As it has historically in lean economic times, pasta came to the rescue for many families during the recession, when tighter budgets brought tougher choices at grocery stores and restaurants. The economy, coupled with consumer leanings towards healthy options and ethnic foods, have shaped pasta trends in both restaurants and on grocery store shelves.
Pasta can run the gamut from indulgent mac and cheese to healthy whole wheat penne, and the pantry staple proved an essential part of recession-era meal planning, but now there are signs that the recovery may have some U.S. consumers spending less on pasta, at least when it comes to cooking it at home.
Overall retail pasta sales declined last year after rising each year during the downturn, according to Euromonitor. During the recession, consumers not only bought more pasta but they switched to private-label brands to keep costs down, the report says. Private-label accounted for 23% of pasta sales last year, and the report predicts that many who made the switch will resist trading back up to higher-priced pastas even as their finances improve.
Fast-casual restaurant chain Noodles & Company grew during the downturn and went public in a highly publicized IPO last year. “Noodles & Company was an affordable option for people during the recession,” said Senior Communications Manager Erin Murphy. “For around $5 they were able to order their favorite comfort dishes like Mac & Cheese and Steak Stroganoff or a hot bowl of Chicken Noodle Soup. … They didn’t have to sacrifice quality and were still able to treat themselves to a lunch or dinner.”
During the same period, demand for healthier and gluten-free pasta options was on the rise, and that segment is likely to keep on growing for companies that are ahead of the curve on innovation, according to Mintel.
Spaghetti has been the perennial favorite type of pasta for U.S. consumers, with nearly 64% of them calling it their pasta of choice in 2004 and again in 2013, according to Packaged Facts, and macaroni held onto second place. That said, the past few years have also brought innovations as low-carb crazes gave way to gluten-free diets and some companies kept up, according to research from Mintel and Specialty Food Magazine.
At Noodles, guests can easily customize their dishes to meet their own health requirements, with the option of adding whole-wheat pasta and adding or taking away other ingredients, and the menu displays 120 different combinations that come in under 500 calories, Murphy says. The chain is also catering to customers who are cutting back on gluten, she says.
“[W]e offer a gluten-free fusilli for those that are cutting back on gluten in their diet. While guests have the option of substituting the gluten free noodles into any dish, we’ve identified the dishes that can be made entirely gluten-free and included them on our Gluten Guide found on our web site,” she says.
Other factors besides health are at play when it comes to pasta innovation, says Murphy, including the rise of The Food Network and numerous other culinary TV shows that have spawned the foodie generation. “We’ve seen our guests become more adventurous in the past five or six years. Ten years ago people really gravitated towards our Buttered Noodles, Spaghetti & Meatballs and more familiar flavors,” she says. “[Now] we’re seeing more guests than ever branch from their favorites to try dishes like our Indonesian Peanut Sauté and Japanese Pan Noodles with caramelized udon noodles.”
Wisconsin Mac & Cheese has been a popular dish since the company started nearly two decades ago, and it’s still the most-ordered menu item among children and adults today, she says, but patrons are also spending on spicy, more exotic, multi-ingredient dishes. The recent launch of a limited-time spicy Thai Hot Pot made with 30-ingredient broth, pulled chicken and pork and several exotic veggies proved so popular in the winter that the chain has added it to the permanent menu, she said.
That kind of innovation is also likely to be key to the future growth of packaged pasta sales, according to Euromonitor.
“Opportunities will be found on the fringes and by manufacturers who are able to create excitement around their products by showing consumers new exciting ways to make pasta healthier and introducing new “better for you” varieties of pastas that do not suffer in terms of taste,” the report says.