Have out-of-home eating habits changed forever?

Foodservice businesses reopen next week. But new research suggests diner demands may be very different from 12 months ago. Nick Hughes reports.

The coronavirus pandemic has turned the way many of us eat on its head. That’s why the Food Standards Agency’s (FSA) latest public survey into food behaviours and attitudes has such pertinence for foodservice operators. Not least, it casts some doubt over predictions for a ‘Roaring 20s’ style revival once social restrictions are fully removed.

The Food and You 2 report is a biannual survey commissioned by the FSA that measures self-reported consumer knowledge, attitudes and behaviours related to food safety and other food issues among adults in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. It is also the first to use a new methodology, which is primarily carried out online and allows for an increased sample size – in this case over 9,000 adults (it’s not uncommon for consumer surveys to have a sample size of no more than 1,000).

Alongside a new FSA report – Food in a Pandemic – produced with the Demos think tank, the report paints a picture of a public that has dramatically changed its eating habits during the past year and is quite prepared to sustain these new habits in the future.

Only 18% indicated there had been no change in their eating habits since covid-19. Over half (56%) have eaten out less and cooked more at home (53%), while 43% have eaten fewer takeaways. The findings broadly align with the Demos research, which surveyed 10,000 UK adults and found that half (51%) cooked more meals at home during the pandemic.

None of this is a surprise of course. Of greater interest to foodservice businesses will be whether these changes are likely to sustain beyond the reopening of society. The answer, according to the Demos research, is yes. Of those who cooked more at home during the pandemic, 82% expect this to continue.

We have also witnessed a shift to healthier eating that is set to endure. A third (32%) of people said they had eaten more healthy main meals during the pandemic compared with just 9% who said they had eaten less healthily (although, counterintuitively, 33% reported that they had eaten more unhealthy snacks and just 18% reported eating fewer). Of those who report changing their behaviour to eat healthier main meals, 84% expect this change to continue.

This newfound healthy halo raises important questions for foodservice businesses as they begin the long road to recovery later this month. Research last year by Barclays Corporate Banking suggested covid-19 could give the hospitality sector a £21bn health kick. Food and drink has the “most to gain”, too: £10.8bn in additional annual revenue by 2023.

But will the healthy habits acquired in people’s own kitchens really translate into the out-of-home environment? Or will pent up demand for eating out see customers want to treat themselves to indulgent options when they finally venture back into pubs and restaurants?

The survey also found a trust deficit around the safety of food that out-of-home businesses will need to address in the months ahead. When asked whether they had confidence in food supply chain actors to ensure the food they buy is safe, farmers came out on top with 90% confidence levels followed closely by supermarkets on 86%. Restaurants (75%), takeaways (51%) and food delivery services (39%) found themselves in the inauspicious position of being less trusted than slaughterhouses and dairies (80%).

The FSA doesn’t attempt to provide a rationale for these figures but a clue might be found in the growing willingness of people to purchase food via social media platforms. A small but significant number of respondents (6%) report having used Facebook Marketplace to buy food; 2% had done so often (‘about once a week’ or more frequently) and 4% had used Facebook on an occasional basis (‘2-3 times a month’ or less often). Assuming the figures are representative of the entire population, this means large numbers of people are now buying food via channels that are known to fly below the radar of regulators.

Another noteworthy finding is the disassociation between the environmental impact of food and its quality. When people were asked what information they used to judge the quality of food from a list of options, freshness came out on top with 60%, followed by appearance (45%) and taste (44%). Assurance schemes (11%) and environmental impact (9%) were only kept off the bottom spot by convenience (4%).

What does all this mean for foodservice operators? It means that on reopening, businesses will need to work hard to tempt people out of their kitchens and back into hospitality venues. When they do, they will need to offer a wide range of healthy options (mixed with indulgent alternatives). They will need to increase trust in the safety and integrity of the foodservice supply chain and make efforts to communicate the link between the quality of food and its environmental impact (or risk customers shunning more sustainable options that often command a price premium).They will also, lest we forget, need to stay afloat financially.

The reopening of venues from April 12th will be a moment for celebration, but the work needed to build back a vibrant, growing, sustainable foodservice sector will be a long and formidable task.

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