The COVID-19 crisis has changed many consumer behaviours in a very short period of time. When it comes to the foods people eat, perhaps the most noticeable change has been the shift in how and where meals are prepared. The NPD Group’s CREST® service reports the commercial restaurant industry in Canada lost more than 600 million visits since March. The shutdown of restaurant dining rooms across the country and stay-at-home advisories forced families to rediscover their kitchens and begin preparing meals for themselves again. It will be interesting to see if all of this home cooking will give everyone a new appreciation of where their food comes from.

When choosing what restaurant to visit when dining out, consumers in Canada have always had an eye on where their food comes from. Choosing a restaurant that offers locally sourced foods is a top consideration among restaurant visitors, factoring into 15% of all restaurant visits in the pre-COVID-19 data. The most notable difference among this group of consumers is their age. Local-minded restaurant patrons skew to the 45+ year-old age cohorts. Other restaurant selection criteria that are top of mind for this cohort include demand for Canadian-sourced products (arguably the same as local) and a search for foods that avoid the good things people have come to crave: salt, sugar, and cholesterol. Therefore, a local-centric marketing campaign can appeal to this customer base with messaging around these traditional ideas of healthy dining.

Local-minded customers are more likely to visit full service restaurants (FSR). This is likely due as much to their age as to their search for local sourcing. Regardless, like the rest of the population, about two-thirds of this cohort’s visits are going through quick service restaurants (QSR). Their lives are just as busy (in normal times anyway) and they have the same cravings as the rest of the population. This creates an opportunity for smaller QSR chains to attract this unique, older, and more affluent crowd with some local messaging. The large QSR chains that dominate the market do many things very well, but building localized supply chains is not necessarily one of those things. Local sourcing is something smaller chains and independents in any restaurant segment can, and should, use to differentiate themselves.

It’s too soon to say for certain how much the demand for local sourcing will change due to the current climate, but according to the results of The NPD Group’s COVID-19 Foodservice Sentiment Study, demand for locally sourced foods is only going to rise. More than one-third (39%) of respondents source local products because they are perceived as safer. Moreover, half of all respondents plan to visit local and independent restaurants to support the local economy once the restrictions are lifted. The challenge is that the older cohort that is most likely to support the local economy is also the cohort that is the most concerned about returning to restaurants unless they feel safe. This will require a regimen of social distancing and hygiene measures that I know the industry is already looking to provide to a cautious public.

Turning briefly to the younger cohorts, it is important to note that they also seek out locally and Canadian-sourced food items, only not as much as say, their parents. Instead, they show a propensity toward organic, sustainable, and cage-free food options. These younger consumers are also more inclined to seek foods that include good stuff, such as protein, vegetable content, and plant-based ingredients, rather than avoid the not-so-good stuff like the older cohorts. For operators and suppliers alike who are interested in maximizing their local messaging, it would make sense to include any pair of the above messages. For example, local foods are often considered more environmentally friendly. This opens up the option of combining two key messages around local and sustainable, which will be well received by all age cohorts.

One final interesting fact about local-minded consumers is that they are proportionately distributed across all regions of the country. This is a rare occasion where all consumers in Canada can agree on something. Well, maybe not everyone. Residents in the seven largest urban centers (which comprise about half of the population) are a bit less inclined to search for local. It would seem that the further removed we are from the source of our food, the less connection we have to its source.

The restaurant industry’s struggles during this crisis have been well publicized. In response, consumers are being encouraged by industry leaders, governments, and influencers to buy local. Whether this means support for a local independent restaurateur, a local food supplier, or a local farmer makes little difference. The message is clear: Being local-minded is right for the times, and it’s right for business.