Fast, easy and healthy: convenience food
Fun fact: the origins of convenience food
Meals with a long shelf life were originally designed for soldiers, and later became popular in private homes in the 1950s. In American households, it was TV dinners consisting of 3 frozen components that merely needed to be warmed up, while in Germany the trend started with tinned ravioli in tomato sauce. Back then, these products’ long shelf life was their key selling point. Today, consumers are chiefly interested in the work they save and the flexibility they provide.
Forget the canned ravioli of 50 years ago; today, it’s healthy salad bowls and fruit cut into bite-sized chunks. Yes, these all fall into the category of convenience products. They are labelled ‘convenience’ because they are pre-prepared for consumption, so they’re ready fast and with minimal effort. Today, the items in this category range from frozen foods to refrigerated products to spice mixes to full, pre-prepared meals – all available in different degrees of readiness. Nutritious ready-to-eat options are especially popular, as Frank Anders attests: ‘Consumers want to eat fast yet healthy. That’s reflected in the growing range of ready-made options on supermarket shelves, like smoothies, salads, bowls, sushi and wraps, as well as in restaurant concepts that focus on fresh snacks and takeaway meals. Not only that – during the pandemic, there was a huge boom in home cooking with a convenience format, meaning recipe boxes to cook up at home.’
Experts estimate that convenience products are also widely used in 80 to 90% of restaurant kitchens – and they deliver a wealth of benefits. That’s because today’s convenience products are available in good quality and without long lists of ingredients. As the basis for meals and paired with fresh products, they save time, make purchasing easier to plan and thus reduce food waste.
Gourmet vegetarianism and veganism
Falafel, zucchini noodles, hash browned potatoes? When the establishment listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s first veggie restaurant– the Hiltl, in Zurich – opened its doors in 1988, the trend still caused quite a bit of head-scratching. After all, meat was a sign of luxury. Then came the boom of recent decades: while there were only around 500 all-vegetarian restaurants and 85 that were purely vegan in all of Europe in 2007, today the numbers are about 4,000 and 2,500 respectively. The USA even saw the launch of the world’s first plant-based food hall, Plant City, in 2019. The trend has also arrived at Michelin level, says Anders: ‘The Seven Swans in Germany and ONA in France were the first vegan restaurants to receive a Michelin star, and famous restaurants like Eleven Madison Park in New York are switching to all-vegan menus. These are huge milestones.’
However, there are many other locales where the menus have long offered far more vegetarian and vegan choices than just salad and soup. The number of vegan options on menus in Singapore, for example, grew from an average of 2.3 to 4.3 in 2020 alone. The reason: more and more plant-based substitute products are available and are making their way into restaurants. ‘Start-ups and brands like Impossible Foods and Tindle are increasingly approaching the hospitality industry with plant-based alternatives. They offer flexible products that let chefs get creative and invent their own dishes. They also use the pros’ culinary expertise to validate their products and build up their brand,’ Anders says.
Fresh picked: farm-to-table and vertical farming
The farm-to-table (F2T) movement is all about regional products that restaurateurs either grow themselves or purchase directly from the farmers. The benefits: minimum transport, high quality and freshness. Dan Barber, an American, was instrumental in popularising this term. Since the 2000s, he has operated a farm and 2 restaurants called Blue Hill where their own home-grown products are the stars. F2T restaurants have been on the rise ever since. At The Jane Table in Antwerp, vegetables, herbs and spices even grow right on the restaurant’s own roof terrace. ‘We have been seeing small-scale farm-to-table for quite a while, of course, at restaurants with seasonal and regional menus. So far, though, there are not many chain restaurants that offer it because procurement is very complex. An interesting example is the American restaurant chain Sweetgreen, which sells locally-grown salad as healthy fast food,’ Anders reports.
F2T has spawned variants such as vertical and urban farming. They revolve around the idea of putting urban spaces to good use to meet agricultural needs. ‘Vertical farming is not yet able to yield the quantities necessary for a restaurant or offer the required flexibility. But there are some promising concepts out there,’ Anders says. They include suppliers such as farm.one in the USA, which offers restaurateurs the option of growing and harvesting greens for them, and Urban Crop Solutions, which plants crops in shipping containers. In Berlin, there is even a restaurant that grows lettuce right behind the counter.
Sustainable right down to the packaging
Bread beer brewed from leftover loaves and vegetable crisps made from ‘ugly’ produce: more and more start-ups in the hospitality industry are upcycling leftovers as a way to combat food waste. That is one of many creative concepts the sector is employing to increase sustainability. Also enjoying a revival: nose-to-tail, a tradition that involved using as much of each animal as possible. So nowadays, guests are seeing not only steaks and chops but also tripe and veal tongue on menus. Initiatives like Greentable support restaurateurs in their efforts to cook more sustainably. They can use the Greentable app to calculate the climate impact of their dishes, for example.
But it’s not just the sustainable use of food that is high on the list of priorities, as Anders explains: ‘More and more hospitality-industry enterprises are focusing on producing less waste. They are receiving support from companies that offer reusable packaging for professional kitchens – which is especially relevant in light of the rising numbers of convenience products and delivery services.’ Some restaurants are even going so far as to implement zero-waste concepts. In 2014, Silo became England’s first zero-waste restaurant. They use no plastic packaging whatsoever, work directly with the producers and grow some of their own products. What’s more, their furnishings are recycled and they compost leftover food.
Eating in: delivery services and ghost kitchens
From takeaway poke bowls to a cosy dinner of Spanish tapas delivered straight to your door, pick-up and delivery services are booming. Sales of platform-to-consumer and restaurant-to-consumer deliveries have more than doubled over the past 4 years. Deliveries became a vital source of income for restaurants especially during the pandemic. Frank Anders is confident that these services will retain a large share of out-of-home sales going forward: ‘Thanks to their position in the market and their simplicity, they offer restaurants a vital way to optimise the use of their capacities. At the same time, it’s certainly safe to assume that restaurateurs with strong brands will develop their own products in the future and sell them via their restaurants, their own direct sales channels or supermarkets. During the coronavirus pandemic, they have already proved how creative they can be with their bottled drinks, cocktail kits, home meals and fine dining for at-home eating.’
With out-of-home business still on the rise, the NX-Food expert also anticipates an upward trend in ghost kitchens. With no direct service to customers and a variety of brands on offer, they are flexible and can maximise the use of their capacities: ‘On the one hand, ghost kitchens are restaurateurs that sell their products online under a separate brand name. And they are also businesses that consist of just a kitchen and make food only for delivery or pick-up.’ This concept has long been gaining popularity in the US but is not yet as widespread in Europe.
The personalised nutrition trend
Custom-made food for every body: the ‘personalised nutrition’ concept uses information about individual characteristics and needs to develop tips, products and services for specific target groups. This appeals to both health-conscious people and to those with intolerances for certain foods or illnesses that require a special diet. In 2019, the global market for these options was still relatively small, amounting to just EUR 2.5 billion. But experts anticipate exponential growth, with the data analysis platform CB Insights predicting a market volume of EUR 19 billion in 2027.
Examples of this concept in practice are still few and far between, due at least in part to its high cost and labour-intensive nature. But there are some simple ideas that have a big impact. An e-commerce shop with a filter that customers can use to find products that meet their personal nutrition criteria. Or restaurateurs that offer personalised meals based on custom nutritional information. This general trend toward customised products and services is one that restaurateurs should definitely keep an eye on.