The New Normal of Dining in the Era of Pandemic Control
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The New Normal of Dining in the Era of Pandemic Control

WENG,JIE-HUA

The COVID-19 crisis has changed the pace of life around the world for more than a year. Taiwan, with the head start precaution measures taken, once seemed exempted from the impact of the pandemic. Most economic and social activities proceeded as usual, like in a parallel time and space from the rest of the world. Unfortunately, the cunning variant virus still managed to lurk into the communities earlier this year. The whole country was caught off guard and entered level-three alert overnight. Many companies and enterprises adopted the "work from home" (WFH) solution, starting a new way of life for many people. WFH is not any new idea as it has been enforced in many foreign countries. The strong sense of alert of the people in Taiwan that led to a voluntary lockdown, however, is a clear suggestion of their self-discipline.

Dining culture in the era of pandemic

Dining is an essential part of human livelihood. It is a part of human life, closely related with people, and is also one of the most common activities.

The impact of COVID-19 has indeed changed the dining habits and behavior. The anti-epidemic social bans imposed in Taiwan since May 2021 has limited food & beverage services to take-out and catering. The rise of the catering service has changed the dining behavior and accelerated the pace of digital transformation of the catering industry. Technology applications, e-commerce, logistics and digital concatenation are all used to overturn the traditional operating model of the food & beverage industries. Department stores, supermarkets, and convenience stores also take advantage of their convenient delivery and e-commerce systems to launch innovative catering services of frozen food packages in cooperation with established food brands. People in Taiwan have to change their favorite habit of lunch or dinner gatherings. This suggests the changes on the dining culture and on the relationship between people and food.

Self-cooking for Health Management, Delicious and Healthy Meals at Hand

Faced with the pandemic, consumers are more concerned about food safety. A Kantar Worldpanel survey (Note 1) indicates that nearly 50% of people choose to "increase the frequency of self-cooking" in the post-pandemic era. Up to 85% of households would do home cooking at least one week. The “stay home business opportunities” are not to be ignored. Many key opinion leaders (KOLs) are sharing their self-cooking experience of simple dishes with easy-to-manage ingredients, such as quick noodles, instant noodles, seasonings, and frozen food packs. These are widely welcomed by consumers and enable people at home to practice their cooking skills, which even develops into a learning trend during the pandemic.

Self-cooking Business Opportunities - Transformation of the Food & Beverage Industries

In the post-epidemic era, "The New Normal", a commonly used term in the economic and business fields has become a hot key word. This means that, as the pandemic slows down, industries and daily life may to return to a smooth style, but the profile and essence will change, to be totally different from those before the pandemic. The new normal dining patterns are a reality faced by the food & beverage industry and the consumers. Before the pandemic situation clears up, the behavior of "stay-at-home" consumers has also changed a lot, compared with the past. The business opportunities of otaku economy and self-cooking have bucked the trend that dining out turns to eat at home. The food & beverage businesses have been exercising their own strategies. They are now faced with the challenge so they have to test all the innovative and flexible operation models to survive the competition and be spared from collapse.

Faced with the predicament, the food & beverage industries, in addition to adopting the take-out and catering models, have to learn more from others’ experience of transformation so as to meet the business opportunities in the trend of self-cooking. “Food & beverage retail” has become a major trend of the industries. Here are a few examples to illustrate their strategies of survival:

1. Develop frozen/instant cooking packs - E-commerce retail becomes a new battlefield

The restrictions on dining-out and entertainment have boosted the utilization rate of online shopping and the output of e-commerce platforms. The food & beverage industries have also expanded their e-commerce scale and developed the "second growth curve" with their own retail products like frozen food/instant cooking packs, seasoning sauce, fresh food ingredients, etc. This helps the digital transformation of the food & beverage industries to expand the marketing channels with self-developed e-commerce platforms or by cooperating with existing e-commerce platforms.

Case 1: FeasTogether Group Co., Ltd. enhances its e-commerce platform "EAT@HOME"

The buffet restaurant chain FeasTogether Group enhances its e-commerce platform "EAT@HOME", providing a variety of frozen ready-to-eat foods and promoting research and development of diverse products with its many subsidiary brands—Inparadise, Sunrise, EatTogether, and FruitfulFood. This helps consumers to easily enjoy a good dining experience at home.

(Illustration: FeastTogether Group's own brand "EAT@HOME" (hoyastore.com).

Picture courtesy of EAT@home official website)

Cooperation between Regional Businesses - Reproducing the Disappeared Life Experience of Customers

The strict anti-pandemic bans have highlighted the ties between customers and local small businesses. Faced with the ban on in-person contact, how do store operators maintain consumer patronage and business opportunities? Consumers’ brand loyalty can be promoted and enhanced by consumer experience (Jaakkola et al, 2015). With the well-developed logistic systems, products of regional merchants are assembled together for presentation to customers, a practice narrowing the gap between the brand and the customers and also conveying care.

Case 2: Enjoy Tainan cuisines at home! “Tainan Cuisine Pack" from the ancient capital city

KKday, an e-commerce platform of tourism, has joined forces with local food and beverage enterprises to launch a particular “Tainan Cuisine Pack", a limited version of food products from Tainan. A selection of star delicacies from Tainan, both entrees and desserts, are all packed up for enjoyment at home. The pack is delivered in frozen packages for the customer to enjoy the flavor of the ancient capital city in the comfort of the dining table at home.

(Illustration: Tainan Cuisine Pack, Picture courtesy of Foodie Amber Official Website)

New Media Used in an Integrated Virtual and In-person Shopping Experience

Taiwan’s traditional food & beverage industries value the warmth of human touch. In the trend of digitization, it is recommended to utilize the digital tools most suitable for their own brands to build a food & beverage ecosystem with new media so as to grasp opportunities of no-contact business. For instance, popular online streaming platforms are good marketing channels for food & beverage operators so that operators and consumers have a safe trading environment.

Case 3: The food & beverage industries collaborate with online streaming platforms to launch digital reform

"Truly Taiwanese Cuisine", a restaurant awarded the Outstanding Taiwanese Cuisines award by the Department of Commerce of the Ministry of Economic Affairs, has actively developed business on a live streaming platform. The chef explains the features of his cuisines in front of the camera, and KOLs write recommendations for marketing and shopping guides. This practice attracts diners to put orders online and wait for the delivery at home.

(Illustration: Online live streaming. Picture courtesy of Yahoo auction official website)

Covid-19 has immensely subverted consumers’ lifestyles and consumption patterns. To survive in the digital wave that comes along with the pandemic, business operators must act in line with the consumer behavior, understand the different diet and health needs of different consumer groups, and be familiar with the distribution of product resources in the marketing channels. In the post-pandemic era, the food & beverage industries need to apply diverse digital tools or seek cross-industrial cooperation, and by examining the needs of consumers and exercising their own product advantages, to come up with narratives that impresses and touches the consumers and to stand out in the ever-changing market.

Note 1: Kantar Worldpanel: Kantar Worldpanel was established in 1997 as the first marketing consultancy in Asia that specializes in consumer index research. Kantar uses consumer index research to track consumers' buying behavior chronologically, so as to thoroughly understand and gain insights into market dynamics, competition and opportunities brought about by changes in consumer shopping behavior. In Taiwan, Kantar provides services in more than one hundred categories, including daily necessities, food, health food, beverages, baby daily necessities and food.