FAS The Hague reports that consumption of food products in Belgium mostly happens at home, but the food service market in Belgium features a very high number of independent outlets in all of the main categories, such as fullservice restaurants, fast food,
café and bars, also known as “Horeca” (hotel–restaurant-cafes) in Belgium and home delivery and takeaway. It has been difficult for independent foodservice operators, as they face both tightening fiscal legislation and
increasing competition from more modern and dynamic concepts, especially in fast food, full-service restaurants and cafés/bars. However, there is also dynamism and innovation among independents, as demonstrated by the several new openings
in independent Latin American fast food establishments, and in specialist coffee shops.
Euromonitor reports that Belgian consumer foodservice saw an increase in sales in 2021. However, the growth was lower than expected due to continuing COVID-19 measures. With outlets being closed at the start of the year, sales were buoyed only by
home delivery and takeaway options. Fortunately for players in this category, such options have continued to increase in popularity with Belgians keen to consume foodservice food even if they cannot do so in restaurants, bars, or cafés.
COVID-19 has thus forced brands that previously relied on in-person service to invest in digitalization. The industry has been relatively late to develop e-commerce presence but has sought to catch up in the last two years to sustain sales during
the mandatory outlet closures.
In fact, such outlets only re-opened in Belgium in June 2021, albeit with restrictions and curfew in place. In general, people in Belgium have been quite confident about returning to restaurants, bars,
and cafés, provided the hygiene measures are followed. Such measures include the Covid Safe Ticket which required people to present vaccine certification to enter consumer foodservice outlets. The government also asked consumers
to work from home for four days a week between mid-November and mid-December 2021 to help contain the spread of the virus. Nevertheless, to establish trust with their customers, players have had to significantly invest in these safety measures
like screens between tables, digitalization of menus, and sanitization practices.
The pandemic has also led to heightened interest in eating healthy as this is proven to be one way to improve one’s immune system and keep the most
severe effects of the virus at bay. As such, more customers are turning to vegetarian or vegan diets and showing particular interest in locally grown produce. As such, many restaurants have become more vegetarian and vegan friendly, with
Bavet, Lunch Garden, Pizza Hut, and Ellis all introducing such options in 2021. Similarly, Quick launched its Primeur burger, which is made from local, healthy ingredients such as beetroot and spinach. Foodmaker, which also focused on
local, organic, and healthy ingredients in 2021, has also seen rising popularity.
In terms of operations in 2021, the biggest struggle for consumer foodservice is recruitment. Given the initial impact of the pandemic when venues were forced
to close, many players had to let go of some of their staff members. Unable to find work in consumer foodservice, many of these chefs and restaurant managers sought careers in other industries. Now that venues have reopened, many owners
are finding it difficult to recruit competent and experienced people to manage their venues.
Despite the operational challenges of the pandemic, chained restaurants continued to expand their outlet numbers in 2021. For instance, the
restaurants Bavet, Pitaya, and Domino’s Pizza as well as coffee specialist IzyCoffee opened new outlets in 2021. This is thanks to the greater resources and financial power of chained restaurants over independent ones. As such, chained
restaurants are recovering faster than independents, with such outlets also quicker to adapt to a dine-out scheme to encourage customers back to their outlets.
There are also a growing number of new players in the industry with new chains
such as Pokawa, Pitaya, Chick & Cheez, and Le Botaniste starting to gain traction. This number is expected to continue growing in the coming years with Belgium set to host a greater number of small international chains. This gives consumers
more choice, stimulating interest in dining-out.
The other shift that has occurred in the last two years is the transition towards more casual dining, namely, that full-service restaurants are becoming more like limited-service restaurants
and independents restaurants are starting to operate more like chained restaurants. This is because consumers are showing less desire to spend a long time eating in at a venue, perceiving shorter visits as safer. In addition, full-service
restaurants are increasingly offering takeaway and home-delivery services (with this being a lifeline during the mandatory venue closures) despite such venues previously focusing on providing a high-quality dining-in experience.
to Euromonitor, the recovery of consumer foodservice in Belgium will vary from category to category and brand to brand. For example, chained restaurants are expected recover by 2023 (or even by 2022 for some limited-service restaurants, particularly
those serving pizza and burgers). Independent restaurants were hit harder by the pandemic, with many going into bankruptcy. As well as reducing the number of independent outlets, this leaves empty sites and good opportunities for chained
restaurants to seize. Also, the digitalization of the industry has given more advantage to chains as they generally have higher investment and logistic capabilities.