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5 ways to keep retail foodservice alive during COVID-19

Pandemic-related safety precautions including increased hand-washing and widespread mask-wearing have changed the ways retailers handle in-house food production, but shifting consumer demand is driving an equal amount of creativity and innovation.

The old adage tells us it takes 21 days to form a habit. If that’s true, what kinds of habits have formed during the months-long COVID-19 crisis? According to food industry veteran Michael Droke, attorney and partner at Dorsey & Whitney LLP, working remotely will change the game for not only the American workforce but also natural food retailers and co-ops.

“I speak to executives all around the U.S., in a variety of industries, and not a single one expects to return to the way things were before COVID-19,” he says. “And, they don’t want to.”

Why? They’ve found efficiencies like having employees work from home, and likely won’t send the entire workforce back to the office environment full time.

Droke_Michael_(3).jpg“Retailers should be thinking about that,” Droke (left) says. “There are all kinds of new habits about where and how people are doing work and, as a result, eating their meals. What kinds of things are we learning now that we might need to use forever?” Below are five things Droke has learned.

 

1. Say buh-bye to the self-serve food bar.

“These areas are being repurposed because people don't feel safe getting food from them anymore,” Droke says. Instead, retailers can offer what they previously had in their bars in pre-packaged formats to appeal to shoppers who used to buy their lunches at office-adjacent fast-casual destinations, but who now work from home. “If you used to have a taco bar, offer pre-made tacos or burritos,” Droke recommends. “If you used to have a salad bar, pre-package a variety of salads for at-home lunches.”

Essentially, grab-and-go is replacing the self-serve bar.

2. Conversion is key.

“There are conversion kits available that can convert self-serve bars to full-service from behind the bar,” says Droke, which provides customers with reassurance that food is safe from the hoards of shoppers passing by.

3. Bulk is back.

Along these same lines, work-from-home culture means that more people are home for lunch and snacktime, from kids to parents. But just because they can prepare their meals from home doesn’t mean they always want to. This is where bulk packaging can be a great solution for foodservice.

“Customer demand is increasing for larger volume of hot and cold food items,” Droke says, “because they now need to feed the whole family at lunchtime rather than grabbing something close to the office or sending their kids to school with money or a packed lunch.”

Offering a larger volume meal or even a multi-day offering can appeal to these families.

4. Wrap it up.

“When it comes to bakery items like cookies and breads, present as many things as you can in individual wrapping,” says Droke, in place of offering bakery bins where shoppers reach in and grab their own—and cross-contaminate.

5. Take it outside.

Consumers are becoming increasingly accustomed to food trucks and eating outside in general. Let shoppers know that retail foodservice is alive and well with an outdoor barbecue or even a popcorn machine. “The smell will lure shoppers over, where you can have these and other pre-packaged items available for purchase,” Droke recommends.

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