The foodservice industry is in an unprecedented and challenging time. Several months into the COVID-19 crisis, this statement just seems too simplistic to capture the breadth of the challenges ahead. And yet the industry remains resilient in the face of this adversity. Every day I encounter stories of foodservice leaders rising up to help each other and the communities they serve, and entrepreneurs reinventing their businesses and blazing a trail for the entire industry.

In the first two months of the public health crisis, The NPD Group/CREST® reported the foodservice industry in Western Canada lost over $1 billion in sales. That equates to about two years of growth, wiped out in a matter of weeks. As plans for re-opening forged ahead in May, all eyes turned to Western Canada as a model for successes as they were among the first in Canada to ease restrictions. Simply opening the doors will not be sufficient to restore traffic. Perhaps the biggest challenge that restaurants must address is the shift in consumers’ mindsets as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. This must be addressed in order to facilitate the recovery.

Our recent Foodservice Consumer Sentiment Study reveals that health and safety will be top of mind. Many consumers won’t return to their old restaurant habits until they feel absolutely safe about the social distancing and cleanliness protocols in place at the restaurant. Aside from proper hygiene and sanitation procedures, restaurants must adopt strict practices dedicated to prevent infection. Practices like limiting guest count, wearing masks and gloves, and installing barriers between seats are initiatives that consumers in the West deem just as important as social distancing. Reducing shared contact points are also imperative. Consider:

  • Pizza operators have implemented contactless pickup and delivery where product is sealed in boxes directly from the oven, never to be exposed to anyone except the end consumer.
  • Full service restaurants (FSR) are transitioning from physical menus to virtual menus, thus eliminating another possible point of infection for guests and staff.
  • Paramount Fine Foods, an Ontario-based chain, is launching Box’d, a fully automated restaurant whereby consumers order and pay for their meals in advance and pick up from a specific cubby in the store without ever coming into contact with service personnel.
  • Digital Payment Systems ranked as one of the Top 5 safety initiatives by 40% of consumers in the West, according to the Sentiment Study. While CREST reported that digital and in-app payments accounted for a larger share of sales in April than cash.

Another significant finding from the Sentiment Study shows that 67% of total consumers in the West will wait before visiting a restaurant again even after they re-open. That means off-premise dining occasions will become the main source of meals away from home for the foreseeable future. Since the crisis began, 42% of consumers in the West have used off-premise service channels to access restaurant meals. This will increase to 57% when the lockdown restrictions are lifted. An increasing number of people are discovering the convenience and variety available to them through these off-premise service channels. Supported by initiatives like Canada Takeout Day that are raising the voice of the entire industry, this trend will only continue into the future. 

The restaurant industry has experienced a decade of evolution in a matter of weeks. As the landscape continues to shift, operators will need to be nimble. They will need to effectively respond as looming questions are answered, and tailor their responses in real time. With the ideas presented here, I sincerely hope you are able to respond and find your own path to the future.