Time and time again, the analysis was the same: Newly health-conscious Americans, with their penchant for sourdough and gojuchang, had grown too sophisticated for Kraft Heinz and its stable of packaged products. In turn, the company, which makes everything from Cool Whip to Shake ‘n Bake, has struggled. Shares had slumped; credit raters downgraded the company to junk; sales grew ever more sluggish.
But enter coronavirus, and a nation in need of the comfort of a high-sodium, high-fat culinary hug, and Kraft Heinz is enjoying its first sales bump in years, with expected 3% growth in the first quarter of 2020. The company, of which about a third has been owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway since 2015, has reduced production at plants specializing in restaurant supplies, but increased shifts at others to account for rising demand for macaroni-and-cheese and other packaged foods, its CEO said last week. The stock jumped 3.8% yesterday (April 7).
There’s a wider trend here, of course: As the US moves into its fourth week of social distancing, cooking fatigue has set in. As a result, processed foods seem to have regained some of their old sparkle, as shoppers reach for ice cream bars and other instant treats, with fellow Big Food companies such as Nestlé and JM Smucker also enjoying some gains.
Some have taken the weeks in self-isolation as an opportunity to indulge in packaged food alchemy: On the subreddit r/shittyfoodporn, bored home chefs share their own spins on an American classic, with Kraft Macaroni & Cheesevariously served “with Chili Cheese Fritos on top” or “mixed with a can of tuna fish.”
But there’s every indication that the boost, and its resulting creativity, may be temporary. In however many weeks or months, the end of quarantine will likely see under-exercised, overfed Americans taking stock, stepping back onto the scales, and relegating the Macaroni & Cheese to the back of the cupboard. Until that time, WW (formerly Weight Watchers) and other fitness brands wait in the wings, ready to strike.