June 6, 2023


Than a Food Fitter

Cooking is out. Campbell’s soup is in again

3 min read

Almost two years later, people have given up on their dreams of being a celebrity chef.

Consumers across the country increasingly are opting for speedy meals and on-the-go bites as they commute back and forth from their offices, spend more time outside their homes and kids go back to schools, say top food brands like Campbell Soup (CPB), Conagra (CAG), General Mills (GIS), Kellogg (K), Amy’s Kitchen and others.

“We want all the yum without as much fuss,” said Emily Porter, who lives in Charleston, West Virginia, with her husband Bobby. “The abundance of free time we had in spring of 2020 is pretty much nonexistent now.”

The two are wedding photographers. Their business came to a standstill early in the pandemic, but they have been traveling around the country for weddings as of late. “We’re just exhausted from our workload that the process of cooking isn’t an escape,” she said.

They’ve gotten more efficient with their cooking. They are getting more pre-packaged ingredients and bought an Anyday — microwavable glass bowls with companion recipes — that allow them to cook fresh meals in the microwave.
Conagra's Healthy Choice brand has grown as customers seek out quick meals.

Food manufacturers are attempting to respond to this shift in behavior by offering more convenient, healthier meals and snack bars.

People are “fatigued from cooking at home and prepping for complicated meals,” Chris Foley, the president of meals and beverages at Campbell, said during a presentation to investors last week.

Campbell has noticed a shift in cooking habits based on surveys it conducts with consumers. While many people are still eating more at home than they were before the pandemic, Campbell says consumers are indicating that they want quicker lunches while they work from home or eat at the office. They also want easily prepared dinners after a long day. Campbell says consumers aim to make dinner in an average of under 18 minutes.

In response, Campbell is advertising its Chunky soup brand as a lunchtime meal — “Lunchtime Is Your Halftime” — and Prego sauces as a quick recipe option. It’s also creating more versions of Well Yes! microwavable soup bowls and Crunch Ins, a line of crackers and soup.

This shift is also showing up in sales growth for foods like snack bars, which declined 4.7% in 2020 but are back up about the same amount so far this year, according to data from IRI, which tracks sales data at big box retailers, supermarkets, wholesale clubs, drug stores and other retail outlets.

General Mills CEO Jeffrey Harmening said in September that the company has “seen an uptick” in categories such as snack and cereal bars as “consumers get to be more on the go.” General Mills makes bars such as Nature Valley, Fiber One and Larabar.

Beef jerky and frozen dinners

Refrigerated lunches dropped 1.4% in 2020, but have rebounded, increasing 11.6% this year. Refrigerated tea and coffees have also kept up their elevated sales in 2021.

The shift back to quick food options is also reflected in improving foot traffic and sales at convenience stores, a barometer of consumer mobility.

Convenience stores struggled through much of 2020 and early 2021 without the work crowd driving to pick up breakfast in the morning or lunch to eat back at their desks. But sales at convenience stores have bounced back in 2021.

How Costco, Sam's Club and BJ's won the pandemic

Conagra is seeing a shift in snack purchases, prepared meals to bring to the office, and dinners as consumers become more mobile, Bob Nolan, the senior vice president of demand science at the company, said in an interview.

Sales of Conagra brands, such as David seeds and mixes, Slim Jim meat sticks and beef jerky, and Angie’s Boomchickapop popcorn, have increased in 2021 as people snack in their car and on the train to work more frequently.

Healthy Choice frozen meal bowls have surged this year as consumers seek out convenient ways to prepare lunch. “It’s definitely benefited from the return to work,” Nolan said.

And for dinner, people “still want to feel like they’re cooking” when they come back from work, Nolan said, but without all the meal prep and extra visits to the store to pick up ingredients.

Conagra’s PF Chang’s frozen skillet meals and Birdseye Voila skillet and sheet pan meals have seen a jump in sales this year, which Conagra attributes to demand for quicker dinners.

“Nobody wants to come home and cut up ingredients and measure them out.”

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