How the Pandemic Has Forever Changed the Way We Eat

With many restaurants closed for in-person dining on and off throughout the pandemic, the food service industry shifted to delivery and takeout as a business imperative. According to SEC filings, food delivery apps experienced tremendous growth in 2020 earning a combined $5.5 billion in revenue from April through September of 2020—compared with $2.5 billion from the same period in 2019. Consumers also reported “ordering in” more in general with 63 percent of Americans ordering food delivery at least once a week and 21 percent doing so three or more times, according to a 2020 LendingTree survey. 

As President of the Food & Delivery segment of Novolex, I’ve had a front seat to these dramatic changes, and to the challenges facing the industry as it struggles to survive and adapt. As restaurants reimagined takeout and venues shut down their bars, we too repurposed and rebalanced our portfolio repeatedly to meet changing demands—whether we were converting food packaging supply lines to produce PPE or supporting take-out offerings with tamper-proof food packaging. As we venture further into 2021, here are the trends from the COVID era we believe are here to stay:

Food Safety Will Remain Consumers’ Top Concern

As the pandemic spread, one of the biggest deterrents from people frequenting their favorite restaurants was concern of exposure to the COVID-19 virus. Stepping into or ordering from an environment where you have no control over the safety and sanitary provision of your food is a major concern for consumers, and throughout the year, we have seen restaurants look for solutions that both ensure safety for their patrons and communicate how that’s being done—and we don’t see that changing anytime soon. 

With the first rush of the pandemic, we saw PPE quickly become a way of life within restaurants, not only in protecting staff, but helping the 62 percent of consumers who told market research firm VIPinsiders they feel safer when restaurant staff use masks and gloves when handling food. 

The bigger trend we expect will continue to grow beyond the pandemic is tamper-proof packaging. In 2017, a US Foods study revealed that nearly 30 percent of food delivery drivers taste the food they’re responsible for delivering, sparking an evolution in packaging design to tamper-proof takeout. Under COVID, however, this once “nice-to-have” perk for restaurants and delivery apps has quickly become a necessity for our customers that’s here to stay in an anxiety fueled climate.

Alcohol To-Go Will Expand

Since the start of the pandemic, thirty-four states, plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, have instituted alcohol on-demand laws, allowing over 500,000 bars and restaurants across the country to deliver alcoholic beverages directly to consumers, according to the National Restaurant Association. The association also maintained that this development has constituted 10 percent of restaurants’ off-premises sales during the pandemic, enabling owners to bring back some laid-off staffers. 

We saw a significant increased demand for products like wine “sippy cups” for adults and plastic mason jars housing pre-mixed drinks. Now that customers have tasted the benefit of enjoying their favorite cocktails at home, we expect beverage offerings delivered to your door will be available to consumers long after COVID is gone. In fact, many states are already pushing to make on-demand laws permanent, including Iowa, Ohio, Oklahoma, Missouri, Florida and D.C. 

Legislators Will Rethink How to Better Manage Product Waste

The other big challenge the pandemic has brought to life is forcing businesses and governments to rethink our approach to packaging waste.

Last March, legislatures across the country were considering bans and taxes on plastic bags. COVID suspended or delayed many of those plans, and the past year has shown that plastic packaging products are not only convenient, but important to public health and safety. And as COVID spread, it came became increasingly clear that addressing the larger system that prevents packaging from being properly managed and recycled was a more practical and flexible way to manage bags that were designed to be recycled rather than banning them.  

From food hygiene to building sustainable and circular economies, we expect that the way we eat will continue to look different even when the world reemerges and engages in new normal business activities. The world has changed. If food service companies are to survive and grow in this post-pandemic economy, they need to continue to adapt and change, too.