Not too long ago, consumer trends were leaning toward health and wellness and plant-based alternatives. But with the arrival of the coronavirus (COVID-19), consumers shifted their focus to safety, individually wrapped packages, value-added family bundles and comfort foods. Now, it’s hard to imagine eating any other way.

“The longer consumers have to adapt to a new normal, the more permanent the changes will become,” says Anne Mills, senior manager of consumer insights at Technomic, based in Chicago.

In foodservice, it’s hard to imagine that consumers would want to give up all of these new accommodations — curbside pickup; contactless delivery; increased options for family meals, groceries and catering; and improved takeout packaging to ensure product quality.

2021 Consumer Trends Report

“Restaurants are trying to respond to consumer — and staff — needs for safety, so they are trying to be as transparent as possible to make consumers confident they are following safety protocols,” Mills says.

Restaurant menus are more streamlined to lower in-house costs but increasingly innovative to drive traffic. “There’s new menu offerings, such as the value deals, and faster service, while ingredients and items are more streamlined,” says Mills.

Restaurants have smaller menus to compensate for the decreased capacity of allowed dine-in guests — as low as 25 percent in New York — while still meeting pre-set expenses such as rent.

“However, operators are looking for convenient ways to offer protein in a variety of meals, with a minimum of food handling for safety,” says Kathy Holt, sales and channel lead at JPG Resources, based in Battle Creek, Mich. “Now, value-added ingredients — pre-cooked or seasoned — have more appeal.”

Before COVID-19, value-added items and ingredients were utilized by operators because of problems getting back-of-the-house help, notes Holt. Now, smaller case sizes and individually wrapped entrees are even more appealing. Ghost or satellite kitchens are also being used to cook takeout or delivery orders.

“How they merge the safety aspect with launching these new products is important,” Holt says. “Carry-out meals, for example, need to travel well and should be tested in the plant before a traditional market launch.”

For this reason, fast-food chains have done particularly well during the pandemic because they are built upon the premise of drive throughs. “Their food travels well, and people know that,” Holt says. “Another popular one is the pizza business, because their products have already been put to the test.”

Fast food is convenient, offers somewhat of a barrier and little contact with employees. “It’s even a way to just get out of the house,” she says.

food pickup

Delivering comfort and health

Even in a pandemic, chicken continues to be the top protein for consumers, due to its affordability and versatility, Mills says. “Consumers turn to familiar comfort foods during a stressful time, which they do during a pandemic and recession,” she says.

For some reason, spicy chicken has been particularly popular this year. McDonald’s launched spicy chicken nuggets, Whataburger debuted a spicy chicken sandwich, and Fazoli’s added chicken wings to drive traffic and sales, Mills says.

“Chicken was hot pre-COVID and continues to be hot,” says Holt. “Poultry always has a good health halo.”

Fried chicken also remains popular, along with pizza, burgers and chicken wings, Mills says.

ordering a meal with a phone app

“Consumers are seeking comfort-oriented, familiar foods,” says Shelley Balanko, PhD, senior vice president at the Hartman Group, based in Bellevue, Wash. “So, they will look for more meat-based entrees because they grew up with them.”

Carl’s Jr. now combines breakfast with burgers with its breakfast burger with fried egg. “Burgers are always hot and a top three item on any menu,” Holt says.

“We’re also seeing a little increase in steak and seafood for takeout or delivery,” says Mills. “Maybe, consumers are starting to go back to dishes they used to eat at restaurants and try them now at home.”

Family meals are a response to consumers need for convenient meals or solutions in a safe way. “They also allow restaurants to use up supplies, reduce food waste and drive sales,” Mills says.

KFC is teaming up with Beyond Meat at some locations to test plant-based options, such as Beyond Fried Chicken. “We’ve seen more experimentation with meat analogues this year, but will still see less purchases as consumers turn to old favorites with meat and chicken,” Balanko says. “The exception may be fine dining in which diners are more open to creativity and innovation.”

While many operators may be less inclined to experiment with plant-based meat right now, it’s not going away. “They’re more willing to try it with items made in the back of the house,” says Holt. “Chili, for example, could use plant-based chicken or ground beef as another option if it’s already a popular item on the menu. Then, it’s a low-risk investment.”

meal bags

Willing to pay for indulgence

Consumers are paying more attention to their health but balancing that desire with using food as a treat, Mills says. “There are few ways left today to treat or indulge oneself when you can’t travel or go to sports, so ordering food is one of the few things we can do,” she says.

Historically, Gen Z and Millennials are the heaviest foodservice users and they lean more toward takeout and delivery. “They rely more on restaurants for day-to-day meals,” says Mills. “Boomers think of restaurant food as a treat for once or twice a week. It remains to be seen how the pandemic will impact this behavior as more people cook at home.”

Intuitively, we think consumers will want to pay less for restaurant food, but they are willing to pay more. “They are thinking of living a healthier lifestyle, so they are willing to pay more,” Balanko says. “And they have more money to spend at the grocery store or foodservice, because the volume of their expenditures has significantly decreased (if they didn’t lose their job).”

what's on the menu

The trend toward conscious consumption has, in fact, accelerated. “Consumers are more interested in paying more for products that are sourced in an ethical, sustainable way,” Balanko says.

At grocery stores, that means plant-based meats are still doing well. “They are experiencing cooking fatigue and looking for new ways to change things up,” Balanko says.

Food waste is another issue that consumers are more concerned about within their own homes and in general. “Food supply is top of mind as we go to the store and see food supply is down or out. Also, those affected by unemployment are watching out for waste. Some can stock up and others are careful not to let their food go to waste,” Balanko says.

lady preparing dinner

Affecting long-term behavior

Once the COVID-19 pandemic is over, will consumers maintain their current cooking habits? “They say they think it will stick and they will dine out less,” according to Hartman Group studies, says Balanko. “COVID has maxed out everything — time, money and energy — so they will try to limit stress.”

If restaurants offer a safe, warm and inviting atmosphere with responsible interaction with consumers, it’s possible to imagine life returning to normal eventually. “It will be a long, slow effort to get back to normal, though,” Holt says. “There will be hiccups, so people will think twice before dining out.”

Consumers will continue to turn to takeout and delivery for family bundles, grab-and-go items and curbside pickup. “We should think of how the pandemic changed consumer behavior in the short and long term,” Mills says. “In the long term, as people continue to work remotely, this will impact their site selections, and restaurants will rely more on ghost kitchens for takeout and delivery food. How do they make sure meat and poultry stay fresh and high quality in transit?” NP

Shopping for convenience

What do consumers want from their retailers’ protein offerings? Variety and increased shelf life.

“In a way, consumers still look for what they always looked for: protein variety,” says Anne-Marie Roerink, principal and founder at 210 Analytics, in San Antonio, Texas. “But these days they go about it in very different ways than they did pre-pandemic.”

Before coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), the meat department’s biggest worry was consumers’ lack of knowledge and affinity for preparing meat among younger generations. “Many were hesitant to try new things, not knowing how or what it would taste like,” says Roerink.

So, retail offered easier to prepare items in the meat case and prepared meats in their foodservice section, such as rotisserie chicken.

Once the pandemic hit the United States, food dollars shifted nearly overnight for all meals and snacks. “On top of that, tight supply and high demand caused many shoppers to have to buy brands, cuts and types of protein they had never made before,” Roerink says. “Recipe searches were at an all-time high, with more protein experimentation than we had seen in years. This resulted in meat department dollars being up more than 30 percent over year ago between March and September.”

Fully cooked meat in the deli is a different story. “Success in deli-prepared items often hinges on frequent, small trips as they are more of an instant consumable for most people,” Roerink says. This is why deli-prepared does so well in urban areas during lunch and dinner times. “But the pandemic caused people to shop a whole lot less often, while shopping online more, which meant people weren’t going to the store to buy tonight’s dinner.”

This resulted in a collapse of prepared meats sold in retail foodservice, whether rotisserie chicken or items available on hot/cold food bars, which closed down in most areas, Roerink says.

Seven months into the pandemic, we’re seeing behavior shift once more. “Cooking from scratch has lost its luster and shoppers are looking for ideas, convenience, shelf life and more,” says Roerink. “We still see trips being flat, despite sales still being significantly higher in retail. That means people are buying more in one trip.”

For meat, whether sold out of the deli or the meat department, that has a lot of consequences. “People buy for multiple meals at once, so they will want to either freeze or be able to keep it in the fridge longer, which favors vacuum-sealed packaging that allows for longer shelf life,” Roerink says. “It also favors heat-and-eat items, as they often have much longer shelf life.”

Big trends are innovation in ready-to-eat, ready-to-heat and ready-to-cook.

“And frozen foods are absolutely on fire in all these areas as well,” Roerink says. “Meat and seafood have been among the fastest growers in the frozen-food aisle, along with entrees. It is important to remember more than 50 percent of parents have their kids home for virtual schooling. That creates very different demands on the breakfast and lunch occasions, and a very different role for protein.”  

The longer this new normal lasts, the more likely it is that some trends will stick around. “Particularly important is the fact that so many people bought new items, new cuts, new brands and explored in frozen and retail foodservice to never-before-seen levels,” Roerink says. “Without a doubt, that resulted in people discovering something they really liked, whether for convenience or shelf life or taste. Good experiences often result in repeat experiences.”