Snacking is practically an American pastime, but the pandemic sparked a serious surge, with snack food consumption jumping 8% since the crisis began. (By comparison, during the Great Recession, consumer snacking increased a mere 1%.)
This increase in snacking isn’t all that surprising. Boredom, stress and more time spent at home have all led to extra munching, says David Portalatin, vice president and food industry advisor for The NPD Group. But people aren’t just snacking more; they’re also snacking differently.
Snacking changes are largely due to how much more time people are spending at home. In September 2020, 33% of people were working remotely full time, a Gallup survey found. In 2017, just 5.2% of Americans did so.
Between COVID-19 restrictions and concerns, and less commuting time, 60% of Americans surveyed by the International Food Information Council say they’re cooking more at home. In fact, The NPD Group’s Eating Patterns in America report shows that Americans now get 87% of their meals from home, up from the steady 80% mark of the last several years. In particular, people are eating breakfast, lunch and snacks at home more often, Portalatin says.
Why? “People have more time on their hands,” says Jamie Howe, Datassential’s Trends & Insights practice lead. Plus, “at-home learning and schooling means their kitchen is just steps away.”
Despite this shift toward more at-home eating, there are moments in the day when foodservice operators are especially likely to capture more business: afternoon and late night. People especially cherish their afternoon snacks, which are looked at as a chance for some much-needed “me time,” according to COVID-19’s Continued Impact on Eating Report from The Hartman Group.
“These are times in the day when people are looking for treats or rewards,” NPD’s Portalatin confirms. “They’re especially feeling more indulgent in the afternoons.”
Operators also can make up for lost business via off-premises sales, which hasn’t hit capacity, he adds. In fact, consumers have become quite accustomed to ordering food to go. Pre-pandemic, 7 in 10 Americans were delivery customers; now, Zagat’s The Future of Dining study reports, nearly 9 in 10 are.
What People Want
Of course, it does take a little convincing to entice people to order out. These days, they’re most likely to turn to foodservice for foods they can’t—or can’t easily—make at home. “The items from foodservice they’re most excited about are global foods, like Asian and Mexican, along with soft-serve ice cream, milkshakes and crafted beverages like lattes, which require special machinery,” Howe says.
Comforting and indulgent snacks and treats are also a hit. Before COVID-19, snacks were evolving toward becoming more functional and serving as meal replacements. That’s still the case: IRI found that 44% of people often eat snacks instead of meals at home or work. But indulgent snacking is back. Since the pandemic began, 26% of consumers say they’ve eaten more comfort foods than usual, and 15% have eaten more “indulgent and treat foods,” according to Datassential’s The Road to Recovery report.
Many of these comforting, snack-type foods evoke a sense of nostalgia. That’s certainly the case for the birthday cake flavor—a favorite of Gen Z, Howe says. Carvel’s Cake Mix Carvelanche, for example, delivers a hot flavor in a travel-friendly milkshake format.
“Birthday cake, like red velvet, has moved beyond cake and is now a flavor platform,” Howe explains. “Birthday cake donuts, shakes, sundaes and ice cream are all recent LTOs from top chains.”
Tater tots are also a big hit among adults. The savory treat’s appearance on menus has grown 55% in the last four years—and is expected to continue at that pace over the next four years, Howe says. (In December 2020, for example, Smashburger introduced a breakfast menu featuring Breakfast Tots, among other offerings.)
“Sides or apps like tater tots that can be positioned as snacks or meals have a lot of potential across dayparts,” Howe says. Foods that “pair familiar formats with trending flavors”—such as 7-Eleven’s seasonal eggnog snack pie and Sonic’s Toasted S’mores Shake LTO—also performed well, she adds.
Convenience is key. Low-contact grab-and-go items are especially popular right now, as are chicken and breakfast sandwiches, which are portable and meet a lot of nutritional needs, Portalatin says. “They have energy, protein, satiety. They can be a handheld snack for mid-morning or an early lunch,” he explains.
Snacks with a bit of a health halo also are trending as consumers try to get their eating habits back on track. That means more snacks with plant-based proteins, functional ingredients like turmeric and green tea, and a host of “free from” foods, says Sally Lyons Wyatt, executive vice president and practice leader for IRI. “Nut-free, dairy-free and gluten-free foods have really gained in popularity and will continue to grow throughout 2021 and 2022.”
The Future of Snacking
As more people become vaccinated, out-of-home consumption will likely pick up, Lyons Wyatt continues. But eating and cooking at home more often is here to stay for a while. She estimates that the United States could get back to a 50/50 balance of food-away-from-home vs. food-at-home spending by the end of 2021. (By comparison, food-away-from-home accounted for 54.8% of total food expenditures in 2019.)
Consumers also will be eager to try new food and beverage trends. But safety will still be on their minds. Twenty-four percent of Americans say they will avoid eating open snacks after restrictions are lifted, Howe says, and many will also continue to avoid eating at or entering restaurants at busy times. “Operators can’t ease up on safety measures, and they should continue to plan for items that travel well for delivery/drive-thru,” she says.
To meet consumer needs, operators should look for snacks that hit the sweet spot of familiar foods, with an innovative twist, in a convenient package. Price, too, is important. Smaller menu items like appetizers, beverages, desserts and sides are “ideal for innovation and lower price point items for [budget-conscious] diners,” she adds.
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