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Recent Canadian food-service trends in consumer habits: NPD Group

Off-and-then-on-again COVID restrictions thwarted Canadian food service's expectations for strong recovery in 2021, orders and spending were up in 2021 from 2020 but below 2019 levels


Toronto — The omicron wave and the return of restrictions hampered restaurant visits in Canada in 2021, flattening the recovery curve for the fourth quarter, according to a report by research firm NPD Group.

The report Canadian food-service industry entered 2021 hopeful that the industry could get back on track, NPD Group said in a news release. “The recovery seemed like it was heading in the right direction in the third quarter — with vaccination rates high, COVID infections low, and restrictions lifted, reports The NPD Group. Consumers were anxious to return to their favourite restaurants, and online and physical visits were within just five percentage points of where they were in the same quarter before the pandemic. But the onset of the omicron wave and the return of restrictions suppressed some of the consumer enthusiasm, flattening the recovery curve for the fourth quarter.”

Consumer spending up from 2020, still below 2019 levels

All totalled for 2021, consumer spending in commercial food service was up by 17 per cent and online and physical traffic by 12 per cent compared to 2020. Although the industry made gains over the previous year, spending is still 11 per cent below 2019, while visits were off by 12 per cent.

Online and physical visits to quick-service restaurants, which made up 71 per cent of total industry traffic, were up 11 per cent in the 12 months ending December 2021 compared to 2020 and down eight per cent from 2019.

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Full-service restaurants, which bore the brunt of COVID dine-in restrictions, saw visits increase by 21 per cent in 2021 over a -39 per cent decline in 2020, but still 27 per cent under pre-pandemic levels, according to NPD’s continual tracking of the Canadian food-service industry.

Significant shift to carry-out, drive-thru and delivery

The shift to off-premises food-service orders, like carry-out, drive-thru, and delivery, was substantial in 2021, with dine-in visits hampered by restrictions for much of the year. Off-premises orders, which represented 81 per cent of total food-service orders, were up 14 per cent in 2021, while on-premises visits were up four per cent over the previous year. Carry-out had the most significant gains of off-premises orders, with orders up 21 per cent compared to the preceding year. Delivery orders grew by 13 per cent and drive-thru visits by three per cent in 2021 compared to 2020.

Carry-out had the most significant gains of off-premises orders, with orders up 21 per cent compared to the preceding year.

“The food-service landscape has been changed, perhaps permanently, by our ongoing COVID lifestyles,” said Vince Sgabellone, NPD food-service industry analyst. “The continued strength of off-premises throughout the pandemic may be an indication of permanent change. In 2022, the Canadian food-service industry will need to continue its path towards reinvention as it works to recapture more lost volume in 2022.”