A shopper reaches for an exhibit of McCormick spices and flavors in an associate supermarket in 2005.
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During the pandemic, Americans stuck at home cooked gourmet sauces, tried new recipes, and cleared shelves of spice.
These trends can have a lasting impact on what people buy, crave and eat in the years to come – even if the Covid-19 vaccine heralds the end of the health crisis and investors bank on the pent-up demand for travel and restaurants.
“People explore,” said Krishnakumar Davey, president of strategic analytics at IRI. “There’s palate exploration, recipe exploration. We’ve documented all kinds of flavorful sauces that have grown significantly – we’re talking hundreds of percentage points in smaller growth categories. That happens and a lot of Gen X and Millennials have brought it home to a boil for the first time.” So some of these habits will persist. “
Cooking and eating will likely look similar in the US in the first half of 2021, even if the Covid-19 vaccine launches, the spread will slow down and the restrictions will gradually lift, according to the research company. In the second half of the year, the forecasts are more inconsistent. IRI expects food spending to fall and restaurants to return to pre-pandemic levels. According to the IRI, the average household will spend about half of their food outside of their home country. At the height of the global health crisis, it dropped to almost 30%.
Even with an expected decline in food spending, experts in the food industry, grocers, and consumer goods companies expect some persistent patterns: Americans will cook more than before and have different food preferences after discovering new ingredients and setting new routines.
“We believe there will be at least one or two more home cooking opportunities every week,” said Rene Lammers, PepsiCo chief science officer. “We won’t work the way we used to. It will be a much more flexible environment, more remote work.”
He also expects more consumers to cook and shop with value in mind. Many have lost jobs or incomes due to the economic downturn and may be looking for budget-friendly options like smaller packages.
These changes are already shaping companies’ business strategies and triggering new products. PepsiCo debuted restaurant-inspired potato chip flavors – like a Philly cheesesteak flavor from famous Geno’s steaks – to cater to customers who neglected to eat out during the pandemic. Fast-paced restaurant chain and consumer goods brand Cava added spicy dressings to meet customer demand for a break from tired routines. And some grocery stores, like Sprouts Farmers Market and Target, have benefited from Americans’ interest in buying foods related to health or wellness, including products with no artificial flavors.
When grocers get back in touch with restaurants, they’ll have to work harder to make cooking easy and engaging so they can hold onto some of their pandemic-driven market share gains, said Ken Harris, managing partner at Cadent Consulting Group. He said grocers will be sorting out products in stores to focus on the best sellers and will work more closely with manufacturers to develop exclusive products.
Cava said it had seen double-digit growth in sales of its packaged dips, spreads and dressings in grocery stores as people cooked more from home during the pandemic.
Alex Lau for the Cava Group
During the first few months of the pandemic, Brett Schulman, CEO of Cava Group, noticed that customers were buying more of their “well-known favorites” like hummus. As the health crisis dragged on, he said they were bored and were looking for ways to spice up their routine.
The Mediterranean brand, which has more than 100 fast-casual restaurants and sells products in grocery stores like Amazon Whole Foods, has decided to introduce two new dressings: a hot harissa vinaigrette and a tahini caesar dressing. They are currently available in restaurants but can also be found in grocery stores, he said.
The privately held company saw double-digit growth in sales of its packaged dips, spreads, and dressings in grocery stores as people cook more. Grocery stores carry 17 products including His signature dip is called “Crazy Feta” and is made from whipped feta and jalapenos.
It also accelerated the debut of chef-curated bowls in restaurants and began offering family meals to help parents put dinner together.
“We wanted to give people something new and exciting as they were trying to deal with what feels like Groundhog’s Day to us every day,” he said.
The increased interest in more adventurous flavors has boosted sales for other companies as well. Ethnic brands like the Hispanic Goya Foods brand have attracted new and returning customers. The seasoning company McCormick acquired the hot sauce maker Cholula in November to take advantage of spicy sauces when needed. This summer, PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay division decided to sell top flavors from around the world in potato chip form in the US – including Brazilian picanha and Chinese Szechuan chicken.
Consumer interest in adventurous flavors inspired PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay to sell top flavors from around the world in potato chip form this summer.
Harris, who specializes in consumer products at Cadent, said people’s palates have dilated. Families have added dishes like chicken tikka masala to their rotation of dinner. You threw plant-based options like Beyond Meat Burgers on the grill.
“Curiosity with ethnic flavors and things like that won’t slow down,” he said. “People were introduced to them. They like them.”
He said he saw it with his wife and their two teenagers at his family’s own kitchen table. But, he added, customers still want convenience and will especially ask for it as their social calendars fill up.
“If you can toss a jar of sauce in something and make it taste great in one go, you’re doing it because it makes you look good,” he said. “If it’s complicated or requires many steps in a recipe, then no.”
In addition to the surge in grocery shopping, the Sprouts Farmers Market noted an increased appetite for immunity-boosting products such as dietary supplements during the pandemic.
Sprouts farmers market
Focus on wellness, natural ingredients
Americans are also turning to the aisles of grocery stores to improve their health and wellbeing, Davey said. The global health crisis has sparked buying immunity supplements, plant-based foods, snacks with no artificial ingredients, and locally grown products.
Davey said the rise of exotic flavors accelerated during the pandemic.
For example, last year Target launched a new private label called Good & Gather, which consists of foods and beverages with no artificial flavors and sweeteners, synthetic colors, and high fructose corn syrup. That paid off during the pandemic as customers cut down store trips and turned to big box retailers who sell everything from pajama bottoms to gallons of milk in one place.
Sales in every merchandise category at the retailer, including food and beverages, rose in the third quarter. According to a company spokeswoman, many health-oriented products such as mineral water, muesli and dried fruits have recorded double-digit growth.
The Phoenix-based grocery chain Sprouts already attached importance to fresh fruit and vegetables and had a large selection of vegan products in its 362 branches in 23 states. It has doubled and for the first time only sold antibiotic-free and organic turkeys this Thanksgiving Day. And a new growth opportunity has been identified: immunity products like vitamins, nutritional supplements, and herbal remedies.
“We are aimed at health enthusiasts and buyers looking for experience,” said CEO Jack Sinclair. “I want our customers to come into the store and feel like a farmers market and a little bit like a treasure hunt.”
He said sourcing seasonal and local produce, from Georgia peaches to Colorado corn to local honey, will help the grocer appeal to customers who care more about what they put in their bodies and where they are from it comes.
“If you look through regular grocery stores – not ourselves – and look through the ingredients carefully, it reads a bit like a chemistry kit,” he said. “People are a little nervous about things that they don’t know what they are, and I think the pandemic has given people more time to think about it while they prepare the food themselves.”
Larger brands have also taken note of it. PepsiCo has created two new health drinks: Driftwell, a drink designed to help consumers relax and fall asleep, and Propel Immune Support.
PepsiCo’s newest drink, Driftwell
Despite consumer health and cooking kicks, Harris said some habits will return because they’re so ingrained. He predicts that, despite the money they spent on new kitchen appliances and cooking utensils, Americans will eagerly return to restaurants.
Prior to their wedding, he said his wife insisted on adding a panini maker to the couple’s registry. They made the homemade pressed sandwiches for a while, and then the kitchen utensils gathered dust. About 18 years of marriage and a global health crisis later, he said, his family removed the panini maker.
“I guarantee you once the pandemic is over this thing will be dusty,” he said.
Correction: The CEO of the Cava Group is Brett Schulman. An earlier version of this story misrepresented his name.