The word that best describes the current foodscape is chaotic. The stay home orders caused by the coronavirus pandemic has locked down over 2/3 of the population and closed a similar number of restaurants and foodservice operations. Before the pandemic about 40% of all food was consumed on site in restaurants. Most of this 40% is now, almost overnight, being reallocated to grocery, home delivery, and increased restaurant take out from those remaining open.
So, on one hand the restaurant and hospitality industry are suffering job losses in the millions, while grocery brands and their manufacturers have seen 50% + surges in demand. They have had to increase production while keeping their workforce healthy, in a poorly defined, regulatory environment.
There has been a constant drumbeat of daily stories on the coronavirus. People in the food industry are almost exclusively focused on day-to-day operations, with demand changing constantly. I thought it may be helpful at this time, to speculate on the longer-range effect of the coronavirus on the food industry. This can help all of us to begin to think about the next growth strategy for our firms and investments.
The following are some longer-term trends based on my own observations and articles I have read recently.
- E-commerce food sales have increased about 5-fold to 25% of total grocery sales. This number will not go all the way back to 5% but should fall to 15% to 20% post COVID-19. Older customers who were not comfortable with e-commerce were forced to learn, and are becoming increasingly reliant on it.
- The biggest data players in the market; Amazon, Wal-Mart and Instacart, will become more dominant as the shoppers increase and the amount of data these players gather increases. Their knowledge of shopping behavior will give them a much larger competitive advantage than ever.
- Food retailers that do not have access to that level of data will have to shift their point of difference to store experience, to the individual shopper. The competitive battle will be between analytics versus positive emotions. Any retailer that is not good at either may find themselves acquired, or out of business.
- Specialty, and better-for-you food will continue to grow as the underlying trends are very strong. However, you will see a shift to “frugal-better-for-you” retailers such as Sprouts, Trader Joe’s and even Aldi, as consumers will be more stretched financially than before the pandemic.
- Status food and beverages such as wine, gourmet brands, and unique restaurants should have solid sales trends. People are status seekers in general, when financially strapped they cannot afford new houses or fancy cars, but food and beverage is an affordable way to differentiate yourself from the crowd.
- Independent restaurants will take the biggest hit from the pandemic. Some estimates are as much as 30% of restaurants will never reopen. Many are owned by families where the younger generation has moved on to other occupations and the founders are near retirement. These restaurants will not survive.
- Food supply chains will diversify and become much more local. Having a significant reliance of ingredients and packaging from China and other far-away countries will be reconsidered. Most food consumed in the US can be easily supplied by Canada, the US. and Mexico.
- Food security and future pandemic response planning will significantly affect food safety regulations for a number of years to come.
Whenever there is a massive short-term change, new opportunities quickly emerge as the new normal becomes clearer. Those of us struggling with managing the day to day in this environment may be well served by beginning to think about what is next, and how you can adjust, and perhaps thrive under the new normal.
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Everyone in the food industry is aware of some of the big multiples paid for early stage branded food companies over the last few years. Exit valuations as high as 6- or 7-time sales have been seen. This has caused a large number of entrepreneurs and funders to create companies searching for these exit valuations. I have noticed some recent developments that will make these high-priced exits more and more difficult. They are as follows:
- Big food companies struggle when managing a portfolio of mid-size specialty brands rather than billion dollar plus brands. Even when a specialty and better for you company grows significantly, it often will not attain the volumes required by big food company infrastructures to efficiently manage.
- The traditional product development no longer works. Large food companies used to bring a new product to market by developing a new product internally over a number of years with millions of dollars invested in market research and product testing. This strategy does not work in the high change, short product life cycles in today’s market.
- It isn’t paying off. To compete in this new marketplace, large food companies began acquiring early stage growth companies for very high valuations putting most of their financial and organizational resources behind a couple of big bets. This strategy has actually paid off in only a few instances and misses are very expensive.
- Today, the more sophisticated large food enterprises are developing the same fast fail methods that the start ups have been using for years. They work closely with an increasing array of sophisticated co-packers that can both develop and scale new products rapidly. A company can often bring 10 to 15 new items to market in this way for the same cost and far faster, without having to buy an early stage company.
- The ones that do not gain traction, they kill early. The ones that look successful they rapidly expand with the co-packer. They do not want to build their own production capacity as a successful new food item generates many copiers in a very short period of time, making an acceptable return on new production capacity problematic.
You may still see some very high valuations for companies like the Impossible Burger. But these will increasingly be companies that develop entire new markets with very heavy R&D and start up production costs often in the 9 figures before the first dollar of revenue. Think lab-grown meat as future new market segment for environmentally sound and clean label real meat. The development cost for this project may approach a billion dollars before reaching the market.
So, where does this leave a startup food company in today’s market?
Is your goal to significantly grow a start up food company over a short period of time? To never make money and hope for sufficient funding and a high value exit? I would caution against it.
Do you want to build a food company for the long haul with distinctive products in multiple channels, including both retail and food service? Is your goal to reach breakeven as quickly as possible while financing your growth with a mix of internally generated funds and traditional bank lending? Then I would say let’s get started.
In this environment, a traditional PE firm can develop a very profitable strategy around hitting 6-8 out of ten doubles rather than 1 out of 10 home runs. Family offices with their longer investment horizon and flexible financing structures should thrive. This would leave the search for the next unicorn with the increasingly heavy front-end investments to the true venture capital firms that are structured on big risk big reward strategies.
A final note. Whenever I would discuss future trends with my late father, Angelo, he often ended the conversation with the same phrase “It could be and then again….maybe not”. Always something to keep in mind when predicting the future.
New Food Strategies
Being the leader of a fast-growing food company is truly a unique experience. Nothing really prepares you for the pace of decision making in an uncertain environment. I learned this lesson myself in running a food company that saw 30% year over year growth for 25 years.
When to be flexible and when to build structure? Do I hire executive talent or good executors? Do I make my products myself or use a co-packer? These are among the many questions that need to be answered as a leader of a fast-growing food company. The main challenge is not only that these questions are difficult to answer, but that the answers are also changing constantly.
Here are a couple of key concepts that may help: Continue reading