New trends in post-Covid food to go

23 August 2021, 07:00 AM
  • The food to go sector was thrown off course by the pandemic. As it begins its recovery, new consumer trends are dominating the industry

Driven by consumers’ busy and on-the-go lifestyles, food to go was booming pre-Covid, with its growth outpacing that of the rest of the eating out sector. But over 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic kept most consumers confined to their homes for the majority of the year, the UK’s food to go market declined by a whopping 45.5%, according to research by Lumina Intelligence.

While the home cooking food trend took off, purchases of prepared food slumped and many fine food retailers were forced to shut their cafés. However, today, with the vaccine rollout programme well underway and restrictions easing, Lumina is expecting a swift revival for the sector, predicting it will reach a value of £22.6bn by 2024. Waitrose’s recent sales figures certainly back up this trend, with the retailer having recorded a 213% rise in sales of picnic and food to go products in March compared to the same time last year.

Catering to Covid-safe socialising

While the food industry welcomes the return of the food to go market, there are still certain customer behaviour changes and consumer trends that shops must look out for. For example, one of the biggest opportunities for food to go operators to capitalise on at the moment is the ‘picnic in the park’ trend. According to Katie Prowse, senior insight manager at Lumina Intelligence, 21% of shoppers plan to purchase food to consume in a park in the future.

Delis and food halls can jump on this trend by creating new ranges that are targeted at consumers who are looking to socialise outdoors with their friends or family. For example, Katie says, “Restaurant and fast food brands including Megan’s and German Doner Kebab have developed takeaway-focused boxed offerings that are ideal for outdoor consumption. Retailers including Morrisons have also launched picnic-specific lines; however, more can be done to target this occasion including special messaging on-site and in-store and through offers.”

Shane Godwin, managing director at Macknade, knew that outdoor spaces posed an opportunity long before the coronavirus pandemic made them mandatory. “Here at Macknade Faversham, we saw an opportunity before the pandemic to make good use of our outdoor space and really make it into a hub for enjoying food with friends in an informal and relaxed space,” he explains. “So over the last year we have developed this area of the business and formed good relationships with some hand-picked vendors who have set up home here and done a fantastic job providing takeaway delights during lockdown,” Shane says. However, the importance of this space is even more pronounced post-lockdown. “As restrictions begin to lift, this area is already proving to be a great place to hang out, and being outdoors it is one of the safest places to socialise as we all start to venture out again.”

The revival of food to go will also see the return of essential community spaces like these, giving retailers an opportunity to help their area flourish. Shane continues, “Macknade creates spaces and experiences that bring communities together around a shared love of food and drink, and we have been thrilled to see friends and families once again enjoying outdoor dining with us and look forward to a summer where we can provide the space and good food for reunions, celebrations, long-awaited catch ups or just coffee with a friend.”

Coffee becomes a Covid winner

Another area that’s ripe for opportunities is coffee to go, which Lumina Intelligence’s report says “dominated” food to go drinks occasions, making up 50% of the total drinks consumed between January and April 2021. Younger customers in particular have changed their behaviour in this area in response to the pandemic, with almost a quarter having picked up the habit of purchasing a hot drink to go when on a walk with a friend since March 2020.

“A strong coffee offering has been an important factor of success in the food to go channel for some time now,” Katie says. But with restrictions on indoor socialising easing, should retailers look at coffee from a 2019 mindset? Katie believes that contrary to what the current rules allow, Covid-19-related habits will stick around for the time being. “As restrictions around indoor socialising ease, it is expected that consumers will retain some of the behaviours around outdoor socialising. Short term, operators can continue to win with risk-averse consumers who are preferring to socialise in the open air,” Katie says. “In the medium to longer term, operators will need to leverage the habits created during the pandemic period to turn coffee purchasing into long-lasting habits.”

Thankfully, a strong coffee culture already exists in the UK, but cafés can take this a step further. “Subscription-based models can emphasise an operator’s value for money credentials,” Katie says. Chains such as Pret A Manger and Leon launched monthly subscription coffee models last year, and independents could take a leaf out of their book to try this tactic for their own regulars.

Food to ‘go home’ vs office workers

Looking towards the future, food to go products may split into two categories: those made for home workers and those made for commuters. With 34% of consumers planning to work from home in the future, and with over half of those planning to spend most work days at home, it is well worth considering ways to cater to this growing segment. Home workers may be targeted by a new category that emerged over the pandemic: food to ‘go home’, or the ‘makeaway’.

Many restaurant brands launched boxes which allowed consumers to recreate restaurant dishes at home during the coronavirus pandemic, and with home workers having access to their kitchen full of appliances during the workday, the options for ‘heat at home’ lunchtime meals are practically endless. “Makeaway boxes have bridged the gap for consumers between eating out occasions whilst dine-in restrictions have endured, and they have offered operators a desperately needed revenue stream,” Katie says. “In January 2021, one in five consumers had already purchased a kit, whilst over a third (35%) expressed a future intention to do so.” Once again, despite the fact that the UK continues to move towards a post-Covid future, Katie says that Lumina Intelligence expects the makeaway offering to continue to expand and develop as operators reopen sites across the next few months.

Operators such as D’Ambrosi Fine Foods in the Cotswolds, which sells premium heat-at-home meals, have built their entire business model around this trend. Owner chef Andrew D’Ambrosi recently told Speciality Food that his food to go model “thrived” during the pandemic. “Our food is restaurant quality but specifically created to maintain consistency and taste on the reheat without compromise,” he explains.

On the other hand, as lockdown restrictions relax, more and more office workers will restart their commutes – at least a few times a week. “For those returning to workplaces, operators can look forward to a boost in treat-led to-go [products] with consumers developing lunch fatigue on days spent at home,” Katie explains. Simon Wainwright, director of global insight at IGD, said shoppers that crave convenience will boost sales for ready-to-eat snacks, meal deals and meal kits. “Our latest shopper trends research reveals that the majority of existing users of meal concepts will continue to use them within their meal repertories, with 83% saying they will continue using meal deals from retailers,” he said.

However, consumers will be looking for food products that go beyond the ordinary. “Office lunch occasions are expected to foster higher spends going forward, with 25% missing food to go, and consumers are most likely to trade up on food to go consumed at work,” Katie says. “Fine food retailers can capitalise on this opportunity by developing products that align with consumer trends in food to go around customisable, fresh and healthy options.”

The food to go fare offered by fine food retailers puts quality and provenance first. For example, Shane says Macknade’s food to go range “encompasses our love for local as well as our Italian influence, like our famous Breakfast Butty; sausage, bacon, tomato and egg encased in a Panuozzo bap (a Neapolitan pizza dough style bread roll).” Thanks to their personal relationships formed with producers and farmers, speciality food retailers’ food to go is a cut above the ordinary supermarket or convenience store meal deal. With the sector offering a £1 billion sales opportunity between 2022 and 2024, it’s time for independents to welcome food to go back into their shops.

This article was originally published 14th July 2021.

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