GLADSTONE, MO. — The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has hit the restaurant business hard, which is leading to creative ways to keep sales coming in.

“Clearly this is an industry that is — I don’t even want to say struggling — It’s really tragic what’s happening right now,” said Susan Schwallie, executive director of food and beverage consumption for the NPD Group, a market research and consumer insights company.

Data through March 22 showed total foodservice traffic down 36%, she said in a March 27 webinar organized by The Center for Food Integrity, Gladstone. The decline was 34% for quick-service restaurants and 71% for restaurants in sectors like casual dining and fine dining that do not have carryout or delivery infrastructures in place.

Some high-end restaurants, including steakhouses, are sending out meal kits with instructions showing consumers how to prepare the food stored in the restaurants.

“They need to move out their inventory,” Ms. Schwallie said. “They can’t just have that food sitting there. So that’s what fine dining is doing.”

New tactics are showing up as well among restaurants that offer delivery and carryout.

“I’ve seen some delivery advertisements for ordering takeout, and you’ll get a side of toilet paper,” she said.

The number of people ordering delivery differs by age group. Many in Generation Z are at their parents’ homes because colleges are shut down.

“They are hyper users of digital delivery,” Ms. Schwallie said. “They’re just not doing that right now whereas we’re seeing some older consumers that don’t normally participate come into the fray. So it’s a real mixed bag. One thing that is clear is that delivery capacity will not offset the restaurant closures.”

At the retail level, the NPD group is seeing shopping behavior that is a mix of panic and fear, she said. Growing in sales by triple-digit percentages are items like beans, rice, tuna and canned meat.

Ms. Schwallie said, “Those all to me say, “I am preparing to feed my family for an indeterminate time. I got to have shelf-stable things that are basic, that I can cook from.’”

Shelf-stable bread is in demand. So is flour and sugar as more people bake at home.

Growing in sales by double-digit percentages are popcorn, pretzels, potato chips, chocolate, ice cream and pastries, which signifies a “a tremendous amount of comfort food and snacking,” Ms. Schwallie said.

“We’re trying to figure out how to sustain and feed people as well as looking to food for enjoyment, familiarity and comfort,” Ms. Schwallie said.



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