By Rick Stein, Vice President, Fresh Foods, FMI

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It may be 2021, but consumers are still grappling with pandemic-driven restaurant dining restrictions and home-meal fatigue.

Retailers have stepped up throughout the pandemic to help consumers become more creative with meals ­– and now they have new opportunities to serve needs in the coming months.

Susan Schwallie, president, food and beverage for the The NPD Group, made this point during the latest installment of FMI's monthly A FreshForward Conversation webinar series. She said consumers are missing restaurant cuisines and experiences — and retailers have a limited amount of time to replicate these offerings to enhance their foodservice reputations for the long run.

"Think about the meals and experiences people are missing and fill the gap with prepared foods," she said.

Pandemic, Restaurants and Home Meals

According to NPD data, the COVID-19 pandemic lifted in-home meal occasions to nearly 90% during the height of the pandemic. While restaurants were negatively impacted, the details varied by type of restaurant. QSRs held up best because of drive-through capabilities. However, Susan said restaurants that emphasize on-premise dining were especially hurt — including casual dining and mid-scale restaurants.

"This is what consumers are really missing out on," she pointed out.

Restrictions on casual dining restaurants significantly impacted the dinner daypart these outlets focus on, leading consumers to seek alternatives.

Opportunities in Numerous Cuisines

Dinner may be the most significant opportunity for retail foodservice, but it's not just about burgers and pizza. Consumers are missing restaurant meals focused on cuisines ranging from Asian to Indian.

"If retailers can replicate cuisines, it would be a good way to get shoppers into retail prepared foods programs," she said.

Pursuing Signature Items

The opportunity isn't necessarily to be all things to all people. Instead, it's important to pick some signature items that are relevant. As an example, retailers may choose to focus on hardy stews or comfort foods in winter, Susan said.

"Restaurants are chosen for experiences or cravings," she explained. "So it's hard for a restaurant or retailer to be a jack of all trades. You might do everything, but what do you do well?"

Prioritizing Digital, Mobile, and Ecommerce

The retail opportunity isn't just about cuisines, but also about ecommerce and digital technology to drive consumers' convenience, Susan said.

"Digital and mobile can be a growth engine for retail prepared foods," she elaborated. "It is about what I can easily access through a mobile app. You need to pop up as one of the options when they search for dinner."

Meeting Other Consumer Needs

Susan pointed to other opportunities for retailers to meet consumer meal needs.

This includes supporting shoppers who are starting to think more about eating healthier — perhaps after months of slacking off on nutrition during the pandemic.

Another opening is to help to create home-based experiences around meals, such as by encouraging strategies such as "family game night" or "family pizza video night."

Next Steps for the Industry

I agree with Susan's points about retail opportunities in foodservice. She said retail has a right to play in this field and create items that consumers can't necessarily make at home by themselves.

I believe there's a lot of runway for retailers to think bigger about foodservice than they have in the past.

Meanwhile, join us for the next installment of A FreshForward Conversation, with technology company Invatron, on February 10. And mark your calendars for FreshForward 2021, which will be held August 17-19 in Minneapolis.

Download The Power of Foodservice at Retail