In the days and weeks ahead, much of the United States will begin incrementally easing back isolation restrictions enacted to curb the spread of coronavirus.
Now that federal stay-at-home mandates have been lifted, as many as 31 states are moving forward with plans to partially reopen, CNN reported on 30 April. Restaurants in Georgia and Tennessee have already begun to open their doors to patrons for dine-in service, mostly at limited-capacity, with other states aiming to follow suit – some more cautiously than others – as the summer season approaches.
As state governors and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention strategize about how to safely reestablish public life, consumer sentiments related to dining out have been slowly starting to shift.
According to food industry market research firm Datassential, concern rates of Americans related to eating out are lower than they have been in a month. Approximately 57 percent of consumers surveyed by the firm on 27 April said they would still “definitely avoid” eating out, down slightly from the 62 percent observed on 25 March and even more so from the 68 percent observed on 10 April.
While not a monumental leap, Datassential Director of Customer Solutions Kelley Fechner said the figures offer a sliver of hope to a beleaguered U.S. foodservice sector.
“With states loosening guidelines, I think that people are starting to say ‘Maybe I’m not quite as concerned as I used to be.’ It’s the lowest we’ve seen from a concern rate in a month," Fechner said.
However, it's "still a very high concern rate,” Fechner added.
Datassential has been keeping close tabs on how the COVID-19 pandemic has been impacting consumption trends in the U.S., producing weekly reports and webinars detailing the ways Americans are eating during this "unprecedented" crisis, Fechner explained. The process has revealed sweeping changes in consumer habits that present ample opportunity for the seafood segment in particular, she noted.
“We know that lives have changed because of COVID-19, and we’re doing things differently. People are cooking more, they’re baking from scratch more, eating comfort foods. We also see stress eating and snacking between meals,” Fechner said. “It feels crazy to me, because cooking shrimp, seafood, a piece of fish, seems easier than trying to learn how to bake a loaf of sourdough bread from scratch. We’ve got this time – let’s get consumers over that fear of cooking seafood at home."
Partnering with chefs, a group that typically generates significant engagement on social media platforms, is one avenue seafood suppliers of all types can take to reach curious consumers looking to spice up their home kitchens, according to Fechner. Culinary icons including Emeril Lagasse, Rachael Ray, and Michael Symon are already laying the groundwork for this, she said, taking to Instagram and Facebook to share seafood recipes and cooking videos during COVID-19 isolation.
“Because we aren’t seeing chefs in restaurants, they’ve been doing a lot of cooking online and introducing recipes online,” Fechner said.
Despite harsh realities and economies, creativity has been abounding at the foodservice level, Datassential discovered in its latest reports.
“Some restaurants have turned to a grocery format," Fechner said. "So, we asked consumers what grocery categories they’d be interested in purchasing from a restaurant. Breads and bakery items popped to the top, with 72 percent of consumers saying they are very or somewhat interested in this idea.’ Consumers ranked the idea of fresh meat and seafood at the same level as fresh produce, 70 percent.”
Popular restaurant specials resonating with consumers at this time, according to Fechner and Datassential, include Buy-One-Take-One meals, Take-and-Bake comfort foods, and Full Family Meal Deals. Red Lobster, Ruby Tuesday’s, Landry’s Seafood House, and many other foodservice operators that offer seafood have posted updated menus online so consumers can order with ease. What’s more, quick-service establishments such as Captain D’s and Long John Silver’s have been promoting contactless deliveries for optimal safety.
When considering the path forward, as social distancing measures continue to contract, Fechner suggested that foodservice operators prepare new and exciting dishes to attract consumers back into their dining rooms.
“Consumers have been eating comfort foods and will be ready for something new at restaurants," she said. "We are telling all of our customers to make sure you have that pipeline of new and exciting dishes ready to go. Consumers are going to be ready for this and also foods that they are not as comfortable cooking at home. Seafood definitely plays a role."
Cleanliness is expected to be a major player in the future of foodservice, so operators should also be planning ahead with that in mind before seating their first guests, Fechner added.
“The main thing people are going to consider when they visit a restaurant is if it’s clean and sanitary,” she said. “So, we’ve got to keep it clean as people are going back to the restaurants.”
Consumers and food providers will likely spend the rest of the year learning to cope with prolonged uncertainty as a “new normal” is established, Fechner surmised.
“It’s uncertain times for sure. As we move beyond this crisis ... uncertainty seems like it’s going to be that new normal for us,” she said.
Even in the face of uncertainty, however, consumers expressed an eagerness to support the national foodservice community now and into the future, Datassential found.
"I love the fact that 35 percent of consumers said ‘I just want to help the restaurant community and economy recover.’ That’s the top reason consumers might actually spend more,” Fechner said.
Photo courtesy of KucherAV/Shutterstock