The Post Pandemic Food Landscape — Today and Tomorrow

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TORONTO — For the first Terroir Talk session of this year’s Terroir Symposium, which took place as a three-day virtual event this year, Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, professor, Food, Distribution and Policy, Dalhousie University, reviewed and explained where we sit in the new food landscape.

To open, Charlebois highlighted the impact COVID-19 has had on Canada’s food systems and the way consumers think about them — pointing to a general anxiety about food security that now exist across the country.

He also stressed how the economic and restrictive impacts of the pandemic, have changed the way we interact with and purchase food.

“The foodservice industry is suffering. We’re expecting 30 per cent of all restaurants establishment in Canada to close by next year. Right now, revenues are at about 65 per cent of what they were before COVID-19 [and] we don’t expect that to increase anytime soon,” Charlebois shared. “So, there are a lot of restaurateurs — innovators, people who’ve brought cuisines to Canada, allowing Canadians to discover new tastes, new traditions — that are going to lose not only their jobs and their businesses, but their pension plan and their legacy and that’s quite painful. You can’t measure that.”

And, with a number of Canadians expected to continue working from home after the pandemic, further impacts are expected. “[Going forward] telecommuting is going to be a huge factor in Canada — 23 per cent of employers are thinking about allowing people to work from home on a permanent basis after the pandemic,” said Charlebois. “So, imagine the restaurants in downtown cores, all of the events [they lose out on, from] business lunches and dinners to brainstorming sessions over coffee.”

And, as a result, some operators will have to pivot and consider accommodating people who are looking for a place to do work, he added. “You have to think differently about the market itself.”

Further, Charlebois pointed out people are moving out of cities at a significant rate because “your address doesn’t matter anymore, you can actually work from anywhere.” But, he explained, while this creates new challenges, it also creates opportunities, noting the boon telecommuting could potentially be for restaurants in rural areas. “There may actually be more attention given to some of these really unique remotely located restaurants in the future.”

He went on to point out the environmental impact the pandemic is having, specifically due to use of single-use plastics, especially for delivery orders. “People are ordering more food to be delivered at home, so the use of plastics has only increased,” he explained. “[Plastic use] is going to be a key issue for the foodservice industry moving forward. It was very important before the pandemic [and] has become a much bigger issue now.”

This is especially true given the increased demand for food delivery. “We’re expecting online sales of food to triple this year as a result of the pandemic,” he shared. “And, I don’t think there’s any going back…because people are getting accustomed to the service and the service is [only] getting better.”

Charlebois further highlighted the impact price increases will have going forward. “Prices are increasing in foodservice and are also increasing in the grocery store, by four or five per cent a year. And, because of inflation being almost flat in North America, the average household, which was spending maybe nine per cent of its budget on food before the pandemic, may actually have to spend maybe 10, 10.5 or 11 per cent on food,” he explained. “And, as soon as consumers are asked to spend more on food, that rapport we have with food will completely change, expectations will change and, of course, our will to process our own food will change.”

As an example, he pointed to the number of people who have started to bake bread at home and how anxieties around food security have also led an increasing number of people to start their own gardens. “Is that a good thing?” he asked. “I think so, because you’re basically empowering consumers to take control of their own supply chain.”

However, Charlebois notes these trends, when combined with busy lifestyles, will also lead to fatigue, which creates space for the foodservice industry in consumers lives.

To conclude the session, Charlebois provided predictions for the future of the industry based on data and machine learning, though he noted, it’s very difficult to know that the future will hold in the current situation.

First, he stated, consumers’ retail spend is expected to remain quite high. “Before the pandemic [38 per cent] of an average [Canadian] household’s food bill was devoted to foodservice. In March [and] April, it went down to nine per cent. Now, based on our estimates, we’re at about 75 per cent [retail], 25 per cent [foodservice],” he shared. “Which means this blurring line we’ve been talking about for many years, between service and retail, is going to become even more interesting…COVID-19 blew everything up — there’s not there’s no line anymore, it’s just food.”

As an example, Charlebois pointed to Loblaws’ recent collaboration with Toronto restaurants for meal-kit offerings, adding he expects to see more initiatives in this vein in the future.

“Probably the most important thing happening right now is this phenomenon I call the democratization of the food supply chain as a result of COVID-19,” he added. “Because of e-commerce, everyone has access to the consumer…This opens up a variety of possibilities and opportunities for everyone within the supply chain.”

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