Men at work

by Josh Sosland
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A new shift in the proportion of home meal preparation toward men and away from women is a reflection of one of the most basic extant trends driving the food business — convenience. That was the conclusion of Harry Balzer, vice-president of the NPD Group, Port Washington, N.Y.

Mr. Balzer discussed the gender shift and other demographic trends in an interview last week with Food Business News. While capturing the effects of changing demographics and other influencers of eating patterns is important for the food industry, Mr. Balzer warned it is important not to overstate the degree or rapidity of the resultant changes.

"All the changes are on the margins while the business is in the habits," he said. "In other words, 3% or 4% of eating habits will change in a year, perhaps, while the other 96% or 97% will be the same as a year ago."

In tapping into the shifts, food companies are trying to capture marginal changes but also are exploring whether the changes are at the leading edge of a trend that eventually will apply to everyone, he said.

While significant and rapid consumption shifts do occur, they are rare. For example, per capita consumption of fresh grapefruit has been in a veritable nosedive since the early 1990s. Peaking at 7.8 lbs per capita in 1982-83, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, consumption of grapefruits fell 1.6 lbs by 1992-93, which at 6.2 lbs was the high water mark of the 1990s. Since then the decline has accelerated. Consumption plunged to 4.84 lbs in 2000-01 and was estimated at 2.12 lbs in 2006-07.

In NPD research, Mr. Balzer has explored consumption trends differently.

"In this year’s report on Eating Patterns in America, we looked at whether today’s children are eating fish at the same rate as the previous generation," he said. "We have data for 30 years, and we discovered that yes, children are less likely to get fish."

Mr. Balzer said he has taken particular interest in what children eat during the early years of their lives.

"It’s amazing, that as you grow from being an infant to a first grader, you are going to experience just about all the food you will try in your life, with a few possible exceptions such as alcohol and coffee. Cereals, yogurt, carbonated beverages, meat, you will try just about everything because your mother will introduce you to those products. So the question is what are new mothers introducing today, and how does that compare with 20 years ago. The answer is that it hasn’t changed."

For example, Mr. Balzer said the top item served at breakfast 20 years ago is the same today — ready-to-eat cereal.

"The food choice is the same, though the top brands today are different from 20 years ago," he said.

In exploring the changes along the margin, young adults are a good source of market intelligence, Mr. Balzer said. The most salient changes in recent years revolve around where and how people eat.

"When you leave your parents’ house and start your own household, you will discover something startling," he said. "You have no one to cook for you anymore. So, you will go to restaurants, or you will adopt foods that you can prepare.

"We have seen changes today, as people have been forming households. Until 1999-2000 restaurant use grew steadily, year after year. But that growth has stopped. Now, the male is more likely to be involved in the preparation of food. There are more males involved in food preparation today than at any time in history. The most obvious place is grilling year around. The grill is still the male appliance of choice. The menu on the grill hasn’t changed. It’s still burgers, steak and chicken, just more often than ever before. The seasonings and marinades have changed perhaps."

While the emergence of men in food preparation may be new and noteworthy, a driving underlying cause for this shift is one that has been front and center in food trends for multiple generations, Mr. Balzer said.

"When it comes to cooking, women are saying, ‘How can I get out of it?’" Mr. Balzer said. "They are still the primary meal preparer, and they want to lessen their load. Taking a woman to a nice restaurant used to be part of the courting ritual. Now, if he shows her he can cook, a man has a better chance with a woman."

Other factors contribute to the emergence of men as meal preparers, including economics.

"When someone else prepares a meal for you, in other words when you go to restaurants, it’s three times the cost of preparing food at home," Mr. Balzer said.

Mr. Balzer described convenience as the fundamental purpose of the packaged foods business, a never ending search for easier purchasing, preparation and cleaning.

"It’s to make everything easier except for eating," he said.

Toward that end, restaurant business in off-site eating continues to grow significantly, Mr. Balzer said. He described as notable the fact more food prepared at restaurants now is eaten outside the restaurant than within it.

This trend extends beyond the carryout of burgers and pizza. For example, last week Maggiano’s Little Italy announced the launch of a home delivery program.

"Whether you are having a small, intimate dinner at home or you need help feeding 20 of your closest friends and family, Maggiano’s offers handmade, authentic dishes with the freshest ingredients to make every dining experience a delicious one," the company said. Maggiano’s, a restaurant concept owned by Brinker International, Inc., requires that orders be placed 24 hours in advance, charges a delivery fee and also has a minimum order requirement of $125.

Still, Mr. Balzer expressed the view that food retailers rather than restaurants will be the principal providers of more convenient eating in the years ahead.

"I think we will see more and more supermarkets providing packaged meals as opposed to just packaged goods, so that we won’t have to cook," Mr. Balzer said. "That takes you to Tesco."

He was referring to the Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market convenience stores opened in recent weeks by Tesco P.L.C. in the southwestern United States. Tesco is the largest food retailer in the United Kingdom.

Fresh & Easy describes itself as "a local, neighborhood store committed to providing customers with fresh, wholesome food at affordable prices."

A five-year, $2 billion investment by Tesco, Fresh & Easy will feature store brand products prominently. The company said its private label foods will have no artificial colors or flavors, no added trans fats, and only will use preservatives "where absolutely necessary."

"It’s worth the business trip to check it out," Mr. Balzer said. "Everyone in the food business should be watching this experiment closely."

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, December 11, 2007, starting on Page 30. Click here to search that archive.

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