NATIONAL REPORT — Earlier this year, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the foodservice industry like an earthquake, causing huge disruption and closing some businesses for good. Months later, industry insiders are still working to predict how long the aftershocks will last, and what form they will take.
For the convenience store industry, one question being asked by many is what the effect on prepared food vs. grab-and-go will be. With safety concerns higher than ever, will customers opt for the safety of prepackaged items over freshly made, customized fare?
Some experts have concluded that the answer is yes — at least in the short term.
"We are seeing more consumers opt for something prepackaged for safety reasons," said Tim Powell, managing principal at consulting and insights firm Foodservice IP. "The thinking is the food handling by the staff is eliminated."
Foodservice IP has identified four customer mindsets developed in response to the coronavirus pandemic, with each one having different impacts on the foodservice category:
- The Fearful: These consumers are terrified the virus will kill them or their loved ones, resent those who do not follow safety guidelines, and will not shop or visit a restaurant until a vaccine is found. Food handling concerns are also an issue when it comes to delivery.
- Cautionaries: These consumers realize the severity of the virus and will follow state and federal rules. Their use of takeout and delivery is minimal, and they'll make use of the drive-thru instead of entering the building.
- The Followers: They view the virus as an inconvenience but are not distraught about it, and will sometimes wear protective gear if the social context calls for it. It is common for them to order food for takeout, curbside and delivery.
- The Ambivalent: They throw caution to the wind, are unlikely to wear protective gear unless a retailer mandates it, and may resent others for taking the virus too seriously. Their behavior will return to normal once restaurant operations resume.
C-store retailers such as Valparaiso, Ind.-based Family Express Corp. have recognized the change in shopper behavior and adjusted their operations as a result. Having nearly tripled the size of its hometown bakery distribution center last spring, the operator of 75 c-stores in northwest and central Indiana has modified its assembly line to individually wrap doughnuts as they come off the line. Family Express also started baking muffins in a square shape to fit in the plastic wrappers.
"Our customers are very much interested in safer ways to get the same, or at least similar, products. We received an overwhelmingly positive response from our customers when we started packaging our baked goods," said Ryan Fasel, director of marketing for Family Express. "Not only have we received feedback about how much they enjoy having the packaged product available, but we've been inundated with requests to expand our packaged offering."
Given the current circumstances, c-stores are most likely to find success by meeting customers where they are, which means expanding their meaning and availability of grab-and-go.
"Packaged grab-and-go salad and sandwich displays have been a mainstay in c-stores, and we can expect this to expand to include more packaged hot food," Marilyn Stapleton, director of marketing for Anchor Packaging, told Convenience Store News. "Packaging changes may be needed to maintain food quality, and will need to be tested."
Packaging is more important than ever. It plays a significant role in how consumers rate their off-premise dining experiences, according to Anchor, noting that many people turned to social media during the COVID-19 crisis to both praise well-packaged food that looked and tasted good and to complain about poor experiences. Such voices will continue to be amplified as usage of takeout and delivery remains high.
Packaging for hot to-go food should include the following:
- Leak-resistant, tight closures to avoid messy spills en route;
- Special features to keep fried foods hot and crisp;
- Reclosable bases and lids made with dishwasher-safe, reusable materials;
- The ability to withstand temperatures up to 230 degrees Fahrenheit under a heat lamp or in the microwave; and
- Capable of consumer reuse and being recycled after multiple uses.