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Grab-and-go is exploding as consumers modify the way they eat their favorite foods. Convenience has long been a factor in the popularity of grab-and-go, but the COVID-19 crisis has sped up the trend of buying prepared foods to eat at home instead of in dining halls or cafeterias. As a result, operators are revamping their menus to include more of these portable foods and following certain trends to satisfy consumer demands.
One of these trends is a heightened focus on vegetables, fruits, legumes and other plant ingredients. According to the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA) and SPINS, U.S. retail sales of plant-based foods outpaced total food sales during the pandemic. During panic buying in March, sales of plant-based foods were up 90% compared to last years’ sales. Throughout the four weeks following peak panic buying, total plant-based foods sales grew 27%, which was 35% faster than total retail food.
While these sales figures reflect retail outlets such as supermarkets, consumers have been returning to their foodservice routines, which include plant-based and plant-forward foods. According to a survey conducted by Informa Engage and Nation’s Restaurant News for Bush’s Best Beans, 81 percent of menu influencers (chefs, managers) and 71 percent of non-influencers (operations managers, general managers) say they offer vegetarian, vegan, plant-based and meatless entrées. Consumers say they want to find these foods in grab-and-go formats, so operators are adapting in a few ways.
Follow the Trends
At UNC Rex Healthcare in Raleigh, North Carolina, foodservice customers made it clear they wanted more grab-and-go items, says Ryan Conklin, director and executive chef of culinary and nutritional services. Although retail volumes are only 80% of pre-COVID-19 sales, grab-and-go volume has tripled. “We have always been talking about rebranding and revolutionizing our grab-and go-program, but the pandemic put those wheels in motion much sooner,” he says.
At the heart-healthy Kardia Café, the most popular grab-and-go options are falafel bowls, which feature grilled falafel, lentil salad, pickled vegetables, hummus and whipped feta cheese. “We took what was already popular in our Kardia Cafe, and decided to bulk produce those items now for grab-and-go in lieu of made-to-order,” Conklin says. “It requires more refrigeration space and different packaging, of course, but it can very easily be done.”
Focus on Visual Appeal
Operators who invest in added refrigeration space should opt for reach-in coolers without doors. “Grab-and-go is extremely effective if you can package things in a way people can see the items and they look attractive,” says David Just, the Lynch professor in science and business at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. “Colorful vegetables, if done right, are attractive and will bring people in. It creates a sensory experience you can’t get off a menu board.”
Grab-and-go is not only visually appealing, but it also speeds up customer lines and shortens wait times. That’s important in today’s foodservice environment, where social distancing and limited capacity have become the norm. Grab-and-go also alleviates the social awkwardness of a line of people waiting for the person at the front to make a decision about what to order. “They’re standing there while you’re looking at the menu,” Just says. “With grab-and-go, if somebody makes a decision before you, they don’t feel uncomfortable to go around you and get something and not wait.”
Look to Plants
Colorful vegetables, fruits, legumes and grains are gaining popularity because the ingredients appeal to a wide range of consumers. “The simplicity of plant-based products across the board and the variety of flavors makes for a very universal menu,” says Garett DiStefano, director of dining services for University of Massachusetts Amherst. “That’s what we are looking at, simplicity, healthy, sustainable.”
UMass Dining is adapting many services, including the addition of grab-and-go stations. “Students are not going to want to be caught up in lines,” DiStefano says. There will be more grab-and-go operations with premade salads and sushi rolls that students can eat elsewhere. “We have to be able to serve food safely, and still provide value, and put those together and make an enjoyable dining experience for our students.”
UMass Amherst students will still be able to customize foods to some extent, says Alexander Ong, director of culinary excellence. Instead of fully customized salads, UMass dining will build salads based on data showing which are the bestsellers. “We will pre-make all the salads, and all students need to do is pick up the dressing,” he says. “They will just be able to grab that and go.” In addition to salads, bowls are very popular right now, Ong says, as they can be adapted to different cuisines, from Asian to Middle Eastern to European.
From a quick bite to a full meal, consumers are increasingly opting for grab-and-go items to take with them to eat elsewhere, especially as the pandemic environment limits seating in dining areas. And consumers are looking for colorful, healthful ingredients and plant-based foods that fit the bill.