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US: Demand sizzles for fried food

Fried food is one of Americans’ oldest obsessions. The pandemic took that to a deeper level.

More people are ordering french fries with their fast food, and seeking solace in fried chicken, say food industry executives and nutritionists.

Repairs of restaurants’ deep-fat fryers have doubled due to overuse. Nearly half of US households now own air fryers. And there aren’t enough cheese curds to go around. 

Devotees of deep-fried foods say they carry indulgent, therapeutic properties that healthier fare — salads or grilled chicken — can’t match.

Fried chicken “satisfies the inner self,” says Libby Friz, a television writer who lives in Los Angeles, making her feel like “a cat asleep in a sun spot”.

In Ellsworth, Wis, known as the state’s cheese curd capital, dairy processor Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery can’t keep up with orders for the cheesy nuggets, which are often deep-fried, says Chief Executive, Paul Bauer.

The creamery’s cheese-curd business grew 38% in 2021 and sales in the first two months of this year are up another 24%, Bauer says, as grocery orders soar for its Cajun and hickory bacon-flavoured curds, and more restaurants add Ellsworth’s beer-battered variety to their menus. Companies that specialise in battering, breading and seasoning are having a field day with curds, he says.

“Those guys are going like gangbusters,” says Bauer. “The market has changed to comfort food.”

While the health risks of fried food are plentiful, nutritionists say there can be an upside: Consuming greasy morsels and meals can reduce the effects of stress on the body and can even help people produce more serotonin, which can lessen feelings of depression.

The number of fried foods on restaurant menus in the US rose 5% in the first three quarters of last year, according to market-research service Mintel Menu Insights.

Demand for fried-chicken sandwiches has sparked an arms race among restaurateurs, with at least 10 major US fast-food chains including McDonald’s, Shake Shack and Jack in the Box introducing the sandwiches during the pandemic.

Lamb Weston Holdings, a key supplier of french fries to fast-food chains, says America’s “fry attachment rate” has increased. The measure, which refers to the rate at which consumers add french fries to their orders, rose to 24% of orders from 22% before the pandemic.

Lamb Weston executives said recently that even rising prices aren’t lessening  consumers’ appetites for their fries. “What’s the elasticity of a french fry?” says Tom Werner, Lamb Weston’s CEO. “Right now, we haven’t seen it.”

Those orders are giving the nation’s deep fryers a workout and putting wear and tear on the equipment. From March 2020 through the end of 2021, repair calls for deep fryers at restaurants rose 93% due to higher utilisation, says Daniel Estrada, CEO of 86 Repairs, which coordinates repair services for restaurants.

The deep-fried surge isn’t boosting business everywhere. WW International, formerly known as Weight Watchers, is lamenting that fewer consumers want to diet. Online searches for diet programs this January were down 20% from a year ago, which is a big blow to its business, the company said on an earnings call March 1.

“Traffic and search right now continues to be under pressure,” says Mindy Grossman, WW’s outgoing CEO at the time. “That’s the industry-wide trend.”

Certified nutritionist Vanessa Spiller says the pandemic was a difficult time for many people, with normal routines disrupted and boundaries between work and home blurred. “People go to nostalgic foods to feel better,” she says. “We are definitely coming out of the pandemic less healthy.” 

Health-conscious consumers are looking for ways to indulge their fried-food cravings at home, too. Air fryers, countertop convection ovens that make food taste fried by circulating hot air at high speeds, were among the most popular holiday gifts of 2021. 

People are using the appliances to fry everything from cauliflower to entire pork tenderloins, without the hot oil of a deep fryer, says Bob Nolan, head of demand science at Conagra Brands. More than 40% of US consumers own air fryers, according to Mintel.  

Source: Wall Street Journal

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