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Covid-19 and The Meal Deal

By Huw Collinson

Coronavirus has hit everybody around the globe differently and stating that navigating its repercussions has been a level playing field is simply untrue. However, one unifying aspect for many has been the closure of offices and a shift into the home based work environment. With many obvious exceptions, lots of people are working more from home and less from their offices, meaning that certain day-to-day habits that accompany office life are also disappearing. The daily commute. Office gossip. And, of course, the office lunch. While it isn’t necessarily the most exciting eating experience in most people’s lives, I’ve found it interesting to explore how people’s lunches during the week have changed and how this has affected the food industry on a national scale.

As office spaces have emptied, the fully stocked food-to-go shelves have struggled to follow suit. Sandwiches which would normally have sold out by mid-afternoon are refusing to budge, and it’s not difficult to understand why. Where people once looked for convenience in the form of a quick sandwich, salad or microwavable plastic tray, we’re now seeing a surge in people being more adventurous in the kitchen - killing some of those extra hours they’re finding in their daily routines to make something different for lunch. Even as someone who works in the food-to-go industry and basically relies on people buying meal deals, I haven’t exactly been running out for a Sainsbury’s sandwich at lunchtime when I’ve got a full fridge at home.

There are some businesses in the big, scary world of food production who are probably counting their lucky stars because of this. Recipe box companies, for example, have seen a huge surge since lockdown, as people are eager for something to do as well as something to eat. Take Mindful Chef as an example: established back in 2015, the business had struggled to turn a profit, seeing a £1.6m loss on revenues of £16m in 2018 (2). Since Corona-virus, the company has experienced a massive 452% rise in customer numbers, with some customers spending £500 on single orders (2). It would be great to see this new-found interest in home cooking continue once lockdown begins to end.

On the other end of the spectrum, companies like Greencore and Bakkavor, two major suppliers of food to go in UK supermarkets, have been hit hard by the pandemic, with Greencore losing 44% of their value share since the start of 2020 (3). While these two companies have been able to support themselves off the growth in sales of their other convenience products, smaller companies that deal only with food to go products will no doubt suffer much bleaker fates.

"Ultra-processed lunches are out, natural home-cooked meals are in, and that can surely only be seen as a good thing."

The way that the virus has changed our daily eating habits has turned out to be a double-edged sword. It’s awful to see the food-to-go industry suffer. Some smaller, up-and-coming brands have poured their hearts and souls into their products over the last few years, only to have it snatched from them by this ever-present, invisible monster. On the other hand, it’s opened up the possibility of people eating more natural, healthy food which they’ve cooked themselves. Ultra-processed lunches are out, natural home-cooked meals are in, and that can surely only be seen as a good thing.

With the duration of this global crisis still very much unknown, it’s difficult to imagine how people’s lives will be changed once we return to ‘normality’, whatever that means. With this in mind, it will be interesting to see how some of the more mundane aspects of life that we once took for granted will have been changed forever. There’s no doubt that many people can’t WAIT to go out to restaurants again once this is all over, and probably won’t take dining out for granted for a very long time. While I’ve enjoyed being able to cook at home more, my local BYOB (shoutout Mirch Masala) is one of the things I’ve missed most on Friday nights in. Have I missed monotonous meal deal lunches in the same way? No. Will I return to them due to their convenience once I return to the office? We’ll see. One thing’s for sure: home cooking has risen due to coronavirus, and I hope it continues to do so once we’ve beaten it.

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