The COVID-19 pandemic has motivated consumers to rediscover the joys of experimenting in the kitchen, from nostalgic noshing to banana bread baking and recreating favorite restaurant dishes at home. And as feeding the family takes on new meaning, shoppers are increasingly looking for specialty items and high-quality ingredients to nourish the body and soul.
Here’s what they are flocking to.
Tony’s Meats and Market, a family-owned and -operated grocer with three locations in the greater Denver area, has seen demand for specialty foods soar throughout the store. “We have seen a big boost in specialty seafood and local produce. As people haven’t been able to go out to restaurants to eat, they’re relying more and more on their own kitchens, but they don’t want to sacrifice quality,” says Jessica Wolford, marketing manager for Tony’s.
Nielsen reports that seafood recently surpassed meat as the top growing in-store department, stealing the No. 1 spot with sales up 46.2% for the one-week period ending May 9, 2020, vs. the same week the previous year.Meanwhile, sales of lobsters, the quintessential dining out celebration food, were up 122.4% for the one-week period ending May 9 vs. the same week a year ago.
In March, when shoppers began stocking up and making fewer trips to the store, Tony’s Meats and Market’s popular “Meat Bundles” became one of the hottest tickets in town.
“Meat has been flying out of the case, particularly our meat bundles,” Wolford says. “I think the bundles have been popular because people are trying to stock their freezers and limit their trips to the store. So many people are cooking at home, so they’re trying new recipes andlooking for a great, locally owned, small business to support.”
A variety of Tony’s Meat Bundles are available, including the Week’s Worth Bundle for $75.99 and the Telluride Bundle, which features an assortment of chicken, sirloin steak, roasts, ground beef, pork loin, meat loaf and bacon for $179.99. At the start of panic buying, the Centennial, Colo.-based grocer asked shoppers to order Meat Bundles a minimum of 10 days before delivery, but as of mid-May, its three locations required between five and eight days of lead time on orders.
Tony’s has also seen a sales boost in items such as specialty braising sauces, which make it easier to create restaurant-quality meals at home.
The boom in baking, which was almost instantaneous as stay-at-home orders were implemented across the country, is remaining strong, with Nielsen reporting that sales of baking yeast were up 164% for the one-week period ending May 9 vs. the same week last year. The 10-week period ending May 9 saw sales up more than 226%.
“Baking is a comforting hobby at this time. Lots of us are looking for ways to tap into the nostalgia of childhood baking with our families” by bringing back old recipes and testing out new ones, says Katlin Smith, founder and CEO of Simple Mills, a Chicago-based supplier of clean baking mixes, crackers, cookies and frostings.
Simple Mills has seen particularly strong performance from its Banana Muffin & Bread mix. The surge is consistent with consumer trends, says Smith, who adds that some are calling banana bread the “unofficial snack” of the COVID-19 pandemic. More indulgent baking SKUs such as brownie are also performing well as consumers look to comfort foods.
Convenience is another trend that’s not going away. And for many shoppers, the in-store bakery is where comfort meets easy as pie.
“As a result of the pandemic, we are seeing consumers use food to restore a sense of security and wholeness among their families,” says Jayne Kearney, director of marketing for North Andover, Mass.-based Bake’n Joy Foods Inc., a provider to in-store bakeries, convenience and foodservice. “While many are preparing more home-cooked meals than ever, consumers still need and appreciate the quality and convenience their supermarket bakeries and local bake shops provide.”
When the doors closed on restaurants to all but takeout, a window of opportunity opened for The Fresh Market of Greensboro, N.C., where specialty prepared meals, meal kits and comfort foods are all the rage.
“As restaurants have been limited to takeout during the stay-at-home orders, our guests have been gravitating to all of the specialty meal offerings The Fresh Market offers, like our Little Big Meals, Market Meal Kits and holiday meals, including Easter and Mother’s Day brunch and dinner meals,” says Meghan Flynn, director of communications and community.
Little Big Meals serve four and include a main entree such as burgers or roasted chicken rollups and sides, while the Market Meal Kits provide an all-in-one meal solution for two, ready in 20 minutes or less. Each kit features quality ingredients from The Fresh Market, such as boneless, skinless chicken breasts, shrimp, sirloin beef steaks, Atlantic salmon fillets and fresh vegetables.
“We are seeing our guests gravitate to the specialty products we are known for, which also fall into the ‘comfort foods’ category,” notes Flynn, who points to Feltman’s hot dogs—the original Coney Island hot dog that Zagat has called the “filet mignon” of hot dogs. “Sales have doubled since March, and The Fresh Market is one of the few select retailers that carries them.”
Whether its spices, vegan mayonnaise or tahini, health-minded shoppers are increasingly expanding their repertoire of ingredients in the home kitchen.
“We’re seeing that consumers are exploring more in the kitchen. It’s no secret that from-scratch bread baking is a major trend, people are whipping up trendy coffee treats, and our network data shows that they’re exploring new cuisines [like] Hawaiian or recreating favorite restaurant meals at home,” says Yuni Sameshima, co-founder and CEO of Chicory, a New York-based tech firm focused on content-to-commerce for grocery. Its signature “Get Ingredients” button can be found on more than 1,450 recipe websites.
“Sales have grown exponentially in all channels,” affirms Kimberly Cassar, EVP of sales and marketing for the Beyond Division of Kayco, a family-owned distributor of kosher foods in Bayonne, N.J. For example, she sees shoppers at Walmart and Whole Foods Market gravitating to Mighty Tahini as a shelf-stable and flavorful alternative to mayonnaise.
As it’s challenging to pantry load on produce, Kayco has also seen an uptick in sales of its frozen garlic and ginger and anticipates a similar response to its recently introduced frozen turmeric. Its sales of frozen garlic and ginger have tripled in the past eight weeks at Walmart and Trader Joe’s. Reduced inventory in some areas of the store is also fueling new trial. “People are seeing our products that haven’t seen them before,” says Cassar.
Pandemic-inspired new trial is also driving sales in plant-based alternatives. “We’re seeing that consumers are learning to adapt and improvise with their kitchen staples, and some are trying plant-based alternatives for the first time,” says Katie Franklin, VP of product and marketing for Canoga Park, Calif.-based Follow Your Heart, maker of vegan cheeses and plant-based mayonnaise.
“While we can’t predict the future in these unprecedented times, we do believe in healthier food options and that consumers will continue to seek out ways to not only improve their own health but the health of the planet,” she continues. “Habits have changed in our fast-paced world and home-cooked meals are on the rise.”