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COVID-19 Food Trends Show That Family Meals Resonate With Consumers—and Operators

Bundled offerings and meal kits give customers a break and restaurants a revenue boost.

Even before March 13, when the federal government declared the COVID-19 outbreak a national emergency, foodservice operations of all types had begun pivoting their business models to accommodate a new type of offering. Once dine-in service was prohibited nearly nationwide, many transitioned their menus to include family-style meals and meal kits that simplify mealtime prep for households adjusting to the stress of working from home, homeschooling and more. Family-style restaurant and grocery store offerings range from shareable, ready-to-eat feasts to kits containing recipes and all of the necessary ingredients so families can create their own fun—and often educational—culinary experience.

As restaurants around the country reopen their dining rooms to a wary public, COVID-19 food trends show that many consumers are expected to continue gravitating toward meal solutions they can enjoy off-premises to avoid the risk of infection in public venues. In addition, the weakened economy will lead many consumers to seek the kind of value they can obtain from bundled family meals. This increasingly widespread approach to off-premises meal solutions also has helped restaurants with streamlined staffing and inventories execute more efficiently. Some are focused almost exclusively on pre-made family dinners or meal kits; others have added bundled family meals offering multiple entrées and sides to existing options to make ordering more convenient for customers. In all cases, flexibility and creativity—along with a spirit of helpfulness and community—have been key.

Foodservice Meets Retail

As supermarket sales soared, many operators switched to a concept that more closely resembles retail. It involves offering an assortment of ready-made meals and meal kits for takeout or delivery, along with assorted grocery items. Several operators have said they planned to continue these offerings, even as dining rooms reopen.

For example, Fat Rice, a Portuguese-Chinese fusion restaurant in Chicago, has transformed into Super Fat Rice Mart, which offers groceries and meal kits that help customers create some of the restaurant’s more popular dishes at home. Among the offerings is the plant-based Super Value Cook Kit, which includes “enough food for two hungry adults for two full days,” including breakfast, lunch dinner, snacks and sweets.

The owners said they don’t plan to reopen the restaurant “for the foreseeable future,” even after dine-in service restrictions in Illinois are lifted.

Other restaurants that converted their brands to focus on retail meal solutions include Cincinnati’s Sacred Beast Diner. Beast Mart, as it’s known, offers grocery staples (think produce and pasta); beer and wine; pandemic necessities such as gloves, hand soap and toilet paper; and a rotating food menu that includes “Beast Kits” for two or four people.

Like many operators that have revised their offerings significantly during the pandemic, Sacred Beast created the new concept to show that it was offering something new and different that’s still connected to the legacy brand. It even re-branded the exterior of its restaurant with the Beast Mart name.

The move “really showcased to their customers that they are a different concept for these times,” Datassential Senior Managing Editor and Trendologist Mike Kostyo told attendees of Datassential’s April 10 “Extreme Adaptation” webinar. The underlying message, he added: “We are more of a market now.”

Bundling for Convenience and Value

Many operators are finding success by bundling appetizers, entrées, salads, beverages and desserts in various combinations that make it easier for homebound families to shop for dinner.

Mellow Mushroom, the Atlanta-based pizza and sandwich chain, has seen a “tremendous response” to its Meals for Home family meal packages, says Anne Mejia, vice president of brand development. The meals include combinations of one or two pizzas, wings, salads, appetizers, desserts and beverages by the gallon. The Veg Heads Package, for example, comes with hummus, a salad, a large Great White pizza and a chocolate chunk cookie.

“It’s a convenience play,” Mejia explains. “It just makes it a little easier to order.”

Noodles & Co. developed Family Meals that combine its diverse menu of bowls into themed packages: Mac Pack, Italian Classics, Asian Bowls and World Flavors. Priced at $40, each meal includes four entrées and two sides.

“Our Family Meals truly offer something for the whole family, no matter your taste preference,” says Chief Marketing Officer Stacey Pool. The new concept achieves the company’s goal of creating value for guests while also supporting health care workers: For every meal purchased, Noodles & Co. donates a regular-sized bowl to a local hospital or health care center employee.

The Zax Family Packs available at Zaxby’s, an Athens, Georgia-based chicken chain, also appeal to customers’ desire for value. The family-style meals, which include 20 Chicken Fingerz or 30 boneless wings, along with shareable side dishes, feed a family of four—all for $24.99.

“We wanted to create an affordable meal featuring our signature menu items for families during these challenging times,” says Zach McLeroy, Zaxby's CEO and co-founder. “Zaxby's is always focused on bringing people together with flavorful comfort food made with uncompromising quality. Now more than ever, we're all family.”

Some Assembly Required: Meal Kits

Meal kits, which include the ingredients needed to make a family meal, have also become a popular addition to restaurant menus. They allow customers to create a quasi-home-cooked meal, learn new cooking skills or simply share an activity together while enjoying a meal from one of their favorite restaurants.

The rise of subscription-based meal services in recent years led some operators to experiment with the business model even before this year’s pandemic and recent COVID-19 food trends.

Chick-fil-A, for example, first piloted a Chicken Parmesan Meal Kit in its Atlanta restaurants in 2018. Given the positive response during that test run, the quick service chain revived the concept this year with a nationwide rollout that began May 4. Designed to feed two adults, the kit includes two fully cooked, breaded chicken filets; marinara sauce; Italian cheeses; and creamy garlic-and-lemon pasta.

The Chicken Parmesan Meal Kit joins a line of mix-and-match Family Meals that Chick-fil-A introduced in early April. The bundles include a choice of Chick-fil-A Nuggets or sandwiches; sweet or savory sides, such as fries, macaroni and cheese, or chocolate chunk cookies; and iced tea.

Both options are positioned as a dinner alternative for the chain, which historically generates much of its business during the lunch daypart. “We hope that providing a dinner option for guests who are ordering lunch with us will help make mealtime decisions easier,” says Senior Culinary Lead Stuart Tracy. “The goal is to deliver the joy of cooking without added stress, and the recipe is simple enough that even the kids can help.”

To drive additional consumer engagement with the brand and its menu, the chain also offers “Nightly Nuggets” video tutorials. Episodes demonstrate easy-to-make recipes, such as this “Chick-fil-A Cordon Bleu,” that use Chick-fil-A breaded filets and other simple ingredients.

Taco Bell recently launched its own restaurant meal kit concept in the form of the At Home Taco Bar, which feeds six people. The kit comes with recipe cards to help consumers create some of the chain’s signature favorites—such as the Double-Decker Taco—as well as new creations. One promotion also featured recipes for “Taco Bell-inspired cocktails and mocktails,” such as the Wild Strawberry Tequila Sunrise.

“Our food has always been a catalyst that brings people together, and we're finding new ways to do this from a safe distance until we can all be together again,” explains Melissa Friebe, Taco Bell’s senior vice president of brand marketing and consumer insights.

Throughout the pandemic, operators have found new ways to bring families together with bundled family-style meals that offer the fun and excitement of restaurant dining in customers' homes. As the industry continues to recover, COVID-19 food trends show that these solutions will continue to provide a lifeline that connects operators with their communities.

Looking for more ways to deepen relationships with customers in your community? Find inspiration here.

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