By Aimee Harvey
Dinner is the cornerstone of the restaurant menu, the daypart when many operators (particularly those in table service) flaunt their variety, creativity and innovation on the plate. Dinner is also how many restaurant-goers think of dining out, from celebratory nights out to casual family meals.
Yet we’re seeing the ground shift in Canada. Increased competition and evolving service models from outside the full-service segment are challenging operators to get more creative in their approach to dinner. Evolving dining routines and behaviours are influencing how, when and where many consumers source dinner today. And fast-advancing customization and health trends are keeping operators and suppliers busy to meet the growing demand for variety and freshness. While obstacles may exist, so do opportunities for restaurants to differentiate the menu for dinner.
The consumer mindset
To better understand where the dinner daypart stands now, let’s start with the consumer. More than half of Canadians—55 per cent—think of dinner as their main meal of the day. Higher commodity costs and the steeper menu prices that are typically associated with them haven’t deterred the average restaurant-goer from enjoying dinner as a dine-out occasion or takeaway visit. In fact, 64 per cent of consumers source dinner from foodservice locations at least weekly. Yet, about the same percentage—65 per cent—also say they skip dinner at least once in a while.
This speaks to the modern consumer lifestyle; the shift in how and when we eat is blurring the lines between dayparts and dining occasions. Today, many Canadian consumers are replacing meals with snacking. A late-afternoon snack may leave consumers feeling less hungry during traditional dinner hours, leading them to skip the meal.
Convenience is paramount
Hectic schedules and time constraints are also affecting the dinner daypart. If convenience and speed aren’t core elements of the restaurants located between home and work, the busiest consumers are more likely to either skip dinner, or make do with what’s in their home kitchen.
However, there are opportunities to capture the attention of busy consumers. Call-ahead ordering, pickup/takeaway counters and specials or promotions via mobile apps could lure in the too-busy-for-dinner consumer. Small plates and dinner portions—as well as the option of a half-sized portion—could appeal to consumers who are not as hungry in the early evening.
Late-night dinner carries considerable appeal with Canadian consumers—especially among the younger crowd. More than any other type of guest, younger adults are looking for the option to eat dinner later at night. Overall, only 24 per cent of adults agreed that they’d visit restaurants during late-night occasions if more locations stayed open later, compared to more than half (53 per cent) of consumers aged 18 to 24.
Starters and pizza prevail
To get the attention of this late-night crowd, focus on shareable foods, such as starters and pizza. For Technomic’s most recent Canadian Consumer Trend Report—Future of FSR: Family & Casual Dining, we asked Canadian restaurant-goers about the types of late-night meals or snacks that they’d be likely to order during later dining hours. Appetizers top the list —63 per cent of consumers call them top-of-mind when dining at upscale casual-dining restaurants.
Mix-and-match appetizer platters with a variety of ethnic-inspired street foods (Southeast Asian-influenced starters are on-trend right now), assorted finger foods and flavourful dipping sauces can encourage late-night purchases and sharing. The youngest adult guests will likely turn two or more appetizer offerings into a full dinner meal to share.
Competition heats up for dinner
The fast-casual segment is still emerging in Canada, but with its convenient service model, coupled with a focus on food quality and premium ingredients, it’s poised to take a bite out of the dinner market. Plus, the emphasis on tailoring flavours via customization is a hallmark of the fast-casual sector; having dinner quickly prepared to order and well-packaged to go meets the consumer need for convenience.
Look for U.S. restaurant brands to accelerate dinner at fast casuals in Canada. Burger chains like Smashburger and Five Guys Burger & Fries, and Mexican-inspired made-to-order brands like Chipotle will carve out an even wider niche for dinner.
As this segment solidifies in Canada, other categories will forge ahead to satisfy popular consumer cravings for dinner. Pizza will be the main contender in the fast-casual sector, driving competition with established fast-food/delivery pizza purveyors and full serves. Super-trendy pizza chains like Pie Five Pizza Co., Blaze Wood-Fired Pizza and Pieology—which all push a fully customizable prep format, large topping variety, freshness and a low price point—will no doubt explore expansion opportunities across the border in the near future.
Beyond fast casual, restaurants are increasingly challenged by the ever-expanding reach of retail foodservice. As seen at supermarket chains like Sobey’s and specialty retail brands like M&M Meat Shops, retailers are upping the quality, variety and availability of meal solutions at any time of day. For consumers in search of “restaurant-quality” foods, retail meal options provide convenience with a laser focus on flavour—outside of the restaurant space. While the retail dinner segment still has much room to grow before it can truly compete head-to-head against restaurants in Canada, this trend is gaining traction. In big-city markets, retailers are displaying a much greater level of sophistication for dinner offerings and more investment in platforms to promote supermarket fresh prepared foods.
Top trends for dinner menus
When it comes to trend-worthy offerings, such as late-night menus featuring starters and pizza, how these and other dinner items are prepared will also ensure consumer satisfaction — and the most on-trend preparation points directly to health.
Half of Canadian consumers (53 per cent) say that healthy options are important when choosing a dinner spot, and many of the most traditional health aspects, such as low sodium and sugar, are more important than “premium” items. However, premium, fresh and quality are still hugely important attributes for dinner.
But which type of food creates this perception above all others? Trend watchers are big on Mediterranean fare. Mediterranean cuisine fulfills these requirements with its fresh, quality ingredients often consisting of salads, wraps, olives, cheeses and oils. Expect to see more Mediterranean fast food being promoted for dinner in the future.
Sides make the meal (and your margins!)
When it comes to menu planning, it’s no surprise that the focus generally tends to be on the main dish or entrée. However, by ignoring an entrée’s side dishes, operators are missing out on a great deal of untapped potential. Just a few small adjustments can transform a side dish from ho-hum to mm-mmm, elevating the lowly side dish to equally delicious hero status on the plate. The bonus for paying attention to your sides? Increased customer satisfaction and higher margins, because a better whole-meal experience can justify a higher menu price.
Aside from the obvious economic benefits, paying closer attention to a menu’s side dish selection can also help draw a larger variety of diners by providing options for vegetarians or health-conscious customers, and by introducing new flavours — not to mention that this also allows operators to provide multiple applications for one menu item, such as an accompaniment to an entrée or à la carte item.
Spices and seasonings provide an easy and cost-effective solution for elevating a simple dish, as they generally represent only one-quarter of the recipe cost, yet provide the majority of the flavour!
The dinner outlook: key opportunities
The progression of the dinner daypart in new channels will continue. From fast casual to retail, emerging foodservice segments will increasingly spotlight dinner to lure Canadian restaurant-goers. In response, restaurants must be versatile to keep pace. Here are some forecasted trends in the market:
- Supermarket fresh prepared foods will steadily advance. Not only will retail prepared meals be more readily available, but new ways of presenting the food will flourish. Made-to-order food counters, action stations and grab-and-go displays will proliferate for supermarket dinners.
- Kitchen craftsmanship and flexible service models will help position full service to succeed against the competition. FSR operators can set themselves apart by playing up artisanal qualities of food preparation and efficient service, to more strongly emphasize premium characteristics and convenience.
- Operators will underscore occasion-based dining to drive traffic. We’ve highlighted the growth opportunity behind late-night dining, but restaurants can also drive off-peak traffic and promote sales of high-margin items by enticing happy-hour diners with specials and unique menu items in the early evening, immediately after work. Additionally, special-occasion dinners will present opportunities for larger checks; 63 per cent of Canadian consumers will spend more on a special-occasion dinner than an everyday dinner.
About the author
Aimee Harvey is Managing Editor, Global Content, at Technomic Inc. Since 2003, Aimee has developed insightful content for Technomic’s trend-tracking reports, custom publishing deliverables, newsletters, competitive analysis of global markets, and proprietary work covering both commercial and non-commercial foodservice segments. For more information visit www.technomic.com.