We may flock to back to restaurants – but eating habits have changed for good
What are you eating for dinner tonight? Because we’re still in lockdown, It’s probably something you’ve planned, using up what you’ve got in the fridge – and you’re probably the one cooking it.
The pandemic has had a huge impact on the way we eat.
Before the pandemic, people were eating out more than ever – around one third of the calories we consumed were outside the home. We were all short on time and wanted convenience, plus eating out was cheap and quick.
Things changed suddenly and unexpectedly for the whole industry, from consumers putting things on their plates all the way back to farmers.
The pandemic has given many people a chance to think about what and how they are eating.
Baking and cooking at home have been huge trends throughout lockdown. People are buying food more locally and online grocery shopping has been huge.
Going forward, experts expect that restaurants will still have plenty of customers when they reopen as eating out has become a huge part of our busy lives – the problem will be ensuring they can enjoy a meal safely.
But the lockdown has been long enough to change some of our habits, like where we shop, what we buy, how we cook it and what we throw away.
For the first time, people turned up at the shop and shelves were empty. We had become used to being able to get almost anything in our local supermarket but finding flour, eggs, fruit and vegetables and meat became more of a struggle.
According to Stuart Roberts, Deputy President of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), it wasn’t necessarily that there wasn’t enough food but just that the demands on the system had changed.
It was very imbalanced because of this move from food service to retail
He explains: ‘Taking the beef sector for example, you might well have a steak in a pub on a Friday night. You wouldn’t cook a steak at home because maybe you weren’t confident or maybe it looked expensive. And so therefore, you bought an extra pack of mince. With that, it’s a different part of the animal and therefore you are finding the carcass was very imbalanced just because of this move from food service to retail.’
Similarly, Stuart adds that flour shortages were down to processing difficulties as many factories made huge bags for the hospitality industry and weren’t able to suddenly switch to small bags, which is where the demand was.
Adrian Palmer, Professor of Marketing at Henley Business School at the University of Reading, says that there has been a trend for the supply chain and households to operate on a ‘just in time system’, which is a problem in times of crisis.
He says: ‘I remember my grandmother, for example, storing apples for a whole year and she would have had stocks of tins of stuff ‘just in case’, so that they could withstand the crisis. Now, people are running on ‘just in time’ – they decide what they are going to eat tonight and get it on the way home.
‘There’s clear evidence that kitchens have been getting smaller as people buy less food.’
Although some of the supply chain is now working in a different way to get food to the areas of demand, there could still be a longer term impact and more shortages going forward, especially for fruit and veg due to a shortage of labour to pick food – so could the experience of empty shelves make us consider stocking up more in future?
Adrian adds: ‘I’m skeptical about whether it’s going to change consumers’ attitudes to keeping stocks.
‘I think two or three years down the line, people will go back to saying, “well, do I use that space to put in my new entertainment centre, or do I want to store 10 tins of potatoes?”
‘My view is that in a functioning capitalist system, it would favour the just in time system where all the tasks work together. It’s more profitable for the farmer to sell to the wholesaler just when they need it and to minimise their stock holding costs and then put it through the distribution channel.
‘But there’s a lot of disruption, which we can’t possibly resolve – coronavirus, Brexit, world trade talks – and if supply chains become severely disrupted again, then we might just go back to where people think, “I better stock up just in case. Let’s keep those extra 10 tins of baked beans in the cupboard”. That’s probably going to be more important than using the space for entertainment centre.’
Cooking at home
As well as changing what we could buy, meaning we had to get more inventive with cooking, being at home has seen people to get more into making their own food.
During lockdown, social media feeds have been filled with people posting pictures of their own recipes and many are learning new skills. It seems as if everyone has been creating sourdough or banana bread.
Data released by M&S showed people buying more fresh herbs and whole vegetables to cook up delicious meals from scratch at home.
But realistically, when we go back to normality, life is going to get busy again and the appeal of quick and convenient food will continue. Our desire to eat out is likely to return if life goes back to anything like we had before.
Christian Reynolds, senior lecturer at the centre for food policy at City University, London says: ‘If you look at other countries that have started to ease lockdown and see what trends they’re going through, you can see those old habits are reforming and the future.
‘The future, in some ways, really depends on what we want to give it. If employers say we can have more flexible jobs and a better work life balance, those sorts of labour things will feed through the food system to enable people to possibly spend more time in the kitchen.’
Adrian Palmer adds: ‘People have been getting into creative things like knitting as an escape and I think cooking is part of that. There’s an Instagram generation where people want to show off what they have made.
‘But I see the trend for cooking being more for creativity and special occasions. I think the long term trend for eating out will continue when we can go out again.’
Social distancing in restaurants
When we can eat out again, restaurants will have to implement social distancing measures and no one is sure how long those will last.
Restaurants are already thinking about what they can do to keep customers and staff safe even when lockdown restrictions end.
Some have some interesting methods – a cafe in Germany is using pool noodles to keep customers apart, while one in Amsterdam is serving customers in greenhouses.
Hotels, for example, the Farncombe Estate in the Cotswolds, explained that they will be ditching breakfast buffets, instead of focusing on room service, which will allow guests to stay apart in their own rooms.
CEO Andrew Grahame explains: ‘We’ll extend the area as well as timings of where we will serve breakfast and former buffet items will now be on-request from the kitchen. There will be a real focus on new and unique room service offerings which will be well-executed comfort food.’
But some simply don’t have the space to keep customers apart and make enough money to survive. Grace Regan, the owner of SpiceBox in Walthamstow, closed the restaurant when lockdown was introduced and she has been offering a delivery service, as well as a contact-free click and collect service.
She said: ‘So far we’ve had amazing support from the hungry people of Walthamstow and, as a result, have managed to keep most of our staff employed. The question now is, how long will this demand last – as the weather gets warmer and more businesses are reopening.’
As the restaurant is small, Grace decided that social distancing safely would not make financial sense so they will not be able to have sit-in customers until restrictions are completely relaxed.
She adds: ‘My hope is that once government guidelines are fully relaxed, things will return to normality pretty quickly. However, this pandemic has shown us how important is it to be a) flexible and b) how valuable a multi-channel sales strategy is. We’ve been working hard on a SpiceBox retail range and are due to launch it very soon!
‘The high street will be a very different place – a lot of the old chains that we know will be killed off as a result of this. I actually view this as an exciting time to be running a small business – see a lot of opportunities ahead. My hopes are that this will be the dawn of a new era for the British high street.’
Sam Harrison opened his restaurant Sam’s Riverside in West London just four months before lockdown forced them to close.
Although they initially offered takeaway and delivery, they decided to close fully on 24 March for the safety of their team and their families.
Now, they are working towards reopening at the start of July (depending on government guidelines).
Sam says: ‘We are fortunate that we have a large space and so I think even with two metre distances, I think we can trade. My restaurant is a large, bright and airy space by the river and I think it will appeal to people. I do think people will be gagging to go out again and I intend to be ready for that and provide them with the confidence and trust to come and visit us.
‘But I worry that wont be enough trade to pay the bills and so we will need to look at all possible revenue streams- so take away, delivery, meal boxes and also opening up a new retail arm – Sam’s Larder.
‘My brother is involved with restaurants in Hong Kong and sending me lots of information about what restaurants are doing out there. I am working on social distancing plans/ formats with my designer, so that we can share these with our guests when we are ready to open
‘In my mind, I can’t see us making any profit for the next two years. I think it will all be all about survival and keeping my team employed. That’s all we can ask for at the moment. Think it has to be a post-war mentality for a while.’
Christian Reynolds adds the pubs and small restaurants have adapted during lockdown will have an impact on at the consumer expects in the future.
Shopping local and ordering online
Giving up on eating out meant that people suddenly needed to buy far more but many were keen to avoid trips to the supermarket as it meant being in contact with those outside your own household.
Online grocery shopping has been growing for years but the pandemic has expedited growth.
Many supermarket slots have been sold out and even smaller retailers offering food boxes, such as Gousto or HelloFresh, have had to stop taking new customers because of the huge demand.
According to Kantar, digital sales are up 75% in supermarkets and online shopping now accounts for 11.5% of all grocery sales, gaining more ground and attracting more new shoppers in 2020 than the channel has in the previous five years.
Those who might have been more reluctant to order online have been trying it more and may find they prefer shopping that way in the future.
If you have a habit for more than three months, and you keep on practising it, it probably will become ingrained.
Speaking about the increase in online food delivery, Christian Reynolds says: ‘People will see that they have additional time because they outsource that shopping to somebody else. That’s additional time for them to do other things.
‘If you have a habit for more than three months, and you keep on practising it, it probably will become ingrained. So definitely some parts of lockdown food habits from a citizens perspective, as well as from a food industry perspective, can be seen as normal.’
Another side of struggling to get food is that people have been trying smaller local shops, rather than sticking to supermarkets.
Although traditionally more expensive, delis, artisan producers and farm shops have been able to provide essentials to those in their immediate area, either in store or through food boxes and deliveries.
Stuart Roberts from the National Farmers Union says: ‘I think there has been a lot more interest in local butchers, bakers, farm shops or just small local shops.
‘People are much more aware of their food, which is a trend we’ve seen for a long time. We’ll have to see if that awareness is a bigger thing, a longer-lasting thing but I think there’s definitely the potential for that.’
A survey by Hubbub also said a third of people said they were using local stores for the first time with the vast majority saying they will continue once restrictions have ended.
Over a third of people said they would try to continue to support smaller independent retailers and 30% want to make fewer journeys and stay closer to home. This desire to shop more locally is connected to how people feel about their local area with over half saying they feel more positive about their local community.
Of course, income has massively decreased for some during the pandemic and with the economic recovery expected to take a long time, more people may find themselves simply not able to afford food.
There has been more demand than ever for food banks and although some people are willing to spend more on local, organic food, those who are struggling on lower incomes are still unlikely to make that switch.
Adrian Palmer says: ‘Whenever we have any crisis, some people do better, some people do worse.
‘When this is over, we might see some doing quite well and being able to eat out and spend more, but poorer groups won’t be able to be creative with food. They will be eating to live.’
With people encouraged to go to the shop less, they’re getting more used to using up everything in the fridge.
A survey by WRAP reported a 34% reduction in waste of potatoes, bread, chicken, and milk in households.
Although some farmers reported having to throw away milk, cheese and other surplus goods that were meant to go to restaurants, in the long term, when restaurants open again, this could be reduced.
But the longterm impact on food waste is how lockdown has taught people to be more resourceful in managing their food, from using up their cupboard stocks, meal planning and list-making to freezing more and batch-cooking.
Christian Reynolds says: ‘Most people have actually wasted less in the household, which is a big part of food waste – seven to 10 million tons per year. There’s been a sizeable decrease over lockdown because people are having more time with food, checking their pantry engaging in pro food waste behaviours.’
According to Adrian Palmer, we will eat out more, shop online more and buy more local food. These are all things that were happening anyway but the pandemic has made more people move in that direction.
Restaurants and bars hope to be welcoming customers again soon, and they will return.
With capacity reduced due to social distancing and people keen to enjoy something they haven’t cooked, expect it to be even harder to get a last-minute table.
But despite our love of eating out, the crisis has made us all think more about food.
We now know what it’s like to go to a shop and not be able to get everything and understand the value of shopping locally for food security. When this is over, local businesses will continue to need that support to survive.
When it comes from cooking, more people are trying it out and if working patterns change, there could be more of that, but if the busy pace of life continues, it’s likely to be something people save for special occasions.
Crucially, we are wasting less and being more creative to use up what we already have.
No one knows exactly how the food industry will function as we get back to normal but many things will have changed.