Cultural change disrupts how people perceive meal occasions

Fast food brands need to adapt to when, where, and what people eat

Wayne Pan
Senior Consultant,
Consulting Division

Food delivery can feel a bit like a tidal wave. Convenient, sticky, and perfectly suited for our rapidly urbanizing world, delivery companies have rapidly expanded to cities worldwide. By one account, UK-based Deliveroo was the fastest-growing company in Europe between 2013 and 2016. US-based startups Postmates and Doordash are both unicorns valued at over $1 billion. Meituan, the Tencent-connected services provider in China, is delivering over 20 million meals a day. UberEats operates in over 200 cities around the globe.

What these fast-growing services point to long-term is not a new disruptive category of competitors though, but rather a shift in the calculus people use when deciding where and what to eat. For a long time, the filter of at-home and away-from-home was a useful way to look at the food industry and the competitive landscape. These new services fit somewhere in-between, giving people the option to “eat-out” while “eating-in”—meaning that pizza, Chinese takeout, and cooking no longer hold a monopoly on at-home eating occasions. Meal-kits and convenient grocery delivery are giving people even more options for cooking at home while giving restaurants more competition for their meal occasions. And snacking and meal replacements are shifting the very notion of meals.

In essence, it’s not just grocery or fast food that is getting disrupted—it’s the entire world of eating. In our modern attention economy, where headspace is at a premium and the options vying for a person’s attention continue to multiply, eating—whether cooking or going out or grabbing something fast—is another activity that has to compete for attention.

This is where fast food companies will need to adapt: consumers no longer think about eating meals at home versus outside the home; or indeed, even think in terms of meals at all. Instead, consumers are making food choices throughout the day based on how much time and energy they want to invest in eating at any given moment. The options for quality food with low-time investment required are going up, while people are expecting high-time investment options to satisfy multiple needs beyond nutrition and good eats.

The ramifications of this change are large for fast food companies. Winning a meal occasion or winning in a category will no longer be enough. Neither will be competing on just price or quality or convenience. Besting the large national chain won’t matter if customers are getting food delivered from the mom and pop Thai restaurant next door. Nor will price and speed matter when people are making a meal-kit at home with friends. The developments of the past few years have expanded the consideration set for consumers—and the competitive set for fast food companies. The only way to compete is to start acting differently and focus on meeting eaters on their own terms.

Some companies are already experimenting. Chick-Fil-A recently pilot tested selling meal-kits out of their stores, giving people the option to cook at home without investing in the time needed to gather, purchase, and prep the food. Domino’s makes the decision calculus easier for folks spending their time doing things other than eating by offering delivery to out-of-home hotspots around the US. Meituan is delivering meals and groceries from the same app in China, giving people options for however much time they want to invest into eating that night.

What each of these initiatives has in common is the recognition that food industry is no longer defined clearly along old boundaries. Whether or not delivery services as we know them have real staying power—and the jury is out on that, given questionable business models and the lack of profitability—they undoubtedly highlight the changing eating landscape we now find ourselves in. With a growing number of options for cooking, eating out, and everything in between, consumers are pitting all of these players against each other. Companies that fail to recognize this may win some points in the short term against old foes but find in the long-term that the game has moved on without them.

Actions for Competing Amid Cultural Change


The game is changing and so are the competitors. Challenge your preconceived ideas about how to compete and how to partner.


Understand why people invest their time into your company and your food—do things that make that choice even easier.


The lines in this evolving world are still being drawn. Companies that win will be the ones that strategically invest in and test new models of doing business.