By Sandra Duff
For many, the global pandemic reset the relationship one has with food. Consumers have shifted the way they shop for, purchase, prepare—and even think about—food.
According to the Jackman Human Insights Study (J-HIS), 90 per cent of consumers say their eating habits have been impacted by the pandemic. Over the past 10 months, this firm’s research has exposed a deeper understanding of how consumer attitudes, values, and behaviours toward food have evolved, and how this has impacted the way we eat. In 2021, food-service and quick-service restaurant (QSR) franchises are rising to meet customers where they are, developing innovative services and solutions to appeal to shifting behaviours.
The following are examples of three shifts seen in the restaurant industry and how food service and QSR franchises are innovating to meet these changes.
While food has always been a vessel for discovery, it has been instilled with even greater meaning since the pandemic. Food became a way to experiment, discover, and embrace self-sufficiency for many who had not thought this way before.
According to the study, housebound consumers began spending more time in the kitchen and cooking more meals at home with 51 per cent of consumers saying they are making more meals from scratch. While taste is key, home-cooked meals tend to be quick and easy, healthy, and sharable. With in-person dining closed, people also became increasingly reliant on food-delivery services. When ordering food, consumers are driven by different factors, such as interest in trying a new type of cuisine or the desire to indulge. When ordering food from restaurants, people want more from the experience than just the food itself; they are seeking inspiration for new recipes, ways to make date night more exciting, and methods to involve the family in meal preparation, to name a few.
In response to demand for discovery and value-add services, restaurants are exploring meal kits, new delivery models, and hands-on experiences. For instance, The Keg launched DIY ‘Celebration Kits’ that include everything needed to enjoy a three-course Keg dinner at home. Tim Hortons launched a DIY Donut Kit for Mother’s Day, and this year customers can certainly expect more of the same from their favourite eateries.
- Becoming conscious consumers
The pandemic has forced people to look in the mirror and rethink what they value, who they trust, and how and where they spend their time and money. As a result, people are trying to shop locally and sustainably. There is growing interest in understanding where the food comes from, who harvests it, and how those farmers are treated. Plant-based consumption was already on the rise before COVID-19, and the trend has continued throughout the pandemic as people make an effort to eat foods that are better for themselves and for the planet.
Many have also seen restaurant franchises respond to the growing demand for plant-based food options, with chains such as McDonald’s, Harvey’s, and KFC adding permanent plant-based options to their menus. Panera Bread became the first national chain in the U.S. to label entrees as climate friendly. More than half of their menu items are labelled ‘Cool Food Meals,’ indicating they have a carbon footprint in line with the goals set by the World Resources Institute (WRI).
- Changing nature of access and awareness
The pandemic led to a surge in the use of food-delivery services as people were unable to dine in restaurants and, as a result, many were quick to respond to consumers’ changing needs in the early stages of the pandemic. COVID-19 accelerated the shift to a digital-first lifestyle and, in turn, dramatically changed the retail landscape. In a world where the main interactions happen within a delivery app, the bar of what food vendors need to do to get noticed has been raised. Additionally, the way many consumers now discover new food products is through peer-to-peer recommendations, social media buzz, or other ‘lifestyle’ outlets. Cloud kitchens and virtual brands have popped up around the world in response to growing demand for food delivery and the sudden lack of need of a physical space, with many capitalizing on food trends and social media buzz to fight for consumers’ attention.
When physical cafes started to close, Panera launched curbside ordering and pickup in just two weeks. And, when it became clear customers were having trouble finding ingredients to cook at home, the company rapidly launched a grocery delivery service. Franchises also explored virtual brands and cloud kitchens as ways to expand revenue streams while in-person dining is closed or restricted. South of the border, for example, both Brinker International (owner of Chili’s) and Dine Brands (owner of Applebee’s) launched virtual brands exclusively focused on chicken wing delivery. Similarly, Bloomin’ Brands, owner of Outback Steakhouse and Carrabba’s, launched a chicken-focused, delivery-only restaurant called Tender Shack, now with 725 ‘locations’ across the U.S. Since these concepts need no storefront, they can be located anywhere there is a kitchen, allowing them to ‘pop up’ with relatively little effort and investment.
What does this mean for those considering a franchise and those with franchises?
- Franchise operators should get to know their local consumers. It is important to remember a restaurant’s consumers are not one homogenous group. If one has multiple franchise locations, he/she has multiple consumer groups they must understand independently of each other.
- Stay in tune with changing consumer behaviours. Change is a constant, and the most successful businesses recognize this and adapt their offering to remain relevant. As consumer needs and values continue to shift, it is important for business owners to pay attention to these changes and understand what is driving them, so as not to be left behind.
- Be entrepreneurial. It is important to lean into existing franchise-led initiatives while doing what one can locally. Volunteer to be a test market or pilot a program—one should use the influence they have at the operator level. Get comfortable with rapid and scrappy innovation, and do not be afraid to fail. A good motto is to balance getting it perfect with getting on with it. Do not wait too long trying to get it just right; one should test and learn as they go.
Sandra Duff is senior vice-president of activation and operations at Jackman. Her hands-on leadership style and ability to execute on ideas has made her a consistent catalyst for growth in retail. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.