Pandemic-Exhausted Consumers Turn Back to Instant Everything

Eileen Rinaldi was visiting Brazil a decade ago to buy coffee beans when a traveling companion opened a pack of Via, Starbucks Corp.’s instant coffee, for a quick morning fix. Despite her own desperation for a cup, the founder of San Francisco’s third-wave shopRitual Coffee Roasters couldn’t bring herself to drink what she calls “that swill.”

But that moment—on the road and craving caffeine—nudged Rinaldi to consider how she might produce an instant coffee that could rival the brews she’d gone to South America to experience.

She joined forces withSudden Coffee, a startup acclaimed for its proprietary method of freeze-drying, which helps preserve flavor in instant form. In 2019, after four years of research and development, they released co-branded packets using beans sourced from notable regions. Pleased with the results, Rinaldi introduced Ritual’s first single-origin instant coffee in September. It’s made from Ethiopian beans with a celebrated floral flavor.

Rinaldi’s foresight—that consumers would pay for a quick cup of joe that still tastes like something special—has paid off. During the coronavirus pandemic her instant coffee sales almost tripled last year’s, an indication that consumers are brewing more coffee themselves with a keen eye for a premium product that’s quick and easy to make.

Ritual is one of the many food and beverage brands taking note of changing consumer behavior during the pandemic. Others includeSteep’t Cocktail Co., which promises an Old-Fashioned that takes only two minutes to prepare, and Balmuda, which makes a smart oven that uses steam technology to quickly heat frozen foods.

The corporate giants are taking notice, too. In October,Nestlé SA acquired Freshly Inc., a subscription-based outfit delivering prepacked healthy meals that heat up in three minutes or less.The $950 million bet assumes—despite trending Google searches last spring for time-consuming recipes for sourdough bread and yogurt—that Americans still want everything, like, now.

As economics and safety concerns force cafes and restaurants to close, consumers have become both barista and chef. The difference today, as opposed to the era of the microwavable TV dinner, is that companies are finally prioritizing the quality of the ingredients.

“I have seen more focus on better-for-you products” that are “convenient at the same time,” says Kenshiro Uki, president of Honolulu-based Sun Noodle North America, a specialty noodle manufacturer that supplies David Chang’s Momofuku outlets, Masaharu Morimoto’s namesake modern Japanese empire, and other top restaurants.

Uki has offered packaged ramens for 18 years, but it was only after seeing sales spike early in the pandemic—at grocery stores and online—that it occurred to him to introduce an even more special specialty product. In August he teamed up with six of the New York area’s most respected ramen chefs to start sellingfrozen versions of their signature bowls.

New technology is driving some of this interest. Smart kitchen gadgets don’t always work out (remember the Juicero?), but some companies are capitalizing on the moment. Sales of theJune oven—which comes with advanced settings to dehydrate, air fry, and slow cook—have been so robust, it’s been sold out for months. An updated iteration going on sale in late December can grill, proof, and prepare pizza.

Chicago-basedTovala also makes asmart oven that connects to Wi-Fi and can steam, bake, and broil all in one cook cycle. The brand also has its own refrigerated line of prepared foods, including lavender-glazed salmon and beet quinoa, that are easy to pop in the machine and forget about until it’s time to eat. Founder David Rabie says the company added more customers in November than during its entire first two years on the market. Balmuda says its $329 Japanese toaster and steam oven, introduced in April, has also exceeded sales expectations.

“ ‘Instant’ doesn’t mean low-quality,” says Christoph Bertsch, who introduced hismini, pod-based electric blender, Vejo, a year ago. The Santa Monica, Calif.-based company offers strawberry-lime-flavored Collagen Glow smoothies and a green juice from freeze-dried, powdered fruits and vegetables that can be prepared in less than a minute.

Matcha expert Eijiro Tsukada sees I-want-it-now potential in the trendy green tea, too. “I’m very excited about how technology and innovation can lower barriers so more people can experience higher-quality foods,” he says. He unveiled the world’s firstinstant matcha maker, Cuzen Matcha, in October.

Steep’t co-founder Alison Nathanson says that even before the pandemic, the booze industry’s ready-to-drink category was exploding. She and friend Chloe Aucoin met at Harvard Business School and, frustrated with how difficult they felt it was to make cocktails at home, had a soft opening for their infused libation line in May. The process to make one of their drinks is fairly idiot-proof: Steep a teabag that’s been filled with dehydrated and powdered fruits and herbs in cold water for two minutes, then add a spirit and ice.

“Our lives are busier than ever, even in quarantine,” says Ilana Kruger, founder of Stumptown Coffee’s Dripkit, another fresh take on quick coffee, in Portland, Ore. The specialty brand introduced instant pour-over kits a year ago and has since seen “exponential” growth in the at-home brewing market, according to company spokesperson Samantha Chulick.

There are compromises, of course. “Am I going to tell you that it’s as delicious as a cup of coffee from one of my cafes?” Rinaldi asks, laughing. “No, I’m not.”

But Ritual’s instant coffee isn’t looking to compete with a perfectly timed pour-over or a precisely pulled espresso from a shiny La Marzocco machine. It’s offering a better-tasting solution for occasions when a proper cup of coffee is unattainable or time is limited. Even when cafes and offices open again after the pandemic, Rinaldi says, we’ll no longer need to choose “between convenience and quality.”

 

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