by Chris Dyer
April 29, 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically altered the way people dine, both at home and in public. The overwhelming fear of contamination that was once the domain of germophobes has become commonplace. As the world starts to open back up as vaccinations expand, restaurants face the challenge of customers who have spent more than a year thinking about the sanitary practices behind the production, handling, and consumption of food.
Is the “sanitarian” customer the new vegetarian?
Are the days of all-you-can-eat buffets gone? Not much is more American than endless crab legs and chicken wings, but the past year has changed the way such food is consumed and served. Furthermore, the pandemic has pushed consumers to consider the sanitary aspects of a buffet setting in a more thorough way.
Personal lunch favorites, such as local grocery store salad and soup bars, were disallowed in many states – including Ohio. However, in February, Ohio lifted the restrictions on buffet-style dining, opening the door for restaurants such as Golden Corral to return to business as usual. Though, calling it “business as usual” is an overstatement for the already struggling buffet-style dining industry. The allowance to reopen came with requirements to mandate masks within restaurants while accessing self-service stations and while waiting in line. The self-service stations and tables must also be spaced at least six feet apart. Additionally, serving utensils (e.g., tongs, spoons) must be sanitized hourly. However, with the industry already being in decline, consumers should expect to see downsizing and possible bankruptcy among their favorite buffet spots.
Buffets at banquets and weddings, on the other hand, should return to “business as usual” soon enough, though potentially with the requirement of disallowing self-service, instead opting for a hired server to minimize contamination.
Prior to the widespread decline in smoking and regulatory bans on smoking indoors, it was common for restaurant customers to ask to be seated in the “non-smoking section”. As the world starts to open back up, restaurant owners should be prepared to face a new wave of seating requests.
People who ate at restaurants during the pandemic had a very different experience compared to what they were used to. For one, they were no longer packed in like sardines; chair-backs crashing against each other and patrons breathing “excuse me” over their shoulder as they work their way to-and-from their seat. Gone were the days of cringing when the person at the table next to them sneezes in their face. It was quieter too, with fewer people and greater space between them. Friends and family could actually hear each other.
Many consumers have leaned on pre-packaged, frozen, and other ready-made meals to provide nutrition during the pandemic, largely avoiding foodservice establishments. Eating at home is an undeniably safer option for all eaters, avoiding the issue of contamination by foodservice workers and other patrons entirely. The availability of subscription meal plans and the like have provided additional respite for concerned patrons. However, the real supplier that consumers have leaned on through the past year is the frozen food aisle at their local grocery store.
Many consumers have now made it a habit to peruse the frozen aisle for pre-packaged meals. Historically, this consumer subsegment was on a decline, but was beginning to be “saved” by Millennials in 2017 and beyond – one of the few industries the demographic wasn’t blamed for killing. The introduction of healthier frozen alternatives and the improving perception of frozen vegetables as being as nutritious as their fresh counterparts has drawn consumers in through the pandemic, as people stocked their freezers “just in case”, but increasingly found themselves consuming their food stores over the past year. With this in mind, pre-packaged food is likely to hold its popularity going forward, as the convenience of foods such as frozen vegetables will likely be difficult to part with when things begin to return to normal.
Despite the CDC clarifying that the virus that causes COVID-19 is not transmitted through food, consumers are increasingly concerned with food safety in their own homes and at foodservice establishments, even when it isn’t centered on the issue of the pandemic. Consumers have started to wash their produce more thoroughly at home. At restaurants, those conforming to a vegan diet have concerns of cross-contamination on surfaces used in meat preparation. For these consumers, home has long been among the only safe places to eat.
Many restaurants serve vegan or meatless dishes, but the risk of cross-contamination is ever-present. Fast food establishments are among the riskiest for concerned eaters. For instance, sanitarian diners hoping to try the meatless Impossible Whopper at Burger King may be shocked to learn that the burger is prepared on the same broiler as the original meat version. A 2019 lawsuit brought the issue to the public’s attention, and the company acknowledged that cross-contamination occurs. Sanitarians: beware.
Though most people consider food safety when they eat at home and away in their day-to-day lives, the COVID-19 pandemic has inarguably brought the issue to the forefront for all consumers. It seems likely a new type of eater will emerge from the ashes of COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions and continue these practices going forward – the “sanitarian”.
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Chris Dyer is a Market Research Analyst for Freedonia Focus Reports. He holds a Master of Arts in Security Studies, and his experience as an analyst covers multiple industries.
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