KANSAS CITY - For trend-watchers in food and many other industries, the key word heading into 2021 is “unknown.”

COVID-19 is still very much with us, and its impact will continue to be felt throughout the food world well into — and perhaps all the way through — the New Year.

Given that framework, expect “comfort” to be another word that dominates, as consumers seek to console themselves in any way they can. But also look for existing trends in ethnic cuisines, health-conscious options and clean label (among many others) to continue to gain traction in the coming year.

Maeve Webster, president of consultancy Menu Matters, said it's hard to predict what flavors will be trending heading into 2021 because of the pandemic.

“It’s going to have a significant impact on how the industry will go forward,” she said. “Anyone who says they can predict at this point, honestly, is not thinking through the potential impact of three or four more months of anxiety, lockdown and uncertainty on the part of consumers and how that will impact the industry moving forward.”

Once operators have a chance to stop worrying about surviving and start releasing innovation resources, Webster said, the first thing consumers could see will be a return to many of the trends that were in earlier stages just before the pandemic hit.

A few examples of that would be Middle Eastern and North African spice blends, beverages and foods.

“These were just kicking off before everything happened and will be a no brainer in returning to,” Webster said.

Some operators will retrench to more familiar territory but start rethinking how to present the familiar, she added. For example, Chinese food will likely enjoy a resurgence of sorts with operators using it as a framework for innovation in non-Chinese categories, like mashups, but that will be tricky depending on US/China relations — any new conflicts, Webster said, could create negative perceptions domestically.

Seeking comfort — sweet and savory

Amy Marks-McGee, Founder of Trendincite LLC, expects to see a return to basic, comforting flavors ranging from savory to sweet.

For example, in the savory category, chicken seems to be the “it” ingredient in both meat and plant-based meat alternatives, she said, citing Google Trends data finding that chicken recipes were the third-most searched recipes during stay-at-home orders. 

That’s carried over to produce and meal prep. Dole recently launched a Just Add Chicken Salad Kits line in four flavor combinations: Lemon Herb, Pesto Caesar, Roasted Red Pepper, and Sweet Orange, which combine Dole lettuces, toppings, an original Dole dressing, and chicken sauté. Another example cited by Marks-McGee is Progresso’s new Toppers line of classic soups with crunchy toppings and Gardein’s new soups with plant-based meat alternatives. 

Pizza also seems to be enjoying a renaissance, Marks-McGee said. Innovations in the category include more plant-based and better-for-you ingredients.

Banza Pizza, for instance, features a crust made from chickpeas, olive oil, yeast and oregano and is offered in Four-Cheese, Roasted Vegetable, and Margherita. American Flatbread launched Meatless Evolution, a new line of plant-based, flash-frozen pizzas in Plant-Based Pepperoni, Plant-based Supreme, Vegan Meat Lovers, and Vegan Pepperoni. And Foster Farms launched Smart Crust frozen pizzas, which are gluten-free, grain-free and keto certified and available in three flavors: Four Cheese, Uncured Pepperoni, and Uncured Bacon Club. 

For sweets, Banana Bread was the number one searched recipe and cheesecake was the tenth of the top 10 most searched recipes, according to Google Trends cited by Marks-McGee.

“I expect to see these two products and a variety of different flavor combinations to translate into consumer packaged goods,” she said. “Enlightened recently launched a collection of keto cheesecakes in five flavors: Caramel Chocolate, Chocolate, Classic, Pumpkin, and Strawberry.”

“Trend parents” take a breather

COVID will continue to prevent new flavors and cuisines from emerging by silencing the usual “trend parents” who are often the instigators of new trends, said Suzy Badaracco, president of Culinary Tides, Inc., Tualatin, Ore.

“While consumers are in quarantine, so are trend parents,” she said. “Celebrity chefs, suppliers — they’re all in time out, and others, like pharmaceutical and book publishers, are being pushed into narrow focuses.  Second string parents are not able to operate off of traditional drivers, so the trends that are coming forward will be temporary, chaotic one hit wonders.”

When things are born out of stress, depression, and chaos they don’t tend to last, Badaracco said.

The focus now is on health and safety – flavor trends are a distant third interest for consumers. The most interesting thing that COVID-19 did, instead, Badaracco said, was reverse to certain trends, like omnivores returning to meat (and, within the category, choosing ground beef over steak) and sustainability taking a temporary back seat due to the recession.  

When things finally calm down — possible not until 2022 — the food industry will see trends pick up where they left off in 2020, Badaracco said. Until then, expect “one hit wonders” that have shorter lifecycles.

Back to basics

COVID-19 will continue to cause many consumers to focus on old reliables in 2021, Marks-McGee said. 

“Consumers are unsettled for a variety of reasons, including emotional and financial insecurity due to fear, illness, and/or job loss.”

In addition, people with children are balancing childcare and remote education. All of those stressors taken together, she said, have caused consumers to go back to basics and look for safe, comforting, and easy to prepare foods. 

For example, according to a OnePoll and Farm Rich poll of 2,000 Americans, two in three consumers are reverting to childhood food favorites and eating more comfort food during the pandemic. That includes an uptick in such favorites as pizza (55%), hamburgers (48%), ice cream (46%), French fries (45%), mac and cheese (38%) and spaghetti and meatballs (32%). 

And with consumers at home, there’s been a huge increase in cooking and baking, a trend has given meal kits a second life, Marks-McGee said. According to Nielsen, U.S. customers spent around $100 million on meal kits at retail stores in the month ending April 11, nearly double that period a year prior. 

Another trend Marks-McGee is keeping a close eye on is demand for multicultural flavors, since travel is limited. But she thinks that trend won’t likely take off until later in 2021 after consumers have had their fill of classic and comforting food and flavors.

Plant-based meat alternatives continue to proliferate, and Marks-McGee sees no signs of that trend slowing in 2021.

“Plant-based meat substitutes are now also offered in plant-based pork, chicken, and fish alternatives.” 

COVID-19 severely impacted quick service restaurants (QSR) and they had to react and adapt quickly, Marks-McGee said.  Many launched DIY kits such as DIY Dunkin’ Donut Decorating Kits, Chick-fil-A Chicken Parmesan Meal Kit and Friendly’s DIY Sundae Making kits.

That’s a trend that will likely make its way to retail grocery.

“I expect to see more QSR offering these kinds of kits and then eventually to trickle down into collaborations with consumer packaged goods companies.”  

Lasting impact

There's no doubt, Webster said, that COVID will have long-lasting impact on hospitality going forward. But the full extent won't be known until we get through the winter and see what the pandemic does to consumer behavior and foodservice.

The way trends get started and gain steam has been profoundly affected thanks to the pandemic, and those effects will likely linger for some time.

“The key engine to industry innovation has been significantly negatively impacted — namely fine dining — which will leave a lot of the innovation to casual dining and fast casual,” Webster said. “This means innovation will be a bit closer in as those segments need to appeal to a broader array of consumers than fine dining does.”

It’s hard to see beyond the immediate tough present. But as Webster pointed out, the future could be very dynamic and interesting.

“Though this time is incredibly painful for so many, the opportunities for really unique innovation in food, flavor, concepts, service, packaging, etc. are nearly limitless as the guardrails that existed before the pandemic are all but gone,” she said. “Now is the time for operators to really push boundaries and take a hard look at whether what's been done before is worth still doing going forward.”

Now is also the time, she added, for grocery stores to really capitalize on their competitive position. With so many consumers concerned about dining out (either on-site or even off-premise in some cases), grocery stores can start innovating in the areas of fresh and prepared foods, taking cues from restaurants and creating options that allow consumers to experiment more at home but easily and with minimal stress.

“I've seen really interesting family pack meal kits that require some preparation but offer full meals for larger groups in the perimeter, more interesting prepared options that take cues from trends in foodservice, efforts at allowing customization, etc.,” she said. “Grocerants were an interesting option before the pandemic but now they could be a really viable and appealing alternative to restaurants for many consumers.”

Many instore salad bars and other self-help options are closed for now, but that doesn't mean operators can't rethink how to allow consumers to build meals with pre-packaged or individually packed options, Webster said.

Pent-up desire for adventure

When the pandemic is finally over, expect a surge in demand for more adventurous fare, Webster said.

“As often happens, there's likely to be a swing away from concern, from careful behavior and towards more extreme and experimental options, like super-hot flavors, extreme experiential foods, beverages and concepts and other options that really speak to throwing caution to the wind.”

Even then, however, a significant number of people will still be hesitant to return to eating out the way they did pre-pandemic. Expect innovation in things like packaging, service styles, concepts, extending the on-premise experience to off-premise and food types, Webster said.

Another trend likely to gain steam in 2021 is in foods that have functional benefits around immunity and related issues like sleep, mood, depression, inflammation and gut health.

Assuming we’re in for a tough winter with the pandemic,  the main thing the food industry will need to do this spring will be to create a compelling value proposition to get people back out of the house, Webster said.

“At that point, consumers will have been changing their behavior for nearly a year and that will have long-term consequences for the industry. I don't think just cheap food deals will do it. Consumers will have to be lured out of the house and back into public spaces with quality, meaningful service and hospitality, consistency, and unique offerings that depart from the foods they've been eating at home.”

That said, when people venture out, fewer than normal will likely venture beyond US borders. That will mean continued exploration of regional US foods, Webster said. Southern and Southwestern foods will definitely benefit, given that they will reopen outdoor dining earlier than other areas.

But there also likely be exploration of more specific sub-regions and cultures within the United States, Webster said.

“I could also see American Indian food enjoy increased interest as well as the impact of African cuisine — foods that Africans brought here during slavery and second/ third generation foods that came out of that culture — on various US regional foods. We've seen that off and on over the past few years but I think that will become more significant going forward.”

This was featured in the December issue of Supermarket Perimeter. Please click here to view the full magazine.