soups, and milk that comes from an actual cow. In fact, the fluid-milk category, which has been battered by plant-based pretenders made of everything from oats to nuts, has staged a remarkable comeback.
The grocery-store trackers at Information Resources, Inc. report that for the first time in two decades, fluid milk is posting real sales increases; and whole milk has enjoyed the biggest boost by a substantial margin, with volumes up nearly 7% in the most recent reporting period.
And there’s more: Supermarkets can’t keep flour or yeast in stock. Whirlpool Corp., in an otherwise gloomy earnings call in early May, noted an uptick in sales of their KitchenAid mixers, the pricey kind that is used in baking. Apparently, consumers feel a need to knead. And somewhere June Cleaver is smiling as she pulls a pack of cigarettes out of her apron pocket.
You and I know, of course, that these extraordinary grocery gains come at the expense of foodservice operators across the broad swath of segments, who have suffered catastrophic losses as they’ve closed kitchens and dining rooms. Now as many begin reopening in fits and starts around the country, what will it take to lure pantry-fatigued patrons back on premise and how should menu research and development be recalibrated to allay consumers’ concerns?
We’ve already agreed that comfort classics will undergo yet another overhaul, but there’s a bigger and more important lesson here, I think. Beyond comfort and nostalgia, these unlikely stars of the supermarket surge represent safety and security, something consumers will demand as they cede control of meal prep to restaurateurs. For the foreseeable future, menu planners will need to put safety first.
What exactly does that look like in the menu context and what are the menu equivalents of hand sanitizers and disinfecting wipes? I think the sense of safety will be inextricably bound up with the notions of health and wellness. This is good news, because many chefs actually have the requisite tools at hand.
For a very long time, freshness has loomed large in patron perceptions of health. It will be a key gauge of safety, too, and since freshness applies to both product and process, operators will have a clear opportunity to tout their kitchen practices and protocols. The smart ones will make it a cornerstone of the menu messaging.
Another dimension of this fervor for freshness will be a reemphasis on sourcing and seasonality, since “local” and “regional” are also indicators of better-for-you for many patrons.
Chef Joshua McFadden, owner of vegetable-forward Ava Gene’s and Tusk in Portland, Ore., spoke recently of substantial increases in Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, activities, which he says reflects the sense of security provided by working with local, identifiable growers.
Another very important surrogate for safety is “clean” foods, and operators who have gotten the jump on sourcing free-from ingredients — as in antibiotic-, additive-, and hormone-free — will have a distinct advantage in the safety sweepstakes.
What’s your take on all of this, Bret? As we reopen, it’s crucial that operators get this right, so what will menu development look like going forward? Do you agree that diners will demand a menu security blanket, or will we go back to pre-pandemic business as usual? What will take to get diners to step away from those shiny KitchenAids and let restaurateurs do the cooking?
Bret Thorn responds:
Oh Nancy, I don’t think it’s going to take much to get home cooks to step away from their KitchenAids. Cooking’s a lot of work, and electric mixers are a pain to clean. I suspect that people will soon turn to other priorities, such as getting new jobs, drumming up new business and otherwise making ends meet as we work through what I think is going to be a difficult and protracted economic downturn.
Many Americans might have become better cooks over the past couple of months, but even if they’ve been bitten hard by the cooking bug, the realities of life are going to distract them, their sourdough starters are going to die from neglect and those mixers are going to be gathering dust on the hard-to-reach top shelves of our nation’s kitchen cabinets.
But as they return to restaurants, you’re absolutely right that safety is going to be a new priority for restaurant customers.
In the most recent quarterly earnings call for Dine Brands Global, parent company of Applebee’s and IHOP, IHOP president Jay Johns told investors that personal safety “will be up there with value and craveability” as a key consumer demand.
That’s new. It definitely wasn’t the case in January, and that demand for safety’s not going anywhere. Americans now all know how to wash their hands properly, and you better believe that when they’re standing at a restaurant counter they’re going to be singing Happy Birthday under their breaths as they watch employees get ready to dish up their food. And there will be hell to pay if they don’t get through the song twice before those restaurant workers starts rinsing the soap off their hands.
And value will become more important than ever. Times are likely going to be tough for a while, and even customers whose finances haven’t been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic are going to feel nervous. That’s one reason for the popularity of those discounted family meals that so many restaurants have rolled out.
Those include Potbelly Sandwich Shop’s Family Meal Deal of four sandwiches, four bags of chips and four cookies for $19.99, Hot Head Burritos’ six-taco kits for $11.95, and Olive Garden’s take-and-bake lasagna sized for eight people with a giant salad, a bottle of dressing, a dozen ready-to-bake bread sticks and Alfredo or marinara dipping sauce starting at $50.
All of those meals also are comfort food, of course, and I think that’s what consumers are going to want to eat for quite a while yet — simple food that lets people stop thinking while they eat in peace.
And they don’t want to see restaurant workers pawing over their food. Muffins and other snacks safely enshrouded in plastic are the order of the day, according to Rob Morasco, senior director of culinary development and performance at onsite operator Sodexo.
And Scott Murphy, president of Dunkin’, told me the chain has scored a hit with its prepacked dozen doughnuts that are stacked at the drive-thrus.
He said that the most important part of doughnut buying for many customers used to be the joy of selecting exactly which specific treats they wanted. Now the perceived safety (and no-doubt convenience) of doughnuts in a sealed box has new appeal.
But I’m not sure that restaurant customers are going to include health and wellness as part of their focus on safety.
Maybe they should: In a guidance for procedures that restaurants should follow in the face of the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took the unusual step of including the suggestion that restaurant owners look after their employees’ well-being by encouraging them to exercise, get enough sleep and eat healthily.
But if customers do bring health into the safety equation, I hope they really try to eat healthily rather than falling into the trap of pretending that something that’s “fresh” or “local,” whatever those words mean, is necessarily good for you.
As you know, Nancy, there’s nothing wrong with frozen vegetables.
I see safety in the near- to medium-term being more about perceived sanitation than provenance of the product.
Hence the plastic-wrapped muffins. You can expect environmentalism to take a backseat to perceived cleanliness too: Single-use plastics are going to make a triumphant return for some time to come.
I don’t expect local/regional or seasonal stuff to be a priority, either. Those things tend to cost more, and the benefits are intangible. CSAs can be nice for home cooks looking to experiment, but it’s not a cheap way to do it, and I think consumers’ priorities are going to be elsewhere.
I could be wrong about that: There does seem to have been an upsurge in community awareness since the viral outbreak that might translate into sustained support for local merchants. We’ll see.
From a health-and-wellness perspective, I’d love to see consumers practice eating a balanced diet for once, but instead I think they might very well double-down on “superfoods” and other nonsense — or if “nonsense” seems too strong, then let’s say ingredients that are marketed with unproven nutritional claims.
Numerous smoothie and juice chains have started rolling out menu items meant to boost their customers’ immunity, which makes perfect sense. I wouldn’t bet against continued enthusiasm over turmeric, ashwagandha and other ingredients that have lately been dubbed cure-alls, but I’d expect the same people who eat them to scarf down more mac and cheese than they used to.
As for “clean” foods, I don’t know. My sense is that tastiness and value, wrapped in an abundance of plastic, are going to be more important to consumers than azodicarbonamide and artificial color.
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Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta and a regular contributor to Nation’s Restaurant News.
E-mail her at [email protected]