Restaurant menus shrank by an average of 25 per cent during the pandemic, according to private sales data, as business owners coped with high food prices and difficulties securing ingredients because of supply chain issues.
The data comes from Square, an arm of the recently renamed technology firm Block Inc., which provides a variety of financial products, including point-of-sales systems, to hundreds of thousands of small businesses in Canada.
Square analyzed the number of menu items that were being sold just from their food-services clients, and found that, on average, they were offering 31 fewer options to customers, or about 25 per cent less, when compared to their menus before the pandemic. The items include full dishes, drinks and add-ons.
Full-service restaurants had a larger drop in menu size, of 28 per cent, compared to quick-service restaurants, which dropped 24 per cent.
Bryan Solar, general manager of restaurants at Square, said the challenges of the pandemic have prompted food establishments to be even more deliberate about their menus.
“When you look at what’s been happening with restaurants, they’ve really had to get creative,” Mr. Solar said. “They’ve had to find ways to make the margins work.”
Sandhya Nair, owner of Maurya Indian Restaurants, which has six locations in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, said that during the most challenging times of the pandemic she has had to limit her menu to just the items she knows a customer will order, at the expense of variety.
“I’m going to reduce the total number of items to all the best-selling items, which I know will sell for sure,” Ms. Nair said. “I keep those items and I scrap the rest.”
She said she has seen a lot of price volatility for her ingredients, such as a pack of nine cauliflowers selling for $60 instead of the usual $25, or a box of garlic going for $90 instead of $40. She said she dreads a coming dairy price hike, with the cost of milk set to increase 8.4 per cent in February.
She said she has sometimes had to go to great lengths to source ingredients for her restaurants, sometimes driving to a wholesale terminal in north Toronto at the crack of dawn to get in line ahead of other restaurant buyers.
“You go to the terminal at 5 a.m. in the morning and get whatever you can,” Ms. Nair said. “People who are ready to pay the money to get it, get it.”
The data from Square quantifies an issue that many in the industry have talked about. Restaurants Canada, the national industry group, surveyed 759 of its members this month and found that 56 per cent of table-service restaurants have reduced the number of items on their menu in response to supply disruptions.
On the whole, food-services businesses have recovered much of the revenue they lost in the first year of the pandemic, though they remain slightly below prepandemic levels. Statistics Canada reported last week that the sector’s total revenue was at $6.4-billion in November, which was an increase of 36.9 per cent over the same month a year before. Statscan also noted that restaurants were charging 3.8 per cent more for food during the same period.
From Ms. Nair’s perspective, a slimmer menu has produced one advantage: It means fewer ingredients to store and keep track of. The downside, however, is that customers have fewer options and it may be more difficult to please large groups, such as a family ordering together whose members may have very different tastes. On the whole, she said, she would rather have more items available to appeal to a larger customer base.
“When you shorten the menu, inventory management and storage does become easy,” Ms. Nair said. “But from a restaurant point of view, I wouldn’t say it’s a good thing.”
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