Where to Go from Here

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The sun is starting to shine, summer is here and the re-opening of restaurants and patios across the country appears to be within reach. But none of this seems to have come soon enough for anyone within the supply chain of the restaurant and foodservice industry.

“Our industry is ready to re-open, with the realization that guest-safety remains paramount. The sad reality is many will not re-open, as the need for working capital remains a challenge. Those restaurants that do re-open need to take advantage of summer weather, expand patio operations and drive customers back. We need the support of our local communities and continued access to the 75-per- cent wage subsidy,” says Michael Sherwood, vice-president at recruiting firm AIP Connect.

The harsh impact of COVID-19 and its emergency protocols have put an incredible burden on the global restaurant and foodservice industry, yet serendipitously reaffirmed its significance and importance with consumers worldwide.

A recent global study of 54,000 people 13-plus years of age, conducted by Toronto-based marketing consultancy IMI International, revealed the most-missed activity among consumers globally since the start of COVID-19 is “going to restaurants.” From a list of more than 115 total activities measured, going to restaurants out-ranked watching sports, travelling for pleasure and even celebrating birthdays — confirming just how important the dining experience has become worldwide. As of April 23, 2020, future intent to visit cafés, restaurants, bars and clubs globally had increased 10 per cent — an ounce of positivity. Some markets that are further along in the pandemic cycle, such as Italy, showed an even greater future intent to visit these establishments; however, that narrative has yet to present itself in Canada.

Although 47 per cent of Canadians state they miss going to restaurants and 32 per cent miss “supporting local restaurants,” the study also revealed some concern among Canadian consumers about returning to dine at their favourite spots. Canadians’ intent to visit cafés, restaurants or quick-service restaurants post Coronavirus was flat, no more or less than before the pandemic began. However, for bars and clubs, family-style and buffet-style restaurants, future intent to visit has decreased, suggesting a need to re-imagine those experiences. Regardless of the establishment, for those who have been able to hold on this long, the industry will need to determine how it can drive consumer confidence to accelerate recovery from the past few months.

IMI International’s study looked at more than 30 unique actions that restaurants could take and how effective they would be at driving consumer confidence and reassuring guests of their safety. Among those actions, there were six that 25 per cent or more of the population agreed would bring them one step closer to returning to restaurants or consuming food and beverage at events.

Within restaurants, the top-six actions in descending order, from the most effective, included: cooks and chefs wearing gloves and masks; servers wearing masks; offering sanitizer at the table; servers wearing gloves; offering a menu board instead of physical menus; and offering packaged cutlery that guests can personally open.

Within food-and-beverage service at events, the top-six list differs slightly, including: reducing the number of tables to ensure they’re six-feet apart; providing wipes to further clean tables; limiting the number of seats at the bar; not allowing any communal tables; individual food pick-up and offering a mobile menu option.

The implementation of some of these actions may be simpler than others, but if communicated effectively, all promise an opportunity to drive confidence and get people back to where they want to be.

“Canadians want to be back in restaurants, so it’s more critical now than ever to act and over communicate to provide reassurance of what’s being done to create a safe dining environment and experience,” says Don Mayo, global managing partner of IMI International.

Perhaps one of the most incredible feats of this resilient industry is the community within it and its willingness to support others through these difficult times. From coast-to-coast-to-coast, there have been numerous instances of the restaurant community coming together to help support frontline workers — and Canadians have taken notice. IMI International’s study revealed 37 per cent of Canadians feel better about restaurant brands that have donated free meals to frontline workers.

“Beyond the pent-up demand to visit restaurants, we expect the active role the industry took to support others will lead to a positive impact on takeout, dine-in and other forms of support to help restaurants get back to their feet, particularly as personal- and financial-health concerns begin to normalize,” adds Mayo.

As of May 10, 2020, 35 per cent of Canadians stated they were severely concerned for their personal health and 30-per-cent severely concerned for their financial health, yet those marked significant improvements of 11 per cent and 25 per cent respectively compared to April 20, 2020 — a positive indication.

“Although the level of concern is still high among Canadians, the improvements we’re seeing are encouraging and, as this positive trend continues, we expect consumer spending to start to pick-up,” notes Mayo.

As the industry awaits re-opening its doors and the arrival of guests, the situation has brought on a spur of innovation and diversification of revenue streams through ghost kitchens, identifying more open-air food-and-beverage venues and meal- delivery-related revenues.

“Ghost kitchens represent an emerging tech-enabled business model that’s had a significant effect on the food-delivery industry during the pandemic. Ghost kitchens enable existing restaurants to outsource all aspects of food delivery to centralized locations, where delivery management services can be scaled across numerous restaurant brands. This vehicle will continue to grow post pandemic,” says Sherwood of AIP Connect.

Mike Sherwood and Adam Mitchell are part of AIP Consulting, a Toronto-based recruitment firm serving all areas of the foodservice and hospitality industries.

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