The trouble with food culture: How the restaurant industry exploits millennial diners

OPINION: What constitutes a glimmer of hope for the dining lobby? Young people who can’t cook or afford to buy a house
By Corey Mintz - Published on July 16, 2018
a food box with chopsticks
Since 2000, inflation-adjusted per capita spending at quick-service restaurants has increased from $660 to $832. (iStock.com)

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This is the second in a five-part series about the problems with contemporary food culture.                                                                       

It’s 8 a.m. on a Tuesday.

A representative from Restaurants Canada, the industry’s lobbying association, apologizes to the room. There’s been a problem with the caterer, and the promised breakfast isn’t ready — but they’ll have something after the presentation.

I kill time by flipping through its statistics handout. The glossy cover features a giant head of broccoli on its side, with tiny figurines mounted on its colossal, bright-green surface. The figurines are meant to look like farmers hacking at the broccoli and hauling away florets. It’s a cute image — but it perpetuates a racial fiction. The figurines are all white. Dressed in railway caps and suspenders, they look more like the 19th-century peasant farmers painted by Julien Dupré than like members of Canada’s agricultural labour force, half of which consists of seasonal migrants from Mexico or the Caribbean.

But the marketers and restaurant owners here haven’t come to this conference room to discuss the erasure of migrant workers or to enjoy the continental breakfast. They’ve come to hear from senior economist Chris Elliot, who is presenting Restaurants Canada’s 2018 research.

Elliot has bad news, which he delivers right away: growth is stagnant.

“The pie is not growing here,” says Elliot. “The only way to grow your market share is to steal market share from someone else.”

This, they already know. Over the past 10 years, food-service sales in Canada have increased 31 per cent. But that growth is tapering off; Elliot expects that rising interest rates will increase household debt, resulting in less discretionary spending. And while gross revenue has increased, so have costs: bottom-line profits have remained at 4.2 per cent for the past three years.

The general public could be forgiven for not knowing this, since our food-media diets are composed mostly of hot chefs, hot restaurants, hot trends, and hot ingredients, and all the attention is focused on independent operators. But while independents make up just over half of full-service restaurants, 90 per cent of quick-service restaurants (those without table service) are chains. And all the growth has been in the QSR sector


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Since 2000, per capita spending at QSRs has increased from $660 to $832 (adjusted for inflation), while full-service restaurants have gone from $821 to $815, returning to pre-recession levels only in the last two years.

I didn’t come for the bagels and coffee either. I came for some insight — not into how I can grow my own restaurant business (I don’t have one), but into how the food industry sees its customers.

“Canadians eat out more and more,” says Elliot, getting back to the net-positive message. “We’re seeing that people don’t have time to cook, they don’t want to cook, and” — he grins ear to ear — “they don’t know how to cook.”

As Elliot carries on, telling us that 36 per cent of millennials can’t make spaghetti and 24 per cent can’t cook broccoli, I wonder whether I have imagined his cheerfulness, whether the smile I saw was a trick of the morning light pouring in through the 46th-floor window. Surely he can’t be openly gleeful that young Canadians make good customers because they lack basic life skills.

But the cheerfulness comes out again later, during the Q&A, when an audience member wonders what he’ll do if millennials, as they age and start families, start spending less on eating out.

“A lot of them don’t know how to cook,” Elliot reiterates, flashing that smile again. “So: food service to the rescue.”

The materials distributed to the audience echo this grim message: “With many millennials renting versus owning, an increase in disposable income has many households turning to food service for both indulgence and convenience.”

Translation: our real-estate market has priced young people out of any hope of owning, so with no future to save for, they’re spending their money at restaurants.

When that restaurant-sponsored ad pops up in your Instagram feed, it’s because Facebook is selling your data to advertisers — not just because marketers have determined that millennials and centennials value the convenience of delivery and mobile payment (and of not having to cook), but also because they know you’ve been failed by the education system and failed by the economy. And when you feel miserable about your prospects, when you’re overcome by a gnawing sense that you will never enjoy the economic stability your parents’ generation did, they see an opportunity to sell you a Cheddar Supreme pizza.

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