Loubna Akhabir’s family of four had established a weekly tradition of dining out at their favourite restaurant in Wesbrook Village, Vancouver. This weekly escape had served as a relief, helping her relax from the stress of her job as a pre-clinical faculty member at Oceania University of Medicine.
This tradition was shattered when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the food and beverage industry. Many restaurants faced constraints, limiting them to delivery or takeout services or operating below their full capacity. The latter pushed families like the Akhabirs to pick up the habit of cooking at home and turn to food from stores as a solution.
“We were freaking out about being outside in confined spaces and scared to get COVID, so [we] basically increased our cooking at home and we eliminated the restaurant eating,” said Akhabir.
The Akhabirs are one of many Canadian families that stopped dining out. According to a recent report from Statistics Canada, households across the nation spent substantially less on food from restaurants in 2021 compared to 2019, showing a 21.1-per-cent decrease in spending on food from restaurants. Simultaneously, there was a surge in consumer spending on groceries and other store-bought food items, indicating a seven-per-cent increase.
This consumer behaviour shift, coupled with the COVID-19 restrictions, came as a profound shock for Jennifer Andrews, the restaurant manager at The Point in Vancouver’s 2205 Lower Mall on the University of British Columbia campus. It put her in a very precarious situation, leaving her feeling “ruined, cheated, and angry.”
“I lost half of my income because we could not rely on tips anymore,” Andrews said.
Andrews noted that, even with the shift to takeout and operating at reduced capacity, her restaurant suffered significant losses which pushed them to increase the menu prices.
“We received a lot of backlash for increasing prices because people have been suffering so much for so long,” she said. “People were just not coming in because they felt like they could do better at home.”
This trend of cooking at home is expected to persist, as the latest Restaurants Canada Quarterly Forecast projects a downturn in sales for full-service restaurants towards the end of 2023 and the start of 2024 due to economic downturn and high costs. In fact, seven out of ten Canadians report having cut back on sit-down restaurants because of increased prices.
Connor Heise, the assistant manager at Grocery Checkout, located at 6133 University Boulevard in Vancouver, recognized a variety of influences on home cooking practices, from the rise of social media cooking trends to an increased desire for healthier eating habits.
“When people were at home during COVID, I noticed this huge cooking trend on socials. I could [also] notice a polarization of goods [as] there were two popular extremes: canned goods and fresh greens and hardy vegetables,” he said.
That trend affected households like the Akhabirs, who were turning to online resources and meal subscription services to look for easy and healthy recipes.
“People became smarter shoppers [and] consumers. Throughout the week, they would just cook easy meals at home,” Heise said.
This ongoing tendency was also felt by Renouf Dani, a registered dietitian when dealing with her clients. She states that the switch in eating habits during the pandemic solely depended on the “consumers’ ability to choose their food,” along with other factors such as busyness or losing the joy of eating out.
“Restaurants were a place where people rested and socialized which was not possible during COVID,” she said.
As Canada is slowly moving away from the pandemic, Renouf would like to encourage people to keep this new food habit of cooking instead of eating out. She emphasized its numerous benefits in the long run, including reducing food waste, managing budgets more effectively, and leading a healthier lifestyle.
“Awareness equals action; if you’re aware of your habits and your behaviours, you can modify your actions towards the goals you want to achieve,” she said.