As the impact of COVID-19 became a reality and the devastating effect on the $80-billion Canadian foodservice market became more real, many of us struggled with how we could help. With that in mind, the online Town Hall Canada Foodservice COVID-19 Impact panel discussion webinar series launched on March 30. The goal of the series, running every Monday through April, was to bring together a panel of industry experts in an effort to start conversations and share as many data points, insights and opinions as possible.
Our first panel discussion included Chris Elliot, senior economist, Restaurants Canada; David Lefebvre, vice-president, Federal, Restaurants Canada; Rosanna Caira, editor and publisher of Foodservice and Hospitality magazine; and Margot Swindall, Canadian director, Technomic.
Restaurants Canada has been providing resources and advice to its members throughout the COVID-19 crises, with a strong focus on employment standards, health and safety when it comes to food delivery and resources dedicated to mental health and wellness.
“[We’ve also been] sharing information, especially as it relates to if a staff member has COVID-19 and how to run [restaurant] operations during these difficult times” Elliot shared.
The much-needed association support came as the Canadian foodservice industry took a devastating hit from the fallout of COVID-19 in the first two weeks of March. “The industry saw a 72-per-cent decline in sales in the first and the last two weeks of March,” said Elliot.
“This has affected more than 800,000 jobs. Because of this, we’ve seen one in 10 restaurant operators shut down permanently, just in the last two weeks. It’s been devastating for the industry. And behind every statistic, there’s a story of an operator that’s been in the business for 20 or 30 years that’s lost their dream, that’s lost their life savings and they’re just struggling to get by.”
Lefebvre provided insight into how Restaurants Canada started immediately working with the government to ensure restaurants and food delivery would be classified as essential services as the government started to impose physical-distancing measures and shut down of business.
“The first thing we worked on with the government was [making sure that for] restaurants with delivery, takeout and drive-through, there would be some part of the businesses that would be recognized as essential services and be able to move forward.”
He added the Canadian government needs to be doing more to assist the foodservice industry, “We need something a little bit more structured in between the federal government, and probably the provinces, [when it comes to] mortgage payments, rents and also utilities. So, this is what we see as the next frontier.”
“People are going into debt to pay their rent or mortgages,” said Elliot. “They’ve lost their jobs and so there’s going to be a slow recovery on the consumer-spending side. But, because of that slow recovery on the foodservice side, it’s going to continue to extend into the second and third quarter. Tourism is obviously going to be hit hard. So, if you’re in a tourist community that relies on tourism over the summer, that’s an area where you’re going to be hit particularly hard.”
Adjusting to the New Normal
Technomic’s U.S. research regarding shifting consumer behaviours due to the COVID-19 impact, “[showed] a huge shift to increased purchases at the grocery level,” said Swindall. “That ranges anywhere from an increase of 22 per cent up to a significant 25 per cent, 30 per cent and even higher”
She also provided views on what future consumer behaviour might look like. “Some consumers would respond or return to their foodservice activity within a matter of days once the all-clear happens,” she noted. “Other [may take] up to six months to get back whatever that new normal is going to be.”
That new normal includes the explosive growth of third-party aggregators such as SkiptheDishes and Uber Eats and the role they play during this difficult time. With the delivery market already pushing sales over $4 billion, the panel agreed the COVID-19 impact was going to make the digital channel of a restaurant’s business a more-significant area of focus during and post-COVID-19.
From a workforce standpoint, Caira said restaurant businesses will need to focus on how to transition staff back into the workforce after being away for several weeks “as well as how employees work, the shifts and how employers can also be more flexible about ways to bring staff back.”
She also detailed how the impact of COVID-19 may make operators stronger as they emerge from this crisis, “Operators will need to focus on how to prioritize innovation. This has been such a grueling time and it’s taught us all a lot of lessons. But they’ll need to understand how can they use technology better to create more efficiencies moving forward, so we can focus more on preparing for the constant disruption and transformation that we’re all getting used to.”
Written by Robert Carter