The pandemic has hammered food to go. According to the new Lumina Intelligence UK Food To Go Market Report 2021, out this week, food-to-go sales plummeted 45.5% last year, reducing market value from £21.3bn to £11.6bn.

And it’s by no means out of the woods. Even with lockdown restrictions easing next week, and the vaccination rollout progressing at pace, the market is expected to recover to only 72% of its 2019 value by the end of the year, the report finds.

But the report also highlights growth opportunities for businesses that can adapt to a post-pandemic landscape and cater for new consumer habits.

Like working from home: 34% of consumers plan to do so for the next 12 months at least, according to the report, suggesting lasting challenges for food-to-go operators. But 38% are dissatisfied with their lunch efforts. As a result, almost one in three have embraced ‘food to go home’.

Heat at home

Among the 30% of consumers who have purchased food to go and eaten it in their home since the start of 2020, the report highlights ‘heat at home’ ranges as an opportunity. “This occasion will continue to be important as hybrid work patterns become the norm.”

Big operators have already seized the opportunity. Costa recently innovated with heat-at-home toasties, and last summer Pret launched a range of heat-at-home soups.

By simply adding heat-at-home instructions to some products, businesses can “cover both bases” of workers at or away from home.

“Not only does this help to bridge the gap in demand for food-to-go created by reduced commuting and travel; such products also have the advantage that they can be purchased for consumption later, thereby extending the day-part coverage of food to go,” adds Lumina Intelligence head of insight Blonnie Whist, citing the M&S launch last year of a heat-at-home full English breakfast and veggie option as an example.

Flexible working, another related trend, also looks here to stay. With people returning to offices in cities but less often, more consumers will see ‘office days’ as an excuse for a treat, creating an opportunity for premium food-to-go propositions that can meet that pent-up demand.

According to the report, 12.6% of consumers said having a treat was a primary reason for buying food to go in 2020, compared with 11.8% in 2019. Costa is targeting the trend with the launch this spring of premium Ruby Frostino and Ruby Hot Chocolate.

Away from city centres, travel restrictions have driven consumers to discover and appreciate local businesses. Some 42% say they will continue to shop locally in the future, and 78% say it’s important to support local businesses. That means continued opportunity not only for grocery-related custom but foodservice too in the right locations and with the right offers.

The report suggests collaborating with local producers and championing the local provenance of ingredients on packaging or signage.

Picnic solutions

The restrictions have meant more people have eaten outdoors more often. Almost three in 10 consumers have had a meal or drink outside in a public space since the start of last year. Even with the reopening of restaurants, many consumers are forecast to continue to embrace al fresco dining, meaning a market for picnic hampers and pop-up stalls alike.

The report points to Pizza Pilgrims innovating with a pizza slice truck in London, Megan’s Restaurants offering picnic baskets to go, and Morrisons recently launching boxed picnic platters for outdoor gatherings.

“As restrictions ease there will be a huge amount of pent-up demand to travel, visit new places, and meet with friends and colleagues,” Sarah Whiddett, former head of insight at Bidfood UK, says in the report.

“This, combined with hopefully warmer weather, offers a wealth of opportunity for food-to-go outlets to revitalise their offer and capture the appetites and interest of consumers.”

As the world emerges from the pandemic, it seems clear the food-to-go market will never be quite the same again. But, as always, change means opportunity for those that adapt.