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The post-COVID-19 foodscape: Could packaged food rival restaurants?

Could a new-found love for eating in the home create opportunities for meal kits, gourmet ready meals and cooking aids?

When COVID-19 forced the global foodservice sector to come to a standstill, consumers got creative in the kitchen, recreating the meals they would normally enjoy in restaurants. Could a new-found love for eating in the home create opportunities for meal kits, gourmet ready meals and cooking aids?

Although restaurant delivery operators, such as Deliveroo or UberEats, continued to operate during the pandemic, concerns over whether the coronavirus could be transmitted via food – coupled with the fact that millions of individuals found themselves housebound with plenty of free time to prepare food – prompted many to embrace cooking from scratch or to turn to meal kits and ready meals to take the burden off meal planning.

Meal kit delivery firms, which deliver the exact amount of proportioned ingredients to create a given dish, allow amateur chefs to try new recipes without having to invest in jars of expensive spices or condiments they may use only once. Market research firm Euromonitor International, found that 24% of young adults in 2020 feel less confident in their cooking skills, making ready-to-eat products and meal kits popular products for this age group in particular.

According to a report published by Grand View Research in June 2020, the global meal kit delivery services market was already doing well before the health crisis, with a predicted compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 12.8% that would see it reach US$19.92 billion by 2027, and the COVID-19 pandemic has given the sector a boost.

“The market is expected to witness increased traction in 2020 owing to the spread of COVID-19. The crisis has made the service exceptionally significant across the globe where social distancing has become the key to survival. Direct to consumer delivery of food products has been playing a crucial role in preventing frequent visits to grocery stores,” said Grand View Research.

Premium heat-and-eat options

There has also been a significant rise in demand for heat-and-eat prepared meals that offer consumers a restaurant-style meal without the hassle.

Buenos Aires-based start-up Simpleat makes quick frozen dishes that are vacuum packed sous-vide, a technique used by restaurants to extend the shelf-life of dishes without using preservatives and additives.

The company says its dishes - healthy versions of home cooking-style comfort food such as slow-cooked locro, a typical Andean stew, that are too time-consuming for many consumers to prepare – are popular with busy consumers in normal times and with bored consumers during lockdown.

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During the strict lockdown enforced by the Argentinian government (still ongoing in Buenos Aires at the time of writing), the early-stage start-up saw sales of its dishes jump from 5,000 meals per month to over 20,000.

The co-founder and CEO Tomás Iakub said demand for its products was bolstered by concerns over food safety and hygiene; unlike some meal kits which provide fresh or raw ingredients, Simpleat’s vacuum packed products must be boiled at home, which further reduces the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

However, Iakub believes that demand for its products will continue after the pandemic subsides. “People are running out of time in day to day life and that’s not likely to change,” he said.

Condiments cater to consumers’ new-found love for cooking

Scratch cooking also came into its own during the lockdown with many consumers using their extra time at home to cook meals. Social media platforms have become awash with images of home-prepared meals, home-baked sourdough bread and live cooking tutorials offered by famous chefs.

According to market research firm Mintel, seasonings and condiments are well-placed to ride this resurgent trend for scratch cooking. Gourmet cooking sauces or culinary aids, for instance, could help consumers recreate the meals they used to enjoy in restaurants.

Mintel: Spending could shift from restaurants to supermarkets

According to Emma Schofield, senior analyst of global food science at Mintel, even premium-positioned cooking aids are cheaper than a restaurant meal.

“Under a recession, with less money in their pockets, consumers will re-examine their spending priorities. However, under economic hardship, as witnessed in the last recession, consumers may not simply look to spend less by buying cheaper versions of their regular food and drink products,” she told FI Global Insights.

“Instead, many consumers may shift spend from restaurants, into supermarkets, thereby actually creating opportunities for premium ranges that are still more economical than restaurant meals. Food and drink products with natural and clean label attributes often carry a more premium positioning, which may be attractive to those consumers who are shifting expenditure out of food service, and into food retail.”

During the lockdown, some packaged food brands made use of infrastructure previously used by the foodservice sector to delivery their products to consumers. Vegan and vegetarian packaged food manufacturers in the UK began delivering plant-based food boxes to consumers during the lockdown using the home delivery service Foodchain, an app which usually supplies restaurants.

The question is, will the trend for preparing meals in the home – either from scratch or with the help of meal kits and restaurant-style ready meals –  endure once global lockdowns come to an end and consumers can once again enjoy the atmosphere and experience of eating in a restaurant?

Some consumer groups say they want to cook more in the post-pandemic ‘new normal’. A recent Mintel survey, for instance, found that 67% of Generation Z consumers in the UK intended to cook more after the outbreak.

“Meal occasions are coming into the home and could stay,” wrote Euromonitor analysts in a white paper ‘How Will Consumer Markets Evolve After Coronavirus?’ “After two to three months of cooking almost every meal, some consumers could come out the other end with a new-found love for cooking.”

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