Pantries have once again become the heart of our homes, and interest in kitchen appliances has been growing over 50% in the past six months. Meal kits have made a comeback and healthy snacking searches are currently at an all-time high. Thanks to changes wrought by the pandemic and the lockdown, consumers are making extremely different choices in the kitchen and the supermarket, resulting in surprising changes to the food world. Everything from where we buy food to how we cook it has been altered. Here are some of the trends.
As the pandemic forces everyone to think about health on a daily basis, people are focusing on food for its functional benefits. The mention of “immunity” in the context of food rose 27% between February 2019 and March 2020. Seaches for berries on Google rose by 200% over the last 12 months, as well as mushrooms, herbs, and spices. California is the leading location when it comes to the functional food hype in the U.S., but Texas, New York, and Florida are close behind. There are opportunities for any fortified food that contains bioactive ingredients, vitamins, and minerals. “Immunity booster” is the key phrase, as well as sleep-supporting beverages to deal with stress, and energy drinks to support increasing workloads.
U.S. sales of plant-based meat substitutes increased 200% year-over-year for the week ending April 18. U.S. sales of conventional meat increased by just 30% during that same period. As tens of thousands of meatpacking and food plant workers in the U.S. have contracted COVID-19, it has led to several shutdowns of plants and concern about workers’ health and the entire meat supply chain. The meatpacking system has been built in a way that most meat in the country must flow through just a few manufacturers in order to get things like bacon and ground beef to the market. Thousands of farmers have planned the lives of their animals around a schedule that terminates at those meatpacking facilities, so closures create cascading problems throughout the agricultural world. If their cows, chickens, or pigs are not killed when planned, they’re going to be too big to be processed, but slaughtering and burying a herd of cattle could have effects on a farm’s productivity for years, considering that cows can take up to 24 months to grow. As those ripple effects continue and stories about meatpacking cause some people to turn away from meat, everything that can be used to replace meat will grow—not only plant-based meat, but also any other kind of protein such as beans or texture substitutes such as mushrooms.
From meal kits to edu-cooking
Sun Basket, Blue Apron, and Hello Fresh are all experiencing a substantial increase in demand. Meal kits had a cultural moment a few years ago but never achieved widespread adoption. Cooking at home is now giving people not only activities to do but also a sense of control during these uncertain times. Meal-kit companies are undertaking initiatives to capitalize on their quarantine-driven momentum. The real question is, how long will it last? In my opinion, not very long. From a series of interviews we ran at Future Food Network, we saw that consumers struggle with the “pretty flat flavor profile” of the meal-kit options, as well as “the excessive packaging coming with them” and “the lack of learning journey.” Consumers seem to use them for a short period of time as a kick-starter to get more used to the cooking environment, but they reconsider their choice as soon as they gain more cooking skills.
Perfection is overrated. No Michelin star chef got their award without burning a few dozen meals. Now more than ever, social media has been allowing us to follow our favorite idols everywhere they go, from Massimo Bottura’s “Kitchen Quarantine” to José Andrés’s #RecipesforthePeople. We are getting into people’s kitchens, seeing them unshaved and in their pajamas. As consumers, we don’t want to be reminded of what we don’t have or what we can’t do. We want to know we are not alone during our failures. COVID-19 has given us a moment of pause to realize again the power of being human. Craving an emotional connection is currently at an all-time high. Brands that provide a sense of community, acceptance of imperfection, and encouragement towards the process rather than the outcome will get on consumers’ radar and thrive in the long run.
Consumers are looking for high-quality, trusted food delivered to them. Instacart app downloads for grocery delivery increased 215% between February 14 and March 15. In the weekend following coronvirus’s designation as a pandemic, downloads for Walmart’s grocery app increased 45%. And an increasing number of restaurants have now decided not only to pivot toward a curbside model but also to become touchless grocery stores. A nationwide example is Panera, through their launch of Panera Grocery platform. In an interview, executives explained how they were “seeing the availability they had in their supply chain and how it lined up with the needs.” From our studies with consumers, we received very positive feedback about it as well. The emotional attachment to neighborhood restaurants is far stronger than to Amazon or Whole Foods, for example, and generally there is an extreme trust toward professional chefs, who “perfectly know what to cook and where to get the best ingredients.”
Chiara Cecchini is the executive director and cofounder of Future Food Americas.