Fiction writer Sherrie Flick had an inkling there might be shortages of her favorite cooking and baking supplies when Pittsburgh shut down during the start of COVID-19. For the first time, she signed up for Harvie Farms Pittsburgh’s community-supported agriculture program — despite being a prolific home gardener.
“They tend to have things sooner than my home garden,” the South Side resident explained, and as a vegetarian, she couldn’t do without those staples.
She also anticipated a run on canning jars and turned a laundry and tool room into a makeshift pantry in which to store all the nuts, flour, rice and other grains she’d bought in quantity to ride out the pandemic.
But the biggest change, Flick said, was buying a gas grill. She and her husband, Rick, are adamant charcoal grillers. Yet with infections still on the rise, “It was so clear to me that we’re not leaving this house until 2021,” she said. An outdoor kitchen would ease that pain.
Call it COVID-coping, or doing what needs to be done when you’re suddenly tasked with preparing every meal at home for months on end.
Home cooking is on the rise nationwide, whether people are naturals in the kitchen or not. As a result, grocery purchases have soared, both in stores and online. Food retail jumped by more than 25% in March compared to February, according to the 2020 U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends report. In April, it remained more than 10% higher than pre-pandemic levels.
Before coronavirus, about 54% of all food dollars were spent away from the home, said Heather Garlich, senior vice president of communications for Food Industry Association. During the pandemic — with restaurants shuttered and people afraid to eat out — it’s been effectively split between groceries and food service.
Certain purchases have eased since the initial stock up, as home cooks plow through the many cans of soup, beans and boxes of pasta they panic-bought.
Meat has given way to more seafood with the rise of summer grilling, for instance, and people also are buying more fresh fruits and vegetables, both because they’re in season and many are coming out of the pandemic committed to a healthier lifestyle, said Joan Driggs, vice president of content and thought leadership at IRI, a market research firm in Chicago.
Still, sales of frozen foods are 18% higher than a year ago, and frozen snacks like pizza are up 17%. What’s not selling as well are the single-serve items you’d pop into a kid’s school lunch, said Ms. Driggs. She predicts the bulk of food dollars will remain in the home, even as people become more fatigued with cooking and look for other solutions.
Curbside shopping and home delivery have done especially well. At the peak of the pandemic, O’Hara-based grocer Giant Eagle filled 4 times the usual amount of online orders, and it’s still at two times pre-COVID levels, according to spokesperson Jannah Jablonowski.
Demand for kitchen supplies
Barb McGurgan of West View is definitely cooking more, spurred on by Soergel’s Essentials, a box of produce and other items that customers can preorder and pick up. With her daughter unexpectedly home from studying abroad, she’s also buying more already-prepped meals from meal kit delivery services Home Chef and EveryPlate.
Not everyone sees cooking as a chore; when the pandemic first hit, newlyweds Emily and Evan Vogini of Mount Washington decided to have fun with their extended time in the kitchen.
“We did complicated dishes like ravioli for date night instead of going to happy hours,” said Ms. Vogini, a lawyer for South Side-based teen clothing retailer American Eagle Outfitters. They also made frozen cocktails in their blenders instead of smoothies.
Not surprisingly, kitchen supply sales have gone up, and not just for basics like measuring cups and cookie sheets. Customers at national chains like Sur La Table are looking for everything from classic cast-iron Dutch ovens to non-stick skillets, while locally, In the Kitchen in the Strip District has seen a surge in knife sales and high-performance cookware from upscale companies like Zwillings.
“People are realizing what they have isn’t that great, and are ready to invest,” said store manager Jodi West, with customers willing to spend $300 on a top-of-the-line Miyabi blade.
Owner KC Lapiana, who also heads up HTI Group, a national buying group for independent gourmet stores, agreed consumers are spending more, even as they’re spending less time in the store. “They want the best of the best to make life easier.”
Ken Zeff, owner of Penn Fixture restaurant supply company in the Strip, has seen an upswing in sales to amateur cooks. While his main customer base is still commercial, “People are just going up and down the aisle, filling their baskets” with sheet pans and other “tchotchkes of the trade” they wouldn’t buy if not quarantined at home.
Time to experiment
As for the cooking itself, comfort food still is on the menu.
Food bloggers like Michelle Lettrich of Pine, who runs the popular site Brown Eyed Baker, saw an immediate call for quick and easy dishes like enchiladas and cheeseburgers and recipes made with pantry items. Suddenly blessed (or cursed) with time, home cooks also called out for project foods like bread and other baked goods, causing a shortage of flour, yeast and sugar.
Normally, Lettrich’s site enjoys around 1 million visitors a month. Since COVID-19, it’s surged to 1.4 million, higher even than during November and December when people are baking for the holidays.
Her recipe for white sandwich loaves is a particular favorite, viewed over 1.5 million times since mid-March.
“People saw quarantine as an opportunity to slow down and try new things,” she said.
Pittsburgh native Casey Barber, who develops and tests recipes for Today Food online and TheKitchn, has seen a similar uptick in searches on her blog Good.Food.Stories for “service recipes” featuring pantry meals and project cooking. “Homemade snacks are still trending really high,” she said.
On a broader scale, recipe searches are up 227% over last year for two of Hearst Magazine’s two most-trusted brands, Good Housekeeping and Women’s Day, said chief food director Kate Merker.
At first, it was back to the basics, with people searching how to cook perfect hard-boiled eggs, defrost meat and asking how long items could be kept on the pantry shelf or in the refrigerator or freezer.
“How to cook dried beans was pretty significant,” said Merker.
At Delish.com, traffic was up almost 90% this May over last year, said food director Lauren Miyashiro. The most popular gallery has been cheap and easy dinner ideas, now that many are shopping on a budget. The site’s lasagna recipe has enjoyed almost 1.7 million page views, up 320% from last year.
Watching the video
Cooks also showed a growing appetite for cooking videos. Test kitchen manager June Xie’s video on feeding yourself in New York for $5 a day drew over 1 million views, and a recipe for whipped coffee they picked up from TikTok also exploded.
“We were surprised and encouraged by the types of recipes people wanted to try,” she said. The only thing that really declined, she added, was cooks’ appetite for low-carb and Keto recipes.
Celebrity instructors are doing especially well: When chef Michael Symon invited fans to cook a nightly dinner with him live on Food Network Kitchen’s Facebook page, it generated more than 30 million views and launched a shot-from-home series. Locally, Giant Eagle’s series of themed online cooking demonstrations hosted by famous foodies like Buddy Valastro and Alex Guarnaschelli proved so popular this spring, it was extended this summer.
At the food-focused social network Allrecipes.com, the pandemic has pushed record breaking traffic levels with cooks looking for meals that are familiar, comforting and oftentimes make greater use of center aisle ingredients, said Consumer & Brand Strategy vice president Esmee Williams. It had its second-largest month ever in terms of traffic in April, with over 60 million hits.
Initially, demand was for a lot of banana bread and other recipes that were easy to make, because more time at home does not necessarily translate to more time to cook or shop. Now that it’s summer, the site operators are seeing a great return to fresh, with summer produce at the forefront. At the moment, there’s a massive surge in people seeking ideas for cooking with zucchini.
Cooks also are getting creative using fresh ingredients in new ways — using air fryers, creating vegetable and fish patties, and baking fruit into crisps and crumbles, said Williams.
And while people are making the most of being home, they still are wary of spending any more time in the supermarket than they have to.
“What we’re not seeing is interest in recipes with long lists of ingredients,” she said.