Grab-and-Go’s Growth Curve

Portable foods have many opportunities to satisfy consumers in the decade ahead
Photograph by Clint Blowers

CHICAGO — Grab-and-go foodservice has traveled light-years in the past decade. What used to mainly consist of packaged, microwavable foods now also includes fresh sandwiches, salads, sushi and plant-based options thanks to consumer demand for interesting, healthful items.

But what will grab-and-go foodservice look like in three, five or even 10 years? Figuring this out will be key for operators.

“The demand for grab-and-go will be there because customers are always crunched for time,” says Marcia Schurer, president and CEO of foodservice consultancy Culinary Connections, Chicago. “More and more operators are wanting to do grab-and-go, but they must do it well if they want to be successful.”

This means keeping an eye on new protein options, new forms of familiar staples and consumers’ desire to indulge—and eat right.

For example, fish is becoming a popular protein source for grab-and-go—specifically, tinned fish, which preserves the fish and is a healthy alternative to traditional grab-and-go fare, says Jonathan Raduns, partner, retail strategy and food merchandising adviser for foodservice consultancy Merchandise Food LLC, Cherry Hill, N.J. Unlike fish in a pouch, which is usually just classic tuna fish, tinned fish offers the opportunity for more artisanal and foreign varieties, Raduns says. Examples include octopus, sardines or baby squid in olive oil or cod in Biscayne sauce. Tinned fish is an ideal grab-and-go option because of its high protein content, healthy fats and three- to five-year shelf life.

“Tinned fish is a readily accessible, low-risk entree that retailers can use in grab-and-go formats,” Raduns says.

Plant-based meat alternatives have room to grow in grab-and-go. One example is jackfruit, which has a texture and consistency that allows it to be cooked and shredded in a way similar to pulled pork or chicken. While restaurants have begun offering jackfruit as a meat substitution, its presence in grab-and-go settings is minimal, Schurer says. In the U.K., supermarket chain Sainsbury’s has a private-label On the Go Vegan Spicy Jackfruit wrap, which combines barbecue jackfruit with a cabbage, carrot, red onion and coriander slaw, lettuce and Japanese-style vegan dressing in a tortilla wrap.

As the plant-based trend rises in the United States, jackfruit will gain traction, Schurer says.

“It lends itself to many flavor profiles and can be prepared in multiple ways due to its meaty and chewy texture,” she says.  

Keep on Craving

How consumers access grab-and-go food is just as notable as the food itself. Expect more vending machines with portable sandwiches, salads and other fresh items to emerge in grab-and-go settings, says Schurer. One current example is Farmer’s Fridge, which offers protein wraps, salad bowls, granola bowls and more via vending machines in more than 300 locations in the U.S. Foodservice vending machines are quick, easy to use and allow the customer to purchase food with no labor requirements, Schurer says.

“Vending machines will start producing more items that have one- to two-day shelf lives,” she says. “Thirty years ago, you’d never buy fresh food from a vending machine. But that’s changing, and we’ll see more of it.”

Packaging is also due for an update. Many grab-and-go items are currently packaged in plastic containers. While often nonrecyclable, this packaging does enable consumers to see the product. Many of today’s compostable, biodegradeable containers may offer sustainability but lack transparency. The key is finding a happy medium between the two, Raduns says.

“The view of the product sells the food,” he says. “The best of both worlds will balance see-thru and sustainable packaging. It is a critical component for the future.”

While Schurer and Raduns believe healthy, better-for-you options are the future of grab-and-go, data suggests there will always be an appetite for “craveable” or indulgent items. In 2019, 30% of consumers said they visited a convenience store to purchase an indulgent food item—the highest of any reason, according to Consumer Brand Metrics, a foodservice tracking program from Technomic, Chicago. The need for craveability outpaced needing an item to go (24%) and needing a healthy option (10%).

When asked to rate the importance of healthy vs. craveable attributes when deciding which c-store to visit for food, nearly all consumers opted for craveable. There’s a silver lining for healthy, though. Consumers ages 25-34 said the availability of healthy options (70%) was more important than craveable items (68%), according to Technomic.

Moving forward, better-for-you options will remain relevant in grab-and-go. The trick will be to stay on top of health and diet trends so that offers remain relevant. Ultimately, the grab-and-go food of the future might be the things we’ve eaten all along, says Robert Byrne, senior manager of consumer insights for Technomic.

“Diet trends seem to overturn conventional wisdom every six months,” Byrne says. “What lasts are the craveable items you have loved since you were 12 years old.”

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