Restaurants can capitalize on soaring consumer confidence

By Asad Amin

I am a devout foodie. My weekend plans, at times, revolved around which new restaurants had opened in the city or which old haunt I had been craving for a while. Over the past year-and-a-half, that shifted to takeout, delivery, and very few dine-in occasions.

As soon as my family and I were fully vaccinated we were eager to enjoy the simple excitement of dining out. After a few patio trips over summer, we decided to celebrate my wife’s birthday by dining indoors. While the seat setup, vaccine passports, and general social distancing were observed, the place was packed. The same applied to the bar downstairs and pretty much all of Toronto’s Yorkville when we decided to take a stroll afterwards.

Beyond anecdotal observations, there is clear evidence that the foodservice sector is bouncing back. That rebound may not be to pre-pandemic levels just yet, but we see clear lifts in our Foodservice Monitor trends, which are aligned with higher vaccination rates and restrictions being less rigid than before.

A renewed sense of hope

When the pandemic started and our privileges to dine out started to dissipate, there was a lot of uncertainty around the repercussions this may have on the hospitality industry. Think back to the time when we were fearful of congregating in crowded spaces as it could prove to be fatal. I don’t think anybody had any expectation that the pandemic would have lasted as long as it has, let alone impact restaurants and the foodservice sector as brutally. From the onset, one of the primary factors determining how quickly traffic will return to pre-pandemic levels, if restrictions were eased, was diner confidence. So, we devised a way to measure this, which we called the Canadian Diner Optimism Scale. This is how we can validate that we are turning a corner as there is a renewed sense of hope.

At the start of the pandemic, Canadian diners were more cautious than optimistic with 31 per cent strongly agreeing that “once the COVID-19 crisis ends I will be more cautious with my activities”. Optimism was also relatively low with only 29 per cent of diners strongly agreeing that once the COVID-19 crisis ends they will enjoy life more than ever.

However, we have seen a total switch in recent months, with diners being far more optimistic (37 per cent) than pessimistic (23 per cent). While we are not out of the woods yet and consumers are still being cautiously optimistic, it’s definitely a rosier picture than at the start of the pandemic. Of course, this also differs drastically by age group, as younger consumers are more optimistic than older ones, but there is clear evidence for pent-up demand for eating at restaurants among consumers.

Pent-up demand

Let’s dig a little further to understand what’s driving these shifts in our Diner Optimism Scale.

While safety concerns naturally still exist, consumers are beginning to throw caution to the wind. The fastest-growing sentiment since the start of the pandemic reflects the pent-up demand that exists in the market. More diners indicate that “nothing will keep me from/no concerns about eating at restaurants”, which was up by 13 share points. It’s clear that consumers are fed up being cooped up at home. Couple that with higher vaccination rates and there is a sense of people wanting to return to normal at this stage, which includes dining out. That’s why people indicating that “they will avoid crowded places, even if the government deems it to be safe” has declined by eight share points and those stating “I will stay at home and socialize virtually” is down by five share points.

This newfound confidence is also reflected in the trepidations that have declined the most over the pandemic. Concerns that “restaurant staff/people handling my food could be sick” is down by 15 share points. Other fears that softened were “still scared to get infected or spread it to others, restaurants will be too crowded” (down 13 share points) and “restaurant cleanliness and food safety will matter more to me after COVID-19” (down 10 share points).

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Money and convenience

We know with rising costs and inflation there are concerns about spending, but it doesn’t seem to be a deterrent yet on people wanting to dine out at restaurants. Diners’ perceptions of “wanting to save money, economic future is uncertain” was down nine share points.

The contrasting point of view is that people have saved enough money during the crisis, due to limited travel, impulse purchases, and dining/shopping excursions, and are now itching to spend. This is illustrated by the fact that the sentiment that diners will be “buying food from restaurants less often to save money once COVID-19 has eased” is down by 12 share points.

It is unlikely that consumers are going to opt for alternatives to dining in, either. Yes, new habits have been developed at home related to pantry loading and meal prep but as we return to our busy lives some of these behaviours may be short-lived. The proportion of diners stating “I’ll be keeping a stock of essential groceries just in case this happens again” is down a whopping 16 share points, while “I’ve come to prefer cooking and eating at home since the start of the pandemic” is down four share points. There was no change for indicators where diners stated that they would “order more takeout instead of dining in”.

Tread cautiously

While diners are keen to eat out, there are still two mitigating factors, among many others, that restauranteurs need to be aware of that will continue to pose a challenge.

One: a higher percentage of Canadians work from home and want to continue to do so, which will certainly impact lunchtime traffic and power business lunches.

Two: the frequency of dining out will likely be lower in the near term. There is an indication that consumers may be more discerning in their restaurant visits when they go out to eat. However, the good news with this behaviourial trend is that we know those that dine out less frequently spend more the few times they go out to eat and are likely to order a full-course dinner i.e., apps, main, and dessert.

This is clearly an area to focus on in the near term, especially for FSRs. You want to maximize the experience for your guests as much as possible. There are enough of us who long for the nostalgia of a nice meal out and those first few occasions for diners will hold a higher meaning than ever before. Why not secure as many patrons, new and old, as often as possible?

These are findings from the Ipsos Foodservice Monitor (FSM) consumption tracker; a continuous diary that tracks what Canadians ate and drank yesterday at any foodservice establishment. For the survey, a sample of 36,500 Canadians are interviewed online annually using a device-agnostic questionnaire. Data was also sourced from the FIVE consumption study, which captures consumption across all venues, including in-home.

Asad Amin is a Vice President with Ipsos and leads the firm’s Food and Beverage (FAB) syndicated services. Ipsos’ syndicated sector employs 12 full-time consumption researchers. Based in Toronto, Asad leads the team of research experts dedicated to serving the market research needs of the Food and Beverage industry across Canada. Asad can be contacted at [email protected] or 647.292.1748.

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