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6 Ways the Coronavirus Pandemic
Will Change Eating Habits

Times of crisis inevitably change the way consumers eat, as they rethink their values around food and return to familiar favorites. So how are recent events likely to impact the way consumers eat in the months, and perhaps years, to come?

Here, two menu trends experts — Bret Thorn, Nation’s Restaurant News senior food and beverage editor, and Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Company — outline what to expect.

Three food trend predictions from Bret Thorn
Comfort food will be king.

We’ve seen crises before, and we have a good idea of how people’s palates respond to them.

After September 11, 2001, and the financial crisis of 2008, consumers quickly shifted away from highbrow intellectual food in favor of hamburgers and grilled cheese sandwiches and meat loaf and pot pie and ice cream and anything else that would let them just shut off their brains and chew.

There are actually physiological reasons that people turn to starchy foods in times of stress. But apart from the effects on brain chemistry, food from our childhood often takes us to a happy place in our minds, and we’re all longing to go there now.

Food from our childhood often takes us to a happy place in our minds.

Virtuous purchases could take a hit.

In 2008-2009, we also saw a rapid decline in sale of cage-free eggs and other products that, as morally upstanding as they may seem, are pricier than some alternatives. If compostable bowls or other low-waste and no-waste items cost more, fewer customers are going to be interested in the medium term.

Products, as morally upstanding as they may seem, are pricier.

Demand for little indulgences will likely grow.

During recessions people do splurge on small luxuries. An extravagant vacation might be out of reach as people tighten their belts, but an occasional few hours of indulgence are going to happen, so it might be wise for operators to invest in premium liquor and fine bottles of wine, because I bet there will be demand for them.

An occasional few hours of indulgence are going to happen.

Three food trend predictions from Bret Thorn

An occasional few hours of indulgence are going to happen.

Expect “value with a capital V”.

When they do return, their focus will be on value with a capital ‘V,’ and we’ll need to work out a new value equation to enable robust recovery. Unlike you, I’m not sure premium liquor and fine wine will be part of the package, at least not for most folks outside of Brooklyn. But creative, well-priced cocktails and other adult beverages most certainly will be. And yes, comfort foods will undergo yet another renaissance and revitalization, but so will ethnic foods that appeal to cabin-fevered customers itching for affordable adventure.

Supermarkets are circling. Restaurants are going grocery.

Lines between restaurants and retail will blur even further.

Supermarkets are circling. For example, in New Orleans, the heart of one of our most vibrant food cultures, Rouse Markets is courting former hospitality employees with a promise to teach them the grocery business. The company is also making meals to go available from some of the city’s most storied restaurants, like the Turtle Soup or Grits and Grillades from Commander’s Palace, and it has purchased a huge inventory of USDA Prime steaks from Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse to sell in its meat cases.  

Restaurants are going grocery on us, too. Some Texas Roadhouse units are turning their restaurants into corner stores and providing consumers an alternative to jam-packed supermarket aisles by selling the contents of their pantries and freezers, including freshly-baked bread and the signature honey-cinnamon butter that goes on top.  

This unexpected and extraordinary cross-fertilization between restaurants and grocers could ultimately yield some interesting long-term opportunities for both.

Virtually none of the leading delivery players has a sustainable business model.

A delivery shakeout is looming.

Delivery isn’t going anywhere, but some providers will be going to the boneyard. Fact is that virtually none of the leading players has demonstrated a sustainable business model, and while the current situation will provide a lifeline for some, it’s a temporary fix. A looming segment shakeout will come, and will result in a niche occupied by a very small number of the best-capitalized players.