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The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way Americans live in a lot of ways. Since March 2020, to stay home and safe, consumers embraced online shopping and stretchy pants, and banana bread and puzzles had a serious culture-defining moment. And as restaurants were closed for dining and the grocery store was one of the handful of places it was acceptable to visit, many embraced a new hobby. No, not the art of cocktail making. Consumers were cooking — out of necessity but also out of a newfound gift of downtime.
Many of us working in the gourmet gift and housewares sector have asked ourselves how long this at-home cooking trend will last, especially now that consumers are able to go out to eat again. Are they planning to make up for lost time by going out with friends? According to a survey by consumer market research firm Hunter, people in the U.S. are continuing to cook more, with 71 percent saying they will continue to do so after the pandemic ends.
Prior to the pandemic, at-home cooking was increasing in popularity. In 2018, the NPD Group reported that Americans were preparing and eating more meals at home (four out of five) than they had a decade earlier. A lot of that can be contributed to the trend of meal delivery kits and the invention of the Instapot and other time-saving kitchen gadgets. It can also be attributed to Americans eating a healthier diet. In 2019, a study that included Harvard research showed that nearly 44,000 American men and women participants improved on the 100-point Healthy Eating Index, thanks to higher intakes of high-quality carbohydrates (such as whole grains), plant protein (such as whole grains and nuts) and unsaturated fats, and lower intakes of added sugars.
Even before the pandemic, we were seeing a trend of more consumers cooking at home and experimenting in the kitchen. — Jacob Ouellette, Stonewall Kitchen
“Even before the pandemic, we were seeing a trend of more consumers cooking at home and experimenting in the kitchen,” said Jacob Ouellette of Stonewall Kitchen. “However, it goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic catapulted that trend into the popularity that we’re seeing today, and it doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon.”
There are many benefits to cooking at home, from making healthier recipes to controlling the quality of ingredients, saving money and saving time. Ouellette noted, “Nothing compares to the satisfaction of preparing and enjoying a delicious, home-cooked meal.” The gift and home industry can contribute to this upward lifestyle trend with shelf-stable foods that enhance recipes and high-quality cookware to make a dish the best it can be.
The draw to restaurant dining is making memories with friends and family. To create the feeling of the restaurant experience with homemade cooking, Ouellette recommends trying a new recipe or kicking up an old one to make it more memorable. “Oftentimes when people dine out, they tend to try something that they wouldn’t normally cook at home. Working in new, individual products with a quick, one-step upgrade can help recreate this experience, whether it’s a simple spice blend or simmer sauce that offers a new flavor or adds a new dish to your home cooking repertoire,” he said.
Stonewall Kitchen offers plenty of shelf-stable goods that can elevate a homemade meal. From dry pastas to oils, spreads, sauces, mixes, dressings and more, the company makes it easy to cook something delicious at home, even for beginners.
Under the Stonewall family of brands, Urban Accents is coined as a “culinary wingman,” with seasonings, sauces and starters designed to bring amazing flavor out of a dish. The newest release, its Meatless Mixes, is a new line of plant-powered ground mixes with soy protein that is ready from pouch to plate in 15 minutes. Varieties include Korean barbecue, sloppy joe, street taco, hearty chili and morning wrap, all of which are shelf stable and thus easy for stocking. “People are trying more meatless meals as well as including plant-based ingredients into their meals for healthier eating concepts,” Ouellette explained. “Urban Accents designed our new Meatless Mixes just for the ‘reduce-itarian’ crowd.”
Ouellette noted that consumers are getting more adventurous in the kitchen with the meals they create, oftentimes using different ingredients to create unique dishes. “Most of this is actually coming from a seemingly younger demographic, which is really exciting for the food industry,” he said.
Leveling Up Cookware
For consumers who are new to cooking at home or for those wanting to upgrade their tools, independent retailers can display cookware next to shelf-stable foods to encourage multiple purchases. Basics such as sauté pans, sauce pans and stock pots are a must for gourmet retailers to stock. “When you spend on an expensive steak or piece of fish, you want to ensure your cookware can elevate and show off these ingredients,” said Christina Chonody, marketing manager for Hestan Culinary.
“Perhaps the most important ingredient (aside from the food) when cooking is high-quality cookware,” Chonody continued. Hestan cookware, notably, is handcrafted in the company’s factories in Italy. Its three collections, NanoBond, CopperBond and ProBond, all feature flush rivets to prevent food buildup and nesting for easy storage; sealed rims to prevent splitting and delamination; an ergonomic French-inspired handle design for comfort and control, and a lifetime warranty.
In addition to the basics, it’s a smart idea for gourmet retailers to carry a few items that speak to a more adventurous palate, such as woks, tagine pots, tortilla makers, rice cookers and other gadgets that make cooking new cuisines accessible. To appeal to the consumer looking to improve their health, items that make chopping fresh ingredients quicker, as well as healthy recipe cookbooks, are a hit.
Ultimate Fresh Ingredients
Along with puzzles and new baking hobbies, houseplants have only grown in popularity since the start of the work-from-home era. But this trend isn’t just reserved for garden center retailers. Gourmet retailers can take advantage of this trend, too, by carrying herb growing kits that have the ability to take a dish from ordinary to flavorful. Modern Sprout, a Chicago-based company on a mission to simplify indoor gardening, offers highly giftable products for herb-growing newbies.
I’m convinced that once people understand the versatility and the depth herbs provide they won’t be able to stop using them. — Ellie Horn, Modern Sprout
Ellie Horn, marketing director for Modern Sprout, said, “Before we launched Modern Sprout, we really started embracing herbs in cooking and realized not only the flavor benefits of having herbs on hand, but also the nutritional benefits. I’m convinced that once people understand the versatility and the depth herbs provide they won’t be able to stop using them. Once you start growing your own, they’ll quickly become as essential to seasoning as salt.”
Horn recommends carrying basil, mint and parsley, as they work well in many different dishes and beverages. The Garden Jars are complete kits that feature a reservoir and wicking system that deliver the perfect amount of water and nutrients daily, so all the user needs to do is top off the reservoir when it gets low. The Herb Pull & Pinch Dish is also a very handy tool that quickly strips herbs from the stem into the integrated dish, ready for use.
Encouraging Gourmet Retail Sales
Gourmet retailers are well versed in selling gourmet foods, cookware, kitchen tools and other products to highlight the cooking and dining experience. For retailers just dipping their toes into the gourmet waters, it’s beneficial to cross merchandise with other items they already carry to tell a complete story. Setting up a display with exotic herbs, cookbooks with an ethnic cuisine focus and cooking tools to help with making homemade worldly dishes is a great start. It’s also wise to include items that aid in a restaurant-like ambiance, including table décor, tabletop textiles, scented candles and even dishes well suited for particular dishes, such as larger bowls for serving ramen, small dishes for soy sauce dipping, family-style serveware and more.
Of selling Stonewall Kitchen goods, Ouellette said, “Though Stonewall Kitchen has often focused on selling experiences and moments for our guests, the products on the shelf do speak for themselves. Presentation is often key in showing what makes a product great. Taking from what we strive to offer our own guests, retailers could focus on how products are displayed, whether it’s with dedicated shelving displays or supporting marketing materials that showcase an entire dining experience.”
Of marketing Modern Sprout, Horn recommends showing it out of the package. “Display one of our best-selling Garden Jars in action! Our customers love to see what the product will look like in their home and seeing the fresh grown herbs in the space-savvy vessel is one of our best recommendations.”
More consumers are cooking at home now than in recent years, and the trend continues upward, even as the COVID-19 pandemic wanes, and independent retailers stand to make some cheddar in the process.