Finding Solace in Comfort Foods
In these troubled times, America’s consumers are turning to familiar foods for inspiration and relief.
Do you find yourself these days craving a heaping helping of mac n’ cheese, a hefty slice of lasagna oozing with melted cheese or a healthy bite of a good ol’-fashioned peanut butter and jelly sandwich? You’re not alone.
During these tense, uncertain times of coping with the coronavirus pandemic, we can all use a measure of happiness. And, often, nothing delivers a satisfying diversion and welcome smile quite like comfort foods.
In its most elemental form, food and beverage consumption has always been about survival and biological necessities. There were certain drives and discomforts we had to fulfill or alleviate (hunger and thirst being primary ones). And what better way to reinforce the positive accomplishment of fulfilling those drives or alleviating such discomforts than by associating them with a feeling of pleasure and enjoyment?
Similar principles during this crisis drive food and drink consumption and experiences today.
This is what’s behind the panic-driven shopping of early March, which saw shoppers flocking back to center store to empty shelves of familiar food products like SpaghettiOs, tomato soup, baked beans and other staple goods. As Unilever’s Chief Executive, Alan Jope was quoted in a Wall Street Journal article, “We’ve seen time and time again that big brands tend to do well when people are feeling anxious and under threat."
Consumers rocked by health and economic anxieties find solace in these iconic brands, and these food and beverage companies are experiencing a record spike in sales. And this behavior may last for quite some time. Mr. Jope said in the article that he expects this shift to larger brands to last a couple of years. Similar behaviors were seen post-9/11 when restaurants across the United States saw increases in sales of hamburgers and pasta, macaroni and cheese saw a huge surge in search traffic on Google and pizza appeared on bar menus of restaurants in Manhattan that had never offered them before.
One key to understanding how we seek solace and comfort in iconic brands and dishes is acknowledging the power of nostalgia and how, when confronted with a variety of emotions (ranging from deep-seated anxieties to indulgent desires), nostalgic foods and beverages substantiate iconic tastes, smells or sensory experiences that take consumers back to a place or a time that they really miss. Comfort foods make us all feel like we're a little bit at home, especially when confronted with a world that seems turned upside down.
The Hartman Group’s Transformation of the American Meal 2017 report found that consumers have a preference for comfort foods: 44% of consumers said that “familiar comfort foods” is what they typically serve and eat at mealtime.
Prior to this, we have noted how the explosion of cultural interest in food trucks heralded exciting new ways for consumers to appreciate reimagined takes on classic foods.
One example: Biscuits + Groovy, a food truck based out of Austin (which is currently during the pandemic "still open normal hours for take-out only"), capitalized on the growing demand for hearty breakfast items throughout the day with its take on biscuits and gravy. Their supercharged menu includes fresh-baked biscuits loaded with high-quality cheese, home fries, bacon and other goodies.
Regional dishes and enhanced and better-for-you versions of established fare are well within the wheelhouse of comfort foods.
In our podcast, The Role of Nostalgia in Food, Vice President of Hartman Retainer Services (HRS) Melissa Abbott, and Robertson Allen, a consultant with HRS, discussed some of the specifics of how nostalgia translates into definitions of comfort foods.
"I think there's different ways to represent different up-leveled versions of nostalgia,” said Robertson. “It can be better-for-you products. I think that Annie's mac and cheese and Amy's prepared foods are two really iconic brands that very much speak to nostalgia in a way that also has ingredients that are considered better-for-you, organic, less processed and that are more culinary-inspired.”
Robertson also points to regional, local and even global cuisines that explore regional flavors and dishes. One example he noted: “Regional barbecues. Some people might really enjoy a barbecue as a nostalgic food, but now we're seeing a lot more regional specificity in barbecue that people can explore widely."
While comfort food may not scream “cutting edge,” that doesn’t mean it has to be old-fashioned. Comfort foods are evolving along with the rest of food culture to reflect the values and desires of today’s consumers. This includes versions that cue premium, less processed, fun or representing a flavor remix.
Whether favorite dishes from childhood, favorite regional recipes or iconic brands that trigger similar memories, consumers during the pandemic are seeking comfort from a wide range of iconic tastes, smells and sensory experiences. Notably, comfort foods don't necessarily have to just be from childhood; they can recollect other meaningful times and experiences that consumers harken back to.
Comfort foods are a way for consumers to see their traditions represented to themselves and then magnified out to a larger population and are a humble way of breaking down boundaries by sharing ideas and tastes from other cultures.