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As alcohol consumption declines, a St. Patrick's Day with fewer raised glasses

TORONTO — The usual sight of green-clad revellers celebrating St. Patrick's Day is expected across Canada on Sunday — but compared with a decade ago, fewer of them will be indulging in alcohol.
Many will don their green outfits with clover-green hats and head out to celebrate St. Patrick's Day across Canada -- but not all will indulge in alcohol. A giant leprechaun is shown during the St. Patrick's Day parade in Montreal, Sunday, March 19, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

TORONTO — The usual sight of green-clad revellers celebrating St. Patrick's Day is expected across Canada on Sunday — but compared with a decade ago, fewer of them will be indulging in alcohol.

Restaurants and pubs should be ready to serve mocktails and buzz-free Guinness to the holiday revellers, experts say.

"In these economic times, alcohol can be expensive to buy when you're in a restaurant, and people are cutting back," said Vince Sgabellone, food service industry analyst at Circana. "Instead of having an alcoholic beverage, they may have a soft drink or cut out altogether and just have tap water when they go out." 

People in general are ordering fewer beverages when they visit a restaurant, he added, and alcohol is one of the first orders to go.

The trend away from alcohol is especially popular among adults aged between 18 and 34. A Statistics Canada survey in 2021 found that one in five Canadians were drinking less than they did pre-pandemic, with younger Canadians more likely to be cutting back.

There are multiple factors at play.

Generation Z is growing more health conscious and also doesn't want to splurge on drinks when going out, reasoned Robert Carter, a food service industry expert. 

Changing demographics may also play a role, said Carter, a managing partner at the StratonHunter Group. Canada has a large immigrant population, and for many people alcohol may not be such a big part of culture as it is for others, he said. 

A surge in the cost of living may also be driving consumers away from drinking.

Diversifying menus could help restaurants recover from lost alcohol sales, Sgabellone said, noting such changes are increasingly the norm at many restaurants.

"When I go out to restaurants, I'm seeing more and more beverage offerings that are outside of the norm," he said. "Now, you're seeing the non-alcoholic beverage menus are being expanded."

Some of the non-alcoholic drinks on offer include coffee, soft drinks, juice and non-carbonated drinks. 

St. Patrick's Day and cappuccinos may not be an obvious pairing, but there's room for bar owners to try something new. 

"Creative restaurant and bar owners will do a number of different non-alcohol mocktail-type specials and create some fun around those options as well to attract people to come in and celebrate the social holiday," said Carter.

This doesn't mean there won't be any drinkers this St. Patrick's Day.

Carter says bars and restaurants will still be stocking up on the festive favourites — Irish whiskey and Guinness beer, among others.

"You will still see an increase in sales for alcohol on St. Patrick's Day, but I think the increase is nowhere near what it used to be five to even 10 years ago," Carter said.

Over the past five years, alcohol consumption on St. Patrick's Day was up 25 per cent compared with the day before and the day after the holiday, the Ipsos alcohol consumption tracker shows.

"Overall, drinking patterns have gone down," said Sam Agarwal, director of market strategy and understanding with Ipsos. "But definitely, there is a heightened incidence of drinking during that particular day."

She added that drinking in restaurants hasn't returned to pre-pandemic levels.

As mainstream companies expand their non-alcoholic offerings, Sgabellone agrees drinking less is becoming more acceptable.

"It is normal, it is mainstream and nobody's going to look silly at me if I'm not drinking alcohol when I'm out with the gang," he said.

Toronto's Fox and Fiddle is prepared to meet demands for both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, which they added to their menu more than three years ago.

"We've noticed people having one less beer than usual," said Alisha Soles, general manager at the Bay Street pub. That said, its hard-to-miss location — next to Scotiabank Arena — keeps it busy throughout the season, bringing the Maple Leafs and Raptors crowds, who prefer alcoholic beverages, Soles added.

For St. Patrick's Day, Soles said the pub is planning a few specials as it expects people both celebrating the Irish festival and visiting other nearby attractions. 

Sgabellone said having a great food menu can counter the decline in alcohol sales for restaurants.

"People like to eat when they're out drinking as well," he said. "People are going out for the whole experience. They want to be out with their friends, they want to be entertained, they'll have a few drinks but they'll also eat — and spend money on your menu."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 15, 2024.

Ritika Dubey, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version incorrectly described the location of the Fox pub.