Researcher outlines seismic shift in restaurant industry

Shoppers at the Publix in the Queensborough Shopping Center in Mt. Pleasant. (Grace Beahm/postandcourier.com)

Currently, prime acreage at most supermarkets is devoted to food that comes in bags, boxes and cans. But Americans’ growing interest in freshly-made meals is forcing grocery chains to reimagine their store layouts to showcase fruits, vegetables, meats and cheeses.

“There are major changes going on in the food industry,” Susan Schwallie of NPD Group, a market research company, this weekend told a group of pork aficionados gathered in Ann Arbor, Mich. for Zingerman’s Camp Bacon. (Look for further coverage of the event in an upcoming issue of The Post and Courier food section.) “It’s seismic.”

As evidence of the current “food apocalypse,” Schwallie cited renewed interest in organic food; prevailing concerns about preservatives; the fall-off in processed food sales and the rise of “better-for-you snacks” such as yogurt and nuts, which are poised to overtake candy and cookies by 2018.

According to Schwallie, the revolution is largely being led by millennials, the cohort of Americans born between 1980 and the mid-2000s. NPD’s research shows millennials reliably prefer Chipotle and Panera Bread to Burger King and McDonalds, although they’re increasingly apt to eat at home. Restaurant visits are down almost 10 percent from 2000, when Americans ate out 213 times a year.

And when millennials make their own meals, they “want to be involved in the kitchen,” rather than resort to culinary shortcuts. Older Americans are similarly interested in using their ovens and stoves, but members of Generation X remain devoted to ready-to-eat cereal and microwaves, which became widely available during Gen X’ers childhood years.

“We were going to put our turkey in there; it was going to do it all,” Schwallie says. “Generation X is still hanging on to that. Not the millennials.”

Millennials have helped push the average dinner preparation time up to 38 minutes.

As for what’s ending up on the table, Schwallie says “chicken has been growing like crazy.” Organic produce is also experiencing a growth spurt after falling off during the recession, as more consumers say they’re trying to avoid food treated with pesticides (although NPD research shows that mothers’ preference for organic diminishes by the time their children reach grade school.)

Americans are furthermore wary of sugar, which is now shunned more frequently than fat.

“Fat used to be the number one concern,” Schwallie said with amazement, before assuring the pork-fixated crowd that 40 percent of Americans eat at least one serving of bacon every two weeks.