TORONTO — Canada’s foodservice consumers are setting new standards for menu innovation, according to insights from the annual Canadian Trends and Directions Conference, held yesterday at the Westin Prince Hotel in Toronto, where 160 operators and suppliers gathered for a day of learning and networking.
The annual event, organized by Toronto’s Kostuch Media and Chicago-based research firm Technomic Inc., began with Benjamin Tal, CIBC World Markets deputy chief economist. He kicked off the day by providing an entertaining overview of the world economy. The good news: the fog is clearing. “The global economy is moving in the right direction,” affirmed Tal. “[Last year] was a transition year between something bad and something better, and 2014 is already moving in the right direction. China is achieving this promised land of a soft landing; the U.S. is moving in the right direction; the Eurozone will survive,” he said.
He also honed in on the North American market. “Interest rates will be rising — that’s the main issue that’s going to impact your business in the next two to three years, as people spend more on their mortgage and less on restaurants,” warned the economist, who also added the consumer debt-to-income ratio currently sits at 165 per cent. Since the global economy is moving at a much slower pace than before the recession, don’t expect the rising interest rates to increase as quickly as they have in the past, he summed up.
Canada’s foodservice industry has grown by 4.1 per cent, while the U.S. grew by 3.6 per cent in 2014, shared Technomic execs Darren Tristano and Patrick Noone. Leading the charge in growth were coffee cafés, which accounted for $8 billion in sales, followed by burger concepts in second place at $6.5 billion. Hot concepts gaining share in the last year emphasized customization, ambiance and streamlined ordering, the duo said, highlighting Toronto-based iQ Food Company, with its reclaimed wood design; Toronto-based Fast Fresh Foods with its simple and customizable ordering and Saint-Laurent, Que.-based O’Burger’s stylish but comfortable seating.
Competition is becoming fierce as operators search for new ways to add value without a complete menu overhaul. One way is tapping into healthful menu descriptors that emphasize freshness and quality. “Health is an ambiguous term,” began Kelly Weikel, senior consumer research manager at Technomic, who shared that the number of customers considering health when ordering at restaurants has grown from 29 per cent in 2012 to 39 per cent in 2014. “We’re seeing health change from a traditional definition to a health halo definition that’s perceived to be healthy.” Menu descriptors such as local, fresh, made-from-scratch, seasonal and artisanal can help tap into this trend.
Tapping into flavour cravings has also worked for restaurants such as The Works Gourmet Burger Bistro, whose corporate chef Shane Kennedy took to the stage to share the success of his limited-time offer menu centered around bacon, which included a salted-caramel bacon milkshake and grilled back-bacon burger topped with bacon ketchup.
Consumers lead the charge when it comes to demanding a menu that juggles price threshold, flavour cravings and value, operators revealed during a panel led by Rosanna Caira, F&H magazine editor and publisher. “While some want healthy foods, one of our most popular menu items is the Maple Cheddar Beer Burger,” laughed Corey Dalton, COO of Tortoise Restaurant Group, which operates Turtle Jack’s. The panel, which also included John Lettieri, president of Hero Certified Burgers and Rupert Martin, VP of Culinary Operations at Joey Restaurant Group, echoed other trends, such as the increased attention to the story behind the menu, including its origins, preparation, and sourcing; incorporating ethnic influences; avoiding discounts in place of drink specials; and hyping up restaurant ambiance.
The day wrapped up with a cocktail reception honouring Technomic’s consumer choice award winners and Kostuch Media’s Top 100 stand-out operators. Full-service and limited-service winners were East Side Mario’s and Pizza Hut (Kid-friendly Restaurant); The Keg and Starbucks (Pleasant Friendly Service); The Works Gourmet Burger Bistro and Arby’s (Craveability); Cora and Booster Juice (Availability of Healthy Options); and Boston Pizza and Tim Hortons (Social Responsibility). Caira then presented the award for the highest dollar increase to Tim Hortons, which increased its sales by $331 million from 2013 to 2014, and the award for the greatest per cent increase to Smoke’s Poutinerie, which grew its sales by 58.8 per cent.