Early in my career I gathered some data for a client on cooking. This research found that consumers fell into one of three groups: (1) people who love to cook, and cook often, (2) people who hate to cook, and avoid that activity by heating up convenience food or outsourcing their meals (by ordering out or dining in restaurants), and, finally, (3) people who like to cook sometimes, and do a mix of cooking and outsourcing, depending on the situation. At the time, the sizes of the three respective groups were about 15% who love to cook, 50% who hate to cook, and 35% who are so-so on the idea.Author Eddie Yoon sees home cooking going the way of homespun.
Nearly 15 years later I did a similar study for a different client. This time, the numbers had shifted: Only 10% of consumers now love to cook, while 45% hate it and 45% are lukewarm about it. That means that the percentage of Americans who really love to cook has dropped by about one-third in a fairly short period of time.
I’ve come to think of cooking as being similar to sewing. As recently as the early 20th century, many people sewed their own clothing. Today the vast majority of Americans buy clothing made by someone else; the tiny minority who still buy fabric and raw materials do it mainly as a hobby. If that’s the kind of shift coming to the food industry, change leaders and corporate strategists will have their hands full.The comparison is incomplete, as it's easier to outsource the manufacture of clothing in standard sizes to the developing country with the most nimble textile workers than it is to outsource the production of food. And yet, we're apparently sufficiently prosperous that a lot of the old staples (I saw something on social media recently cringing about a peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwich on white bread complete with those American High staples: Jif, Miracle Whip, Wonder Bread) are boring and those Depression Baby parents and grandparents who said "That's lunch. Eat it." have mostly passed from the scene.
The risk to traditional grocers and Big Food is not just market share declines but category obsolescence. To prevent that, the industry needs to stop putting Band-Aids on a major bleed-out, and instead make a decision to amputate through ruthless portfolio strategy. Food manufacturers need to identify categories that are long-term losers, and exit by selling them while they can. Find and exit the categories whose fun-to-chore ratio is weakening, and where a food service proxy has gotten much better at a greater value. Even categories that can hardly be considered “cooking” — such as cold, ready-to-eat cereal — are losing sales.
The author also suggests there are at least a few consumers who, coming to grips with their lack of competence compared with the stars on the Food Channel and elsewhere, would rather outsource than attempt to lift their game.
Me? I'm inframarginal. Almost time to get the charcoal started and soak the corn on the cob before grilling it (corn fresh from the field, still in the husk, just soak it for half an hour and put it on the grill, turning it every five minutes) along with the pork chop. If it comes out a little overdone, well, that's on me. But don't come by looking for a peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwich, sorry!