The New American Cornucopia

Today, the hot topic of discussion in the food industry here in the U.S. is home meal replacement, or HMR. This is a term used to refer to the practice of consumers buying already prepared food to replace food they once prepared themselves, at home.

This is “hot stuff,” because the industry is booming. To my grandparent’s generation, eating out was an extravagant luxury, and cooking all the meals, every day, was the norm. My mother typically ate out on weekends and, every once in a while, would bring prepared food, often Chinese or Pizza, into the home when she was in a rush or didn’t feel like cooking. Still, however, she cooked most of the meals, most of the time.

Today, however, American society has changed. It is not uncommon for me, a single man in his thirties, to go weeks without cooking a single meal Even married couples, especially in the common situation where both partners are working, are inclined to eat in restaurants more and more. Still, eating out has its drawbacks. It takes time and postpones getting home. If one is tired, or anxious to see a spouse or child waiting at home, picking up a meal already prepared at a restaurant or supermarket to eat at home is very appealing.

In fact, there is something of a war going on now between restaurants – especially quick serve and takeout restaurants – and supermarkets and other retail outlets for which shall win the lion’s share of the Home Meal Replacement market.

This war is leading to new restaurant concepts, expanded supermarket deli sections and a hybridization of concepts in which fast food brand names, such as Pizza Hut, KFC, Subway and more are showing up in the middle of supermarkets, gas stations, and convenience stores.

It is also leading to an explosion in prepared food products and equipment from manufacturers. These producers are trying to make it easier for both their retail and foodservice customers to capture the HMR market. The products range from the mechanical – new machines perfect for cooking rotisserie chicken – to the edible – “roll-ups” in which a bread product is layered with meat, cheese or other food, then “rolled up” to make an already prepared, easy to handle food.

Convenience food is important today because more and more Americans are eating outside of the home and, in many cases, while doing something else, such as working – eating at the office – or driving – eating in the car.

All these trends are coming together: greater affluence means that people can afford to pay food manufacturers and retailers to do the prep work they used to do themselves. More women working outside of the home means there is a demand for convenience. Better technology means food manufacturers can produce prepared foods that will still be fresh and flavorful even though they are prepared in advance.

So, today, in the United States of America, consumers who grew up on salads painstakingly prepared by Mom cutting and chopping are now buying bags of prepared salad packaged in the most advanced gas-permeable films. In some cases, they are buying salad kits equipped with salad dressing, croutons, protein and even a fork!

The centerpiece of the supermarkets’ reaction to the Home Meal Replacement phenomenon is the deli section. This section, which at one time meant sliced luncheon meats, such as ham, salami and turkey breast along with sliced cheese, has simply blossomed. Today supermarket delis include in-store sandwich shops, pizza programs, fried and rotisserie chicken programs, full sit-down restaurants, massive catering operations, even sushi bars!

This exciting department is adding life and business to America’s supermarkets. New products and new procedures are being tested. All of these exciting things happen when the food industry in the U.S. adapts to changing patterns of consumer consumption.

All this is, of course, very important to buyers of food and agricultural products from the U.S. First, as the spread of American fast food chains has shown, many patterns that first manifest themselves in the U.S., the HMR phenomenon can be expected to spread. Maybe HMR is coming to a country near you! Second, it means that manufacturers of all types will be rolling out innovative products.

From new cases and fixtures to new prepared foods, the quest for quality and convenience will create a new American cornucopia – one harvested only indirectly from the fruited plains of American agriculture. This cornucopia is, instead, primarily the fruit of America’s scientists, food technologists and packaging designers who, in coordination with sociologists and consumer researchers, are creating a new food industry bestriding this continent from, as we say in America, sea to shining sea.

You can count on American Food and Ag Exporter magazine to keep you informed of the people and products available for export that are part of this transformation of the American food industry. There is more though. Ken Whitacre, this magazine’s Publisher, and this author have long published Produce Business, the leading U.S. magazine for the fruit and vegetable industry in addition to American Food and Ag Exporter magazine.

Now, commencing in June 1996, we’ve collaborated with experts in the deli industry and will be launching a new magazine, Deli Business, the first national magazine to focus on the dynamic deli operations of America’s retail stores. If you would like a sample of either Produce Business or Deli Business, don’t hesitate to write, fax, or e-mail me.