Physical distancing markers, personal protective equipment (PPE) and more booths paint a new picture of dining out. Laura Brehaut specially for the National Post.
Restaurants across the country may be gradually reopening — switching to disposable paper menus or writing offerings on walls, expanding patios to spill out onto sidewalks, streets or parking spaces, and outfitting staff with face masks — but are guests ready to return?
After nearly three months of lockdown life, a new survey conducted by Angus Reid suggests that although Canadians are looking forward to eating out again, only 18 per cent plan to take a seat in a dining room as soon as possible. Thirty-eight per cent expect their first visit to take place at some point over the summer, and 33 per cent intend to eat out after the second wave of COVID-19 has passed.
“We’re social beasts, so eventually we will go out. We will engage and we will become social nomads again, but it may take a while,” says Sylvain Charlebois, professor of food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University, and lead author of the report. “The summer of 2020 could be a summer of social redemption.”
Of the respondents who couldn’t wait to get back to eating at restaurants, Quebec has the highest rate (26 per cent) of people wanting to dine out, while concern about a second wave was highest in Ontario and Alberta: 43 and 33 per cent respectively. Charlebois attributes the regional differences primarily to COVID-19 media coverage. “It did vary from one province to the other. Clearly, in Saskatchewan concerns are not as significant as other places in the country, like Ontario for example.”
More than half (52 per cent) of Canadians intend to hold off on eating out as a means of protecting their health, but results suggest they are still invested in their local spots. Eighty-three per cent of respondents have ordered from their favourite restaurants during the pandemic, and 64 per cent plan to pay a visit to an independent restaurant on their first outing.
“The majority of Canadians say that they want to go out to restaurants, which is the good news. The bad news is they don’t want to do it right away,” says Howard Ramos, professor of sociology at Dalhousie University and one of the report’s collaborators. “That’s going to be a heavy burden for smaller independent restaurants.”
People may be cautious about a return to eating out, but the survey suggests they miss independent restaurants most of all. It’s these small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), Ramos emphasizes, that are facing the biggest financial challenges — not just in terms of resuming operations, but dealing with the added costs of meeting the new guidelines.
Twenty-six per cent of respondents indicated that they plan to avoid some restaurants due to their physical layout. “It’s the smaller independent restaurants that will pay the heavier cost for spreading out, or having fewer customers,” says Ramos.
Canadians expect to see more plexiglass (60 per cent) and staff in PPE (78 per cent), which also come at a cost that will disproportionately affect SMEs. “It’s an interesting trend. Canadians want to go back out. They’re cautious to go back out. They list those independent restaurants (as the ones they miss most), but it’s those independent restaurants that most need Canadians to come out and visit them. Or to support them through other means, like gift certificates, to try and offset the delay in coming back.”
“It’s not all about well-known chains,” adds Charlebois. “There’s more to it. I think people are very much aware of ownership and who is actually creating jobs in their communities.”
In the next phase of the pandemic, eating out will be a different experience, and the survey suggests Canadians are prepared for change. Respondents expect fewer menu options (29 per cent) and slower service (36 per cent). In the same vein as extreme physical distancing measures instituted at restaurants around the world — inner tube ‘bumper tables’ and cones suspended from the ceiling to encase each guest in plexiglass — more than one in ten (12 per cent) expect to see mannequins and dolls occupying seats to give the illusion of bustling activity.
While Ramos doesn’t anticipate many such gimmicks here, he does foresee more sectioning of restaurants: an increased number of booths and use of glass to contain spaces, and hosts regulating the number of people entering an establishment. At half capacity, restaurants will be emptier, but he doesn’t expect it to significantly degrade the atmosphere.
“The restaurant experience is an experience. It’s not just about eating food,” says Ramos. Twenty-two per cent of respondents simply enjoy being outside their home, while 37 per cent look forward to spending time with family and friends at restaurants. Canadians are craving conviviality.
“It’s really about social and cultural enjoyment, and quality time with people that you care about. What people say they miss the most in terms of restaurants was the social occasion. They want to be able to sit down and talk, and (gather) outside the house. I think the new normal will allow for that.”