By Vince Sgabellone
Canadian consumers have shifted the way in which they access and consume from a restaurant menu over the past two years. How they place orders, why they choose to eat out, where they consume their meals, and who is consuming.
And what about the “what”? Have Canadians changed what they have been eating? The answer to this isn’t so straightforward.
The chart below illustrates the top food categories sourced from Canadian commercial foodservice establishments, as reported in The NPD Group/CREST consumer panel database. These seven items have been at the top of this list in the long term, and yet there are many interesting trends to report.
French fries are the most popular food item in Canada by far, and the only one to top out at over one billion servings per year. They pair well with just about anything and they are more popular than ever among all age cohorts. Innovations like sweet potato fries and poutine provide a good foundation for flavour innovations, but the traditional fry still accounts for about 80 per cent of all servings.
Burgers are a staple on a menu and remain the top entrée item in Canadian foodservice, growing in both relative popularity and absolute servings since the start of the pandemic. Much like fries, burgers have wide appeal among all cohorts and dayparts and they provide operators with a platform for flavour innovation. This stalled a bit during the pandemic, but bacon, cheese, onion rings, and gourmet sauces remain popular enhancements. Meanwhile, the pandemic also led to an increase in large burgers as meal occasions shifted a bit from lunch to supper and consumers upscaled their demands.
Breakfast sandwiches have been growing in popularity for the past decade, and that trend did not slow down much despite the recent disruption in our morning routines. Recent innovations that keep this category fresh include new carriers like waffles and wraps, and newer proteins like chicken and plant-based sausage. Meanwhile, a major new entrant in the QSR breakfast landscape will certainly generate further innovation and even greater sales growth.
This ubiquitous protein takes on so many forms, it is no wonder this menu category has so much appeal. While the overall incidence has increased, the sub-categories have shifted. Nuggets and strips have risen substantially thanks to their popularity with kids and the at-home family occasion. Meanwhile, fried chicken received an early pandemic boost, similarly because of families and the ease of access for delivery and digital ordering. Innovation in this space tends to be limited to dipping sauces. Instead, the truly innovative chicken trends come in the form of a sandwich (see below).
Donuts have grown their popularity during the pandemic, even though coffee sales dropped by almost one-third in the first year. As with breakfast sandwiches, consumers found reasons to order this favourite breakfast and snacking treat. The recent introduction of donuts at a major burger chain has created even more upward momentum.
Pizza was one of the early beneficiaries of restaurant lockdowns. More than any other restaurant category, the pizza operators were ideally situated to serve Canadian families sheltering at home. However, their fortunes were muted by the loss of lunchtime slice traffic, which depends upon legions of hungry students and office workers who were staying home. The pizza category continues to compete for customers with a steady stream of topping innovations, crust styles, and unique marketing initiatives like subscriptions.
This may be the last item on this list, but the category is by no means the least of the bunch. In fact, at current growth rates, this menu item can be expected to take over pizza for the #6 spot very soon. The chicken sandwich craze that began in the U.S. in 2019 reached our market about a year later and has resulted in servings growth ever since. A steady stream of new offerings – from new formulations, unique toppings, and flavourful sauces – have provided enough variety to attract a continuous stream of returning and new chicken-curious customers, fueling this fastest-growing of all categories to over 13 per cent growth since 2019.
The best of the rest
Three more macro food trends have emerged during the past two years. These have contributed to the continued strength of the listed categories while supporting others not included above.
The first to consider is the rising influence of Asian cuisine and associated flavour profiles – especially Korean, Vietnamese, and Indian. Indulgence is next. This trend takes on many forms including larger servings, an increase in sweet treats on the menu, more snacking, and extravagant toppings. Finally, we have the spicy trend, which has influenced all the food categories above with the exception of donuts. I’m sure it is only a matter of time before that final line is crossed.
If there is one thing we all needed these past two years, it was some extra comfort. That is the common thread that connects all these popular food items. Restaurants have always provided an escape and an experience, not just a meal. It’s nice to see they were able to provide some tasty emotional support as well, all packed up in a brown paper takeout bag.
Vince Sgabellone is an Industry Analyst specializing in Canadian foodservice at The NPD Group, based in Toronto.