Cold-side innovation: Pandemic speeds up growth in grab and go

Already popular before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, grab-and-go foodservice is now booming, reports Jim Banks

For more than a century, diners in a hurry have been turning to grab-and- go (GNG) food to satisfy their hunger.

The first automats – coin-operated glass lockers containing preprepared food – hit the streets of Philadelphia back in 1902 and soon spread to New York City and across the US. Since this first foray into self-service food, customers’ tastes have diversified and the technology has evolved.

In the last two years, the demand for GNG food has spiked, as Covid-19 has raised concerns about health and safety, and brought in restrictions limiting dine-in options. As a result, cold food lockers and self-service chilled cabinets are appearing everywhere.

“Before Covid, GNG was usually seen in stations, airports and convenience stores, but now you have it in restaurants,” says Marco Amatti FCSI, CEO of consultancy MAPA Assessoria in São Paulo, Brazil. “Everybody wanted more convenience in restaurants so customers could go to the usual places, but get food quickly.

“The cold side in Brazil and the US was thought of as being for healthy food – salads, sandwiches with vegetables and other healthy ingredients – that can have more shelf life,” he adds. “The cold chain we have now means that GNG is easier to manage. A cabinet can easily be put in the corner of a restaurant.”

In the UK, the GNG market saw a 45.5% decline in 2020, as the pandemic restricted travel and movement, but the Lumina Intelligence UK Food To Go Market Report 2021 estimates the market will grow to £22.6bn ($27.9bn) in 2024.

The report also suggests that, as social restrictions ease, GNG will capitalize on the outdoor dining scene. In its survey, 21% of consumers said they were likely to purchase GNG in the future. Among people planning to work more from home, this figure rises to 34%. Similar trends are unfolding around the world.

“We’ve seen quite an uptick in the grab-and-go requirements for projects since the pandemic, especially early on, to minimize the contact with people,” says Brett Daniel FCSI, BIM manager and project manager of US consultancy Camacho Associates. “Lately that has not been such a high priority, but it is still higher than pre-pandemic designs due to the labor shortage situation.”

Fewer people, bigger margins

Although the foodservice sector is seeing restrictions easing and diners returning to restaurants, cafés and bars, it faces a major problem – a shortage of labor. This has led to growing investment in automated solutions in the kitchen, but GNG represents a simple way to offer more without recruiting more staff.

“Here in Brazil, it is not easy to train and keep a team of waiters or chefs to cook specialized foods,” says Amatti. “People are going to restaurants and bars more as they reopen, but we don’t have enough servers and waiters, so GNG is very good for addressing the shortage of employees.

“GNG is fixing the lack of people in foodservice,” he adds. “It is not just about technology or convenience, it is also about needing fewer people to serve or clean tables. It is helping operators to become more profitable.”

This opportunity to boost revenue without hiring additional staff is a key factor in the minds of both equipment manufacturers and operators.

“Integration of the various payment processing systems is allowing operators to gain additional revenue without having to add additional labor or training,” says Daniel. “And cold food lockers are great for remote-ordering applications where someone goes online or through their phone and orders groceries and has someone at the store shop for them, so goods can be delivered or picked up.

“The technology around the smaller grab-and-go systems has evolved, not only with ambient and refrigerated items becoming more energy efficient, but with the inclusion of heated items, too,” he adds. “Manufacturers are also adapting to the labor shortages and including options to pay at the machine to keep the revenue stream without the need for the labor. Including options for GNG units, much like vending machines, to include various methods to pay at the machine also keeps them operational ‘after hours’.”

Equipment manufacturers have been quick to spot these opportunities, and to recognize how GNG will impact the entire value chain in the ordering, preparation and sale of food.

“The pandemic had a huge impact in advancing the GNG sector,” says Jason Hartman, director of marketing at cold storage equipment manufacturer American Panel. “With people staying home more but still wanting pre-made meal convenience, GNG was the ideal solution. And it was imperative for several sectors to explore grab-and-go solutions, such as grocery, local restaurants, convenience stores and even schools.

“I don’t think there was a foodservice industry sector that did not explore it one way or another, and the sectors that embraced it tended to sustain better throughout the pandemic and beyond.”

The popularity of GNG has prompted equipment manufacturers to innovate, hence the appearance of touchless kiosks, advanced holding stations and, at the production end, blast chillers.

“Blast chillers rapidly chill food in a safe way that retains all of the quality of freshly made food,” says Hartman. “So businesses can batch-produce many GNG items at once for the week and customers get a quality, safe product without the labor involved with on-demand production. Blast chilling and shock freezing has also allowed the expansion of the GNG sector to include ready meals and meal kits from grocery stores, including meals from their favorite restaurants that grocery stores partner with.

“Blast chillers have come out of the high-end restaurants and have found themselves in a wide variety of mainstream foodservice operations,” he adds. “This is primarily because of the need for safe, quality food products that were being sent to homes and picked up as GNG items during the pandemic. People were exploring home cooking, making GNG or meal kits popular. The best way to ensure a safe, quality product was to employ a blast chill or shock freeze element into the production of these items.”

A feat of opportunity

While familiar GNG hotspots like convenience stores, train stations and airports are taking advantage of the latest technologies, perhaps the most striking development in the market is the spread of chilled cabinets to restaurants and bars.

Carluccio’s, for example, has introduced Caffè Carluccio’s in recognition of the boom in GNG. It is a new fast-casual concept for the brand, serving fresh sandwiches and snacks. For many operators, GNG is an important part of efforts to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Nothing is better than fresh food, so everything that we do is trying to deliver food like it is fresh, and GNG is good for that,” says Amatti. “New technologies mean you can have more diverse and attractive packaging, so you can also make the food more appealing to customers. It is a new way to stay in business nowadays. Everything is about convenience for people in a hurry now.”

Jim Banks

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