Deep Dish #9: The Role of Planners in Mitigating the Impacts of COVID-19 on the Food Environment
By Lindsey Soon & Alexander Wray
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?