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Understanding the pandemic consumer, foodservice trends to develop winning menus

QA with Suzy Badaracco of Culinary Tides

In this interview, Restaurant C-Suite Magazine speaks with Suzy Badaracco, president of Culinary Tides. Badaracco joined the food scene many, many years ago. She has become an established authority on consumer products and foodservice. Culinary Tides, Inc. practices Chaos Forecasting and uses Military Intelligence analytics. She recently authored the company’s annual report, Shifting Sands:Trends Shaping the Food Industry in 2020/21.

COVID-19 has caused an “amplification and acceleration of the tide that was already rolling in,” says Badaracco. “It’s no less significant for its abruptness and shock value, but pandemics can have the effect of shaping and altering the trajectory of already-identified trends.”

Restaurant C-Suite Magazine: How would you describe today’s consumer during this health crisis and as we go into reopening phases? Also, how does the economic impact of COVID-19 play into consumer sentiment?

Suzy Badaracco: There are two different issues you are dealing with. We have moved from a stall (occurs when economics are fine but consumers behave as if they are in a recession) to an actual recession. Both a stall and a recession cause psychological fear. COVID-19 has caused both psychological fear and physical fear. COVID-19 accelerated the stall toward a recession. The initial psychological fear caused panic buying and hoarding in which cost was no issue. A secondary reaction will reverse the cost-is-no-issue stance and budget
will override convenience. Consumers will trade down across the board, especially with taxes coming due and continued unemployment. The physical fear will cause product, space, and brand avoidance. The secondary reaction will produce product, space, and brand abandonment.

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RCS: Tell us how this understanding can benefit restaurants and foodservice companies: what might be the best ways to communicate to consumers/diners and bring them back?

SB: Address and correct the fear, not the product. Understand and address real vs perceived fears; although consumer behavior will present the same way, they are handled with different approaches. Real fears are best handled with facts of how a company is keeping the consumer safe. Perceived fears should be corrected with education to dissolve each perceived fear.

There is going to be a lag between restaurants opening and consumers being comfortable enough to return–a hangover or PTSD effect that COVID-19 will cause. The recession will also prevent consumers from returning to restaurants, due to financial devastation. The best combination approach for a company to follow is to tell consumers exactly how they are keeping them safe and also express empathy. Trust will calm fears.

RCS: Lately, people have been talking a lot about eating and serving comfort foods due to customer anxiety. What food & beverage items and categories would you recommend restaurant operators carry on their menus, and what might be some that they might want to avoid?

SB: When comfort food appears as a trend, it is a sign of fear. So, it is never a good sign when it materializes. We were already heading into a recession; what COVID-19 did was accelerate and amplify that course.Because of COVID-19 we were plunged quickly into an economic downturn. Comfort food cannot track in that quickly so the hybrid position has taken hold. Global comfort or regional USA comfort is a better stance to take. Food and beverages represent an escape from reality. Create hybrids by combining a familiar, retro, or historical base with trend forward seasonings, add-ins, and preparations. Make sure they match each other in voice, personality, and tone.

RCS: Do you expect some permanent changes to the way we approach food & beverage offerings in restaurants, or is this part of a passing stage or chapter in the consumer timeline?

SB: After months of health-related uncertainty, immunity will rise to the top of most consumers’ functionality demands. The category of foodceuticals is broad and encompasses a range of ingredients and target areas, but for the near-term consumers will look for foods and beverages that provide additional protection as we move out of the current crisis and into the next flu season.

Interaction of food and function allows people to feel in control of health. Controlling one’s diet lends autonomy, but consumers will be more alert to clinical research and authentication of health claims or true ingredient efficacy. There is a danger of foods or food groups being villainized or seen as false heroes.

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After a period of intense anxiety and fearfulness, consumers will demand even more transparency and greater levels of food safety from the retailers and foodservice operators they visit as well as the foods and beverages they purchase. Confusing labels, unfamiliar ingredients, and opaque sanitation practices won’t cut it in the post-COVID-19 reality.

It is difficult to know how economic fallout from the early restrictions will unfold through the end of 2020, but certainly many people will be dealing with spending limitations. This will make consumers particularly conscious of where their food and beverage dollars are spent and the value received from both the experience and the cost.

This article was originally published in Restaurant C-Suite Magazine, part of the Eatery Pulse Network magazine portfolio. To view the related issue, navigate here.

Photo credit: Miroslav Slapka (featured preview image)

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