Bakers Journal

Features Business and Operations
Feeding the recovery

Opportunities for the post-pandemic food industry


Consumers are looking for more locally sourced ingredients and products made with local ingredients, like Brodflour Urban Mill and Bakery, pictured.

The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) sponsored a talk at the Restaurants Canada Show, featuring experts in the food industry who revealed some unexpected optimism for the future of independent Canadian bakeries and cafés.

Vince Sgabellone, Foodservice Industry Analyst at The NPD Group said their company has been tracking growth in the independent restaurant share for many years. “Despite the decline in independent restaurants since the 2008 economic downturn, there’s been about 1000 net loss of independent restaurants every year in Canada. And yet, there’s a share of growth; that means the independent (bakers and restaurants) are thriving and surviving quite well. So, while they were very much hard to hit during the early days of the pandemic, we’ve made a good recovery.”

Sylvain Charlesbois, Senior Director of Agri-food Analytics Lab, Dalhousie University, noted that they are seeing numbers declining in major cities, notably in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. “There’s more interest in moving outside cities,” Charlesbois observed. “One thing we’ve noticed in our research is that people aren’t necessarily hard-wired to look for local proactively…we have to make it obvious, spend more time on marketing,” he added. In other words, even if a small bakery moved to a more residential part of the suburbs, it would still need to invest in spending more money and time into convincing consumers to visit their shop, instead of heading to their usual grocery chain. 

The other challenge with Eating Local movement is that “local” will mean something different to a lot of people. When asked to define local, Charlesbois said it depends where the consumer is and where they are from. A newcomer may refer to their hometown, or their local shop that supplies a particular ethnic community.

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“There’s no defined line anymore… the entire supply chain is much more democratized because everyone wants to connect…it can come from everywhere. So, you’ve got to really define your niche there as much as possible. People are, looking to connect with anybody, digitally or in person,” he explained. “You can be asked to do everything on your own, but you can also partner with a retailer or a restaurant. Look at what Loblaws did with meal kits and restaurants in Toronto. Loblaws became a broker — a food broker — not just a grocer. So, there’s lots of things you can do with rules that need to be redefined.”

Andrea Johnson, Chief Storyteller, Brain Candy Marketing Ltd., said, “the new definition [of local] is that home is now a sanctuary, so entertaining and feeding through the home is going to continue.  “I think delivery will be one of the things that will be very interesting to watch. Food delivery at home has many different complex attributes to it, but there are restaurants that are doing it very uniquely.” Johnson recommended pairing some form of interaction or entertainment with the meal, such as a free link to a trivia night, movie or theatre performance along with the order of food. “I think is the hardest thing for restauranteurs at this particular point of time is not having that ability to host. It’s the very definition in the root of the word hospitality.” 

Clients will always look for niche products that will satisfy ethnicity, dietary restrictions, or just curiosity. The end of the pandemic should open more doors for the culinarily curious.

She feels outdoor dining is having a renaissance, “while, it doesn’t make sense in some parts, Canada to have year-round outdoor dining, but you know for anybody who’s had a big pot of fondue, or attended a cabane à sucre, you understand that the this outdoor alfresco dining is very creative and very adaptive. I think it’s going to transform that landscape as well…I’m looking forward to that.”

Sgabellone stated that the restaurant dining rooms that have opened have “really started to bounce back.” He noted “Now what we’re seeing is they’re embracing these new platforms, embracing digital apps.” Sgabellone also added that he noticed in his Toronto neighbourhood, he’s seeing independent food industries springing back to life with all-new platforms. “You know the data supports it, showing that people are most definitely ‘supporting local.’” He added that should another wave of the pandemic hit, it would present another advantage for local businesses, as many in lockdown can’t go far. Being present and being within the range of a walk or short drive can only be an advantage for an independent bakery. 

“Community is how you define it, said Charlebois. “In our survey, we asked whether consumers are looking for local and whether they’re looking for a Canadian source, and both of those attributes came out about equally. There’s a large portion of the population that are looking for both of them.” He stated that it’s also possible to put a ‘local’ spin on ingredients that are ultimately imported as the end product, like coffee, is ultimately turned into a Canadian treat. 

“Right off the bat, take advantage of local and your community…you know the people, people want to hear that, and they want to see that. So definitely get that message in your communications,” he maintained. 

Part of any corporate message on social media, blogs or even through signage should repeatedly announce the use of new business models, including the affiliation with delivery apps or ways to reach out, including phone numbers, email, or a website address. We’re seeing new business model emerge and grow, contests, menus and meal kits and virtual events.

Sgabellone added, “What I just find exciting is that because there’s been so many is that it’s the entrepreneurial spirit of this.”

Both Sgabellone and Johnson emphasized that transparency is key, about cleanliness and safety protocols. “That first experience that restaurants have to give people as they come back into dining rooms is to ensure that they feel safe, they feel comfortable and they have the confidence in your hygiene protocols in order for them to come back,” explained Sgabellone.

Johnson added that bakeries should be taking advantage of the opportunities to show consumers that they are using local ingredients and to share that story of where it comes from through social media and in-person interactions at the cash register or counter.

“When you have to be one of many choices. Make sure you stand out,” recommended Johnson. “What’s your story? your menu may not tell that entire story about who you are, how are you a part of that community… look for those points where you can drive that emotional connection.” She continued, “we’re hardwired for convenience, but I think we’re slowly starting to see that it doesn’t matter that we get something right away, when we get something that’s local, and that benefits our community. 

“How we market the bakery, and how we tell that story is through our heart, and how that emotional connection, is through community. You’re seeing a lot of restaurants and a lot of local businesses, give back to the community, and that’s where the whole heart comes in, and that’s where the truth and the beauty of the story stands out way better than it can in some of the big box retail.”