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Deep Dish #9: The Role of Planners in Mitigating the Impacts of COVID-19 on the Food Environment

Deep Dish #9: The Role of Planners in  Mitigating the Impacts of COVID-19 on the Food  Environment 

By Lindsey Soon & Alexander Wray

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This post originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2021 Issue of the Ontario Professional Planners Institute’s Y Magazine.  

In Canada, food services are the country’s 4th largest private-sector employer, creating a wide-range of skilled jobs for 7% of the overall Canadian workforce. This industry is estimated to contribute $90 billion in economic activity annually. Restaurants, cafes, bars, pubs, and other food-based hospitality businesses provide meaningful skilled work, contribute to cultural capital, and are a fundamental component in place-making. In short, these businesses are foundational to the health, success, and vibrancy of Ontario’s communities. 

The Food Retail Environment Study on Health and Economic Resiliency (FRESHER) has been tracking the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic situation on restaurants, fast food outlets, grocery stores, cafes, bars and alcohol retail stores across Ontario. Over the past year, the FRESHER team has surveyed over 400 and interviewed over 100 employees, employers, and allied industry professionals. In addition, the study has tracked the operating conditions of over 26,000 businesses across the province (fresher.theheal.ca).  

Restaurants and other hospitality businesses in the province are in serious trouble. A perfect storm of shifting consumer preferences, technological change, inconsistent and fluctuating public health restrictions, and increased costs of business are placing immense pressure on the sector. Looking post-pandemic, the industry has already fundamentally changed in many ways. Planners will need to undertake conscious actions to ensure these vital building blocks remain in the foundation of Ontario communities.   

Ghost kitchens are restaurants that prepare meals solely for the delivery market, with no public-facing physical location. Ghost kitchens operate almost exclusively on third-party online delivery platforms, like UberEats, Skip the Dishes, and Doordash. The restriction on in-person dining, and fluctuating public health standards for restaurant operations over the past year has incentivized many corporate and independent brands to pivot towards this model. Many businesses and allied professionals report this model saves on real estate and personnel costs, as delivery service costs are externalized to third parties and no indoor dining room is required to operate. Ghost kitchens have the potential to cultivate the quality and density of local and experimental businesses that may not be in the financial position to maintain pricey main street brick-and-mortar locations. However, there are significant planning concerns associated with this business model given many zoning bylaw regimes do not have a good classification for these types of operations. Are they restaurants that belong in traditional retail zones, or are they food production facilities that would be better suited in a light industrial area? Given the reliance on car-based delivery, operation times that mimic traditional restaurant hours late into the evening, and a lack of public-facing street presence, this new business model presents to planners a challenging use concept to regulate in the future. How should they be regulated, and impacts mitigated? 

Outdoor patios had a renaissance this past summer in Ontario. Many municipalities established “dining districts” in core areas, closed lanes to provide more patio space, and allowed for the first-time flexible conversions of parking lots and other underused spaces into temporary patios. Warmer months are clearly the most popular time for patios, but many businesses have reported successful experiments with patios in the wintertime. It would appear that many communities are warming up to outdoor dining and drinking throughout the entire year. Moreover, municipalities of all sizes are discussing outdoor dining programs as being permanent seasonal, and even year-round, fixtures of main streets and core areas. Others have proceeded with zoning bylaw amendments that will permit the conversion of parking lots and other areas into seasonal patio spaces. The sidewalk, a notoriously crowded and highly competitive space, must be courageously expanded in existing urban areas; while new minimums should be established for sidewalk widths in all core areas to provide even more flexible space for patios. Patios are a simple, cheap, and highly effective place-making strategy that would support the recovery of many businesses in the sector. How can planners support outdoor patios for these businesses?  

Business Improvement Areas (BIA) and Community Improvement Plans (CIP) are useful policy tools to implement COVID-19 pandemic supports and recovery programs. BIA organizations have been channels through which business owners receive information regarding public health restrictions. Others have provided additional targeted financial supports to fill gaps in federal and provincial programs. Many are promoting small independent businesses through custom aggregative shopping platforms, and incentivizing residents to shop and eat local. Municipalities, BIA organizations, and local business owners have a unique opportunity to create vibrant and resilient communities through collaboration on CIP policies and programs. What can be implemented through CIPs to aid in the recovery of main streets and retail areas?  

Access to healthy and affordable food within residential areas has been a component of official plan policy for many Ontario communities. However, as the pandemic situation rapidly alters the private sector calculus for grocery and convenience products, these smaller format stores within neighbourhoods are likely to disappear as major brands centralize their operations. Online grocery pickup and delivery is likely to continue past the pandemic as a popular shopping method, requiring new warehouses and larger format retail stores. How can planners mitigate the impacts of these uses, while still incentivizing and allowing access to healthy and affordable food within communities? 

Changing alcohol consumption rules in Ontario have meant greater access to beer, wine, and spirits through home delivery, restaurant takeout, and local convenience stores. Other provinces have been experimenting with permitting alcohol consumption within public spaces. How can planners lead this conversation to maintain spaces for everyone, while allowing for unique hospitality experiences to emerge within the public realm? 


Make your voice heard at https://gofresher.theheal.ca, and stay tuned in to the conversation through our social media pages (@FRESHER_Canada) and website at https://fresher.theheal.ca.

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Play of the Week #10

Play of the Week #10

By Rebecca Clarke

Support Your Favourite Local Restaurants! 

The latest province-wide lockdown on April 3rd, 2021, has been devastating for the restaurant industry. Restaurants Canada and the Ontario Restaurant Hotel and Motel Association in an open letter to Premier Doug Ford stated, “The abrupt move to shut down all dining soon after easing restrictions cost Ontario restaurants more than $100 million.” Businesses in the food retail sector need direct financial support to compensate for lost inventory and to get them through another lockdown.   

Restaurants in Ontario have been using all their effort, creativity and resources just to scrape by throughout the course of this pandemic. During this time, they have urged consumers to increase their support for their favourite restaurants by ordering takeout more often from them. Additionally, consumers should order directly from the restaurant, instead of third-party delivery platforms, so that the restaurant receives 100% of the profits.  

Local restaurants provide us with a sense familiarity, connectedness, and pleasure. They have supported us during the good times by giving us a place to gather with family and friends. Now it’s time that we support them. Play your part in helping them to survive this pandemic by ordering takeout!  

Interview insights…

“The regulations closed my doors. Customers were no longer coming in… I couldn’t afford my rent anymore. It led me to close my restaurant.” – Restaurant Owner, London ON  

Interview insights…

“Yeah, yeah, there was a bit of [financial] support for small businesses. I still have to pay rent…I still have to pay my personal expenses as well. There was not enough money to pay myself. So yeah, I used a few of the emergency benefit plans, but it only covers 50%, it doesn’t cover the whole game.” – Restaurant Owner, London ON  

Resources

How consumers can support restaurants during COVID-19: https://www.restaurantscanada.org/support-restaurants/  

London Restaurant Directory: https://www.londontourism.ca/supporting-local-business  

Toronto Restaurant Directory: https://trnto.com/toronto-restaurants/  

Waterloo Region Restaurant Directory: https://explorewaterloo.ca/directory/restaurants/  


Make your voice heard at https://gofresher.theheal.ca, and stay tuned in to the conversation through our social media pages (@FRESHER_Canada) and website at https://fresher.theheal.ca.

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Play of the Week #9

Play of the Week #9

By Alexander Wray

Downtown London’s Courtesy Delivery & Pickup Zones 

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many restaurants in Ontario to adopt curbside takeout and delivery models. These models rely on having sufficient sidewalk space to have an outdoor counter or takeout window for service, and nearby short-term parking for delivery drivers and customers. Restaurants located in core areas along main streets are uniquely challenged given that many do not have their own dedicated parking lots, or short-term spaces in front of their locations. Parking fees in nearby lots and streets also adds costs that may deter delivery drivers and consumers, with the minimum spend to park in any municipal lot on on-street space often equating to more than 30 minutes of parking time. This situation has led to illegal parking on main streets in bike lanes and sidewalks, tickets being issued to underpaid delivery drivers, and consumers choosing restaurants outside of the core area with free parking options. In response, the City of London has implemented “Courtesy Delivery & Pickup Zones” in Downtown London in proximity to clusters of restaurants. These zones are typically spaces previously reserved for loading or paid parking. Any vehicle is provided with 10-20 minutes of free parking in these spaces to make deliveries and/or pickup orders. These spaces are also located on side streets instead of along the busier main streets of Dundas Place and Richmond Street. This placement should avoid disrupting those businesses that are reliant on takeout and delivery, while also supporting a high-quality streetscape that can be opened to people and patios in the summer months!  

Interview insights…

“I think it [third-party delivery services] plays a very important role because not a lot of restaurants are able to hire staff just for the sole purpose of delivery.” – Third-Party Delivery Driver, London ON 

Interview insights…

“You get higher rates in downtown that forces chains and restaurants to go to the suburbs. You are punishing the locally owned businesses that are here. You get free parking in the suburbs, but not here. How about you build some parking lots downtown that are free.” – Business Owner, London ON  

“So in trying to offer up the opportunity for patios, we also have this really big push towards curbside pickup and quick drop off. It really starts competing for the right of way and for the parking spaces that we do have in our streets. We’ve been trying to address it in certain areas where that has come up as a desire from the businesses. But certainly, the downtown is really kind of the key destination for a lot of restaurants, especially local. So we try to support them as best we can to keep local businesses here.” – Planner at City of London, London ON  


Make your voice heard at https://gofresher.theheal.ca, and stay tuned in to the conversation through our social media pages (@FRESHER_Canada) and website at https://fresher.theheal.ca.

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Play of the Week #8

Play of the Week #8

By Alexander Morgenthaler

Connectedness in the Contactless 

As COVID-19 continues to impact the food retail and services industry many businesses have been exhibiting ingenuity to overcome challenges.  For example, a home-based health food/supplement retailer in Kitchener, Ontario responded to the loss of trade shows by implementing a contactless online ordering system to sell and promote her products. But this updated system still lacked connectedness between the business and the customers. To improve connectedness, orders were placed in a porch cooler as an ingenious twist on curb-side pickup. When the customer arrives to collect the order, there is a chance for employees of the businesses to interact with customers through a closed door, allowing for greater connectedness than COVID-19 restrictions would normally allow. This contactless cooler system created an avenue to connect with customers without creating a new risk of spreading COVID-19, thereby allowing customers to identify with the business and form a stronger connection with the product. These changes are just some of the various innovative solutions and options that are available to businesses to engage with customers and help build resiliency in the local economy. 

Interview insights…

“…Normally I would have several shows lined up throughout the year…. where I would be meeting people and having an opportunity to educate them about the product and sample the product. There was an in person show that I did where there was a limited number of tables, a limited number of people that could be in the building,… it completely changed the way that I sampled. I had prepackaged samples that people could choose to try … it certainly was not the same dynamic.” – Health food business owner

Interview insights…

“Our restaurants are now all done with QR codes with our menus and with people’s phones. From the beginning, we had to figure out what technology was available to us. I guess the big thing was finding the compromise and balance because much of what hospitality is are those special touches, those one offs that set you apart.” – Hospitality Group in Essex County 

Resources

Connect with your local BIA: https://obiaa.com/members 

QR Codes as a Contactless Interaction: https://www.forbes.com/sites/suzannerowankelleher/2020/06/16/why-qr-codes-are-popping-up-everywhere-during-the-pandemic/?sh=2b3cb540c14d  


Make your voice heard at https://gofresher.theheal.ca, and stay tuned in to the conversation through our social media pages (@FRESHER_Canada) and website at https://fresher.theheal.ca.