During the pandemic we surveyed Canadians to understand their attitudes and learned that the number one thing Canadians missed most was the ability to socialize with family and friends at a restaurant. We do know that when restaurant dine-in restrictions in Canada were eased, people behaved exactly as they said they would and dined at their favourite restaurants. For example, the pent-up demand for indoor dining was evident in February after dine-in restrictions were eased in Canada’s largest provinces, dine-in restaurant visits increased by 4 percentage points in February compared to January, an increase of 10.5 million visits versus prior month. The downside of this news is the still deep traffic declines in on-premises dining, and Canada’s largest provinces are now dealing with a third wave of COVID infections and lockdown restrictions.

As we look ahead from the peak of this third wave of infections, to a time when vaccination rates are increasing and restaurant restrictions are easing in Canada, the industry can expect restaurant customers to return to on-premises dining. As I’ve reported many times over the years, eating at a restaurant is often about so much more than the food. A restaurant meal is often an experience to be shared, and it’s something we are all missing.

There was an earlier break from COVID restrictions in early May 2020 through the summer when again on-premises restaurant visits rose steadily. Both quick service restaurants (QSR) and full service restaurants (FSR) benefited from this lift. In fact, by the time restrictions began again in October, FSR had returned to serving more than half of all their customers in-person. 

It’s also promising to note that easing of restrictions did not necessarily mean a trade-off between on- and off-premises visits. Instead, all occasions rose as consumers responded to the easing of restrictions with more confidence about consuming a restaurant meal, regardless of whether it was carry-out, delivered, or eaten at a restaurant.  

One other predictable trend with the return of dining at a restaurant is the inclination to consume more and spend more. Average items consumed per eater and average spend per eater are almost universally higher for on-premises visits. Therefore, the economic benefits of welcoming customers back into the restaurants is much larger than the potential bump in traffic. Any server who depends on tips for their livelihood will attest to this.

The uptick in on-premises restaurant dining immediately following the lifting of lockdown restrictions confirms the pent-up demand to consume a restaurant meal … at a restaurant. In countries where on-premises dining has returned, such as in the U.S. and some Asian markets, so too have the customers. Since the recovery waves in Canada between the COVID surges were so short, it’s difficult to say how long this pent-up demand will generate positive momentum. Let’s hope the next recovery wave in Canada has a very long tail, and we get the opportunity to answer this question soon.