By Asad Amin
I am a foodie. My weekend plans sometimes revolved around the new restaurants opened in town or the old haunt that I had wanted for a while. Over the past year and a half, this has shifted to take out, delivery, and very few dining opportunities.
As soon as my family and I were fully immunized, we were eager to enjoy the simple excitement of dining out. After a few outings on the terrace during the summer, we decided to celebrate my wife’s birthday by dining inside. While the seating configuration, vaccine passports and general social distancing were observed, the place was packed. The same applied to the downstairs bar and almost all of Yorkville in Toronto when we decided to take a stroll afterwards.
Beyond anecdotal observations, it is clear that the restaurant industry is rebounding. This rebound may not yet be at pre-pandemic levels, but we are seeing a marked improvement in our Food Service Monitor trends, which are aligned with higher vaccination rates and less rigid restrictions than before.
A renewed hope
When the pandemic started and our privileges of dining out began to wear off, there was a lot of uncertainty about the impact this could have on the hospitality industry. Remember the days when we were afraid to gather in crowded spaces because it could prove fatal. I don’t think anyone expected the pandemic to last as long as it did, let alone have such a brutal impact on restaurants and the food service industry. From the start, one of the main factors determining how quickly traffic will return to pre-pandemic levels, if restrictions were relaxed, was the confidence of diners. So we devised a way to measure that, which we called the Canadian Restaurant Optimism Scale. This is how we can validate that we are taking a step forward because there is renewed hope.
At the start of the pandemic, Canadian diners were more cautious than optimistic, with 31% strongly agreeing that “once the COVID-19 crisis is over, I will be more careful in my activities.” Optimism was also relatively low with only 29% of diners strongly agreeing that once the COVID-19 crisis is over, they will enjoy life more than ever.
However, we have seen a total change in recent months, with diners much more optimistic (37%) than pessimistic (23%). While we are not out of the woods yet and consumers remain cautiously optimistic, the picture is certainly rosier than at the start of the pandemic. Of course, it also differs considerably by age group, as younger consumers are more optimistic than older ones, but there is clear evidence of pent-up demand for dining out among consumers.
Let’s dig a little deeper to understand what is driving these changes in our restaurant optimism scale.
While safety concerns still exist naturally, consumers are starting to be cautious. The fastest growing sentiment since the start of the pandemic reflects pent-up demand that exists in the market. More and more diners are indicating that “nothing will stop me from eating / no worries about eating out”, which has increased by 13 share points. It is clear that consumers are fed up with being locked in their homes. Add to that higher vaccination rates and there is a feeling of people wanting to get back to normal at this point, which includes eating out. This is why those saying “they will avoid crowded places, even if the government deems it safe” are down by eight share points and those saying “I will stay home and virtually socialize” are down five points. sharing.
This new-found confidence is also reflected in the concerns that have diminished the most during the pandemic. Concerns that ârestaurant staff / people who handle my food might be sickâ are down 15 share points. Other fears that eased were “still afraid of getting infected or passing it on to others, restaurants will be too crowded” (down 13 share points) and “restaurant cleanliness and food safety will be more important to me after COVID-19 “(down 10 split points) points).
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Money and convenience
We know that with rising costs and inflation there are concerns about spending, but that still doesn’t seem to deter people who want to dine out. The perception of diners of “wanting to save money, the economic future is uncertain” was down nine percentage points.
The contrasting view is that people saved enough money during the crisis, due to limited travel, impulse buying and dining / shopping excursions, and are now eager to spend. This is illustrated by the fact that the feeling that diners “will buy food less often in restaurants to save money once COVID-19 has subsided” is down 12 share points.
Consumers are unlikely to opt for on-site dining alternatives either. Yes, new habits have been developed at home regarding pantry loading and meal preparation, but as we return to our busy lives some of these behaviors can be short lived. The proportion of diners stating “I will keep a stock of essential groceries in case this happens again” is down 16 share points, while “I have come to prefer to cook and eat at home since start of the pandemic âis down four points apart. There was no change in the metrics where diners said they would “order more take out instead of having dinner there.”
While diners may want to eat out, there are still two mitigating factors, among many others, that restaurateurs should be aware of and which will continue to be a challenge.
One: A higher percentage of Canadians work from home and wish to continue doing so, which will certainly impact lunchtime traffic and business lunches.
Two: The frequency of dining out will likely be lower in the short term. There is an indication that consumers may be more demanding in their restaurant visits when they go out to eat. However, the good news with this behavioral trend is that we know that those who dine out less often spend more the few times they go out to eat and are likely to order a full dinner i.e. apps, a main course and a dessert.
This is clearly an area to focus on in the short term, especially for FSRs. You want to maximize the experience of your guests as much as possible. Quite a few of us yearn for the nostalgia of a good restaurant meal, and these early dining opportunities will hold higher significance than ever before. Why not secure as many customers, new and old, as often as possible?
These are the results of the Ipsos Foodservice Monitor (FSM) consumption monitoring; a continuous diary that tracks what Canadians ate and drank yesterday at any food service establishment. For the survey, a sample of 36,500 Canadians is interviewed online each year using a device independent questionnaire. The data also comes from the FIVE consumption study, which captures consumption in all places, including at home.
Asad Amin is Vice President at Ipsos and heads the unionized Food and Beverage (FAB) services of the company. Ipsos unionized sector employs 12 full-time people consumer researchers. Based in Toronto, Asad leads the team of research experts dedicated to meeting the market research needs of the food and beverage industry across Canada. Asad can be contacted at [email protected] or 647.292.1748.