The COVID-19 pandemic forced many industries to adapt to new ways of working — from entertainers putting on virtual live performances to hair dressers working behind a mask.
The food industry saw some major changes, and one expert says it will have lasting effects on consumers.
Mike Lee, co-founder and co-CEO of the New York City-based Alpha Food Labs, spoke on ways today’s eaters are shaping the future of food in a webinar that was part of the Dairy Experience Forum hosted by Midwest Dairy July 15.
Lee’s company helps those in the food industry plan products for the future. He compared the work to the auto industry creating concept cars, projecting what will be relevant in the 10 to 20 years.
While no one was planning for a worldwide pandemic, there are plenty of lessons the food industry can learn from it.
For one, Lee pointed out, COVID-19 caused a sudden shift in consumer values. Where people’s food choices were trending toward high-end products with an eco focus, when COVID hit consumers became more concerned about covering their basic needs. Many worried about whether it was safe to go grocery shopping, whether store shelves would be stocked and if they could afford it.
Shoppers sought out comfort foods, and brands such as Campbell’s soup and Prego pasta sauce that were once sliding in popularity saw sales jump more than 50%, Lee said.
“Everyone flew to something familiar,” he said.
At the same time, restaurants were forced to close. Many scrambled to find a new business model, which Lee said will be important going forward. He said restaurants need to offer traditional service as well as delivery and also some sort of product they can sell in scale, such as their own line of hot sauce or pasta.
Some restaurants turned into pop-up grocery stores, Lee noted. It allowed them to get around shut-down orders since grocery stores were deemed essential. It was also a way to get their overstock of food to people who needed it.
Lee expects the pandemic to lead to a renewed focus on quality food from restaurants. Meal delivery takes away one of the key reasons people go out to a restaurant, Lee said. That’s the atmosphere and the communal experience of sharing a meal. People are more forgiving of mediocre food when it’s served with drinks and good company, he pointed out.
“They know they can just charm you in other ways,” he said. “We will have a reinvestment in quality in restaurants.”
Restaurant closures lead to other shifts. People started cooking at home. Lee said that creates a fertile audience for those in the food industry — especially dairy. People are paying more attention to the ingredients they buy, he said, and companies have a chance to communicate the benefits of their products.
With online grocery shopping skyrocketing to popularity, food companies have new marketing strategies to work out. Lee advises companies to think about how consumers will discover their product without in-store sampling. They need to consider how the product will be delivered and its shelf life, he said.
In marketing, COVID prompted consumers to turn to local products, and they want to know how they’re produced. The process of making the food has become important as the product itself, Lee said.
“People want transparency and trust,” he said.
Dairy farmer Suzanne Vold understands that. She urges other farmers to share their story the way she does from her Dorrich Dairy farm in Glennwood, Minnesota. Vold was part of a three-person panel with experts from different parts of the dairy industry that spoke about environmental solutions as part of the Dairy Experience Forum.
Vold said a lot of consumers don’t realize what farmers do to be sustainable, such as reusing water and composting manure. She encourages other farmers to share data that helps dairy companies tell consumers how farmers are making improvements.
“The more data we have, the better job we can do as an industry in showing what we’re doing to be sustainable,” she said.
Janelle Atyeo can be reached at email@example.com.