During the lockdowns in the early days of Covid-19, Ibraheem Basir spent weekend time in the kitchen with his children, whipping up biscuits, pancakes and cornbread stuffing. “I’ve always been a big believer in the power of food to connect with their culture and family,” Basir says. “This pandemic has just accelerated that.”
Everyone has a slightly different take on what constitutes comfort food, but it usually involves carbohydrates, a dash of nostalgia and what people crave when they feel stressed. There’s been plenty of stress in the last two years and likely more to come. Americans have flocked to comfort food in what advertisers used to say, over and over, “these uncertain times,” and it’s benefited some of the biggest companies in the $1 trillion U.S. food market—Mondelez (Oreos), JBS (meatloaf), Nestlé (Hot Pockets), Unilever (Ben & Jerry’s) and General Mills (Cheerios). The list goes on. At the same time, food startups offering innovation—the thrill of the new—have experienced some historic flameouts. At least 13 food companies went public in 2021, and almost all of them have tanked. When Basir professes such love for pancakes and biscuits, it shows the universality of people’s deep affection for comfort food. Basir founded a food startup, A Dozen Cousins—not part of the flameout—that’s trying to break Big Food’s lock on nostalgia with a line of multicultural beans, rices and sauces. It’s trying to become a big business by appealing to the need for people to feel better by eating. One thing we’ve learned from the Covid era, however, is how difficult it is for new brands, like Beyond Meat, many of them healthier versions of comfort items, to break through when the eating public is so focused on Velveeta.
“Food can be a source of well-being,” says Sanjiv Gajiwala, North American chief growth officer for Kraft Heinz, maker of the iconic cheese product. “Just like mindfulness, what you put in your body has an emotional resonance, as well as a physical resonance.” He notes that his company last summer launched Kraft Mac & Cheese ice cream. “The brand itself is one that connects with people in a clear, authentic and emotional way,” Gajiwala says. “It makes them think about the tastes and flavors of comfort that matter to them, regardless of the format.” Nearly 70% of the respondents in a September 2020 survey said they’re consuming more comfort food and envision themselves continuing to consume more. “Americans are eating like kids again,” Farm Rich, the sponsor of the survey, announced in its press release. NielsenIQ sales data bear out Americans’ professed devotion to kiddie treats like French fries, dumplings, pizza and Tater Tots. Sales of comfort food in the first two months of 2022 were higher than in the same period in 2019. Searches for “comfort food” on Google, with the implication of at least some recipe hunting, spiked in 2020 and generally have remained slightly higher than they were pre-pandemic. Mondelez, the maker of Oreo cookies, reports that last year, 80% of consumers said they were looking to improve their physical and emotional health by snacking.
Mondelez realizes that even the mood enhancements offered by its popular product can seem dreary after two years of heightened anxiety. That’s why the company doesn’t just call it an Oreo. It’s an Oreo Chocolate Cream, says Nick Graham, the company’s global head of insights and analytics. “It’s the familiar with a slight twist on it, which we’ve seen is a really powerful driver,” Graham says. “We saw this during Covid. The search for something that feels very familiar and comforting, something that you know and trust, but the little twist on it gives it the surprise and delight.” There’s been more surprise than delight in the recent performance of food startups that have gone public in the Covid era. Growth has been stunted by a combination of factors. Among them: packaging shortages and rising transportation costs that Big Food can absorb better; expensive battles over limited space on supermarket shelves; and investors that have grown progressively more unwilling to fund innovation.