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Pandemic Responses: Long-term adaptations for Canada’s restaurant industry

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By: Mishal Omar and Ellen Smith, Trend Hunter

The significant disruption that the restaurant industry has experienced this year has brought on rapid changes that were once thought to be short-term, but are now being adopted for the foreseeable future. Additional safety precautions, retail changes and business model pivots are all ways that the industry is trying to adapt in the long-term to changes brought on by the ongoing pandemic.

Innovative Safety

When it comes to in-person dining, additional safety measures aren’t just preferred, in many places they’re now required. Everything from plexiglass dividers to temperature checks have become the norm in restaurants, and businesses are becoming increasingly innovative not just to keep customers safe, but to do so in ways that create distinct dining experiences. Patio domes are one way this is being done–with businesses using these domes as both a draw and a protective measure for customers. These shifts showcase the innovation that’s required of this time–not simply for the protection of customers and employees, but as opportunities that elevate customer experiences and keep them coming back.

Image via Trend Hunter

Vancouver’s Dinner with a View pop-up successfully set itself apart by offering diners an immersive gastronomy experience. Inspired by nature and reminiscent of large-scale terrariums, the 20 domes that were erected on a beach boasted design themes that included tundra, tropical, and grasslands. With the cozy atmosphere set, guests could relax and indulge in a three course blind menu, while enjoying the view of their natural surroundings. Due to the event’s success, Dinner with a View is set to offer dates throughout Canada and the United States into 2021, solidifying the once-novelty dining experience as an essential part of pandemic restaurant survival.

Similarly, one Toronto restaurant is using its location to its advantage, offering the city’s only dome dining experience by the lake. Against the Grain is known for its lakeside views and eclectic cuisine, but is now gaining notoriety around Toronto for its ‘bubble dining’ patio that allows patrons to enjoy a meal outside, even through the winter months. To enhance the experience, the restaurant created a new menu to coincide with the atmosphere of the domes. Each enclosure is fitted with heated fireplaces, string lights, and blankets, eliciting a quaint cottage aesthetic that provides a temporary escape for the guests.

Pop-Up Pivot

Restaurant pop-ups were once the norm, and amidst the original pandemic lockdown, brands that dealt in this space had to recalibrate how they’d move forward with their interactive marketing campaigns and experiences. Pop-up experiences have now returned with changes that allow them to operate in a way that’s safe, and that provides customers with the sense of normalcy that comes with simple shopping and dining excursions–which they’ve missed from their pre-pandemic lives. Ventilated trucks, drive-thru pop-up stands and outdoor pop-up experiences all prioritize customer experience and brand interactions, without compromising health and safety.

‘Ghost kitchens’ – delivery-only facilities that lack a brick-and-mortar dine-in space – are growing in popularity, as chains look to pursue versatile alternatives to traditional dining experiences. Taking note of this, Wendy’s revealed its own ghost kitchen in an empty Toronto lot, providing a service that’s part food truck, part delivery kitchen, and part experimental pop-up. Serving as an extension of Wendy’s non-traditional growth strategy, this kitchen is set to stand as a hub for all of one’s fast food needs, while offering the chain the convenience to transform underutilized city space into a casual dining opportunity.

Meanwhile, pop-ups are being leveraged in Calgary to merge food and art in an immersive experience that spotlights local businesses and emerging artists. The ‘Pop-Up Series’ is an exciting initiative that’s providing Calgarians with a COVID-safe environment, while highlighting local talent and eateries that are struggling to stay afloat. Every few weeks, the Pop-Up Series takes over a new venue, and spotlights a new restaurant. At each location, a design team creates a unique environment that’s reflective of the restaurant’s aesthetic, often boasting pieces that were made by local artists. One location hired a street artist to graffiti the walls, while another featured an immersive forest-like environment created by an architectural designer. Alongside the rotating location and design is a constantly changing menu, providing restaurants with the opportunity to think outside the box to connect with their customers in an entirely new way.

Private Label Expansion

Despite adapting to public health and safety mandates, the restaurant industry is still struggling with the reduction in sales that’s come with seating restrictions and safety-conscious consumers’ concern over leaving their homes for non-essential trips. To combat this, some businesses have started offering private label products and collections to keep brand interest alive, and to make up for their reduced sales. Everything from groceries to alcoholic beverages are now being released by brands as a direct response to the challenges the pandemic has brought on. These collections offer a way for businesses to maintain connections with their customers.

At the height of the pandemic, the crowd-favourite noodle bar, Momofuku introduced a consumer product line to help people elevate their at-home cooking. The culinary products include seasoned salts, soy sauce and tamari packs, and chili oil — all of which help consumers upgrade their dishes in a signature Momofuku-approved style. The products arrive as a result of 10 years of research at the restaurant’s own Culinary Lab, which develops the restaurant’s menu items.

While some restaurants are using this time to expand their brand, others are retailing what they have, transforming their spaces into pick-up-only bodegas that offer some of the city’s finest and freshest ingredients. Toronto’s Bar Buca is a perfect example, as the Italian-inspired bar & cafe started retailing to-go pasta kits that include in-house noodles alongside the restaurant’s famed sauces. The food items are labelled in a simplistic manner, adding a homemade touch while highlighting the local and authentic approach the establishment is known for. This strategy acknowledges that in lieu of indoor dining, many consumers are looking to perfect recipes from their favourite restaurants at home, and Bar Buca’s storefront serves as the perfect middleground.

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