Running a restaurant is tough even during the Good Times. But the strain put on restaurants now was beyond imagination not long ago.
By Wolf Richter for WOLF STREET.
The number of “seated diners,” a daily measure with which OpenTable tracks walk-ins and diners with reservations, in the week through January 20 in the US was down on average by 57% from the same period last year. But it was up from the multi-month low of -67% just before the Christmas holidays.
The calendar shifts in 2020 of Labor Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Eve – holidays in 2020 were matched with regular weekdays in 2019 – make for some peculiar year-over-year comparisons around those holidays, as the spikes and troughs show. The “-100%” in April indicates that there were essentially no seated diners due to the lockdowns. And this has been showing up again in some cities that we’ll get to in a moment:
Whatever this phase of the Pandemic may be – I heard on the radio this morning that it’s “the end of the beginning” – it has been a catastrophe for restaurants. Many are already gone, along with their jobs and rent payments. Indoor dining has been shut down in many areas.
Even outdoor dining has been shut down in some areas, after a restaurant survival strategy, the indoorification of outdoor dining, became standard practice, where plastic buildings with heaters appeared on the sidewalk that were in essence like indoor dining rooms with the windows open. This is in San Francisco, an illuminated span of the Bay Bridge in the background. The arrangement is now closed:
Cities in the West and Hawaii:
Hawaii had locked down in September when the number of seated diners plunged by 100% to about zero and then gingerly reopened its restaurant industry with many restrictions. But the tourism business has collapsed, and so the number of seated diners in the latest week in Honolulu was down 72% from a year ago.
As catastrophic as this sounds, this was far better than the cities on the US West Coast, where the number of seated diners collapsed between 90% in Seattle and Portland and 100% in San Francisco and Los Angeles, with even outdoor dining being closed:
The daily data on seated diners is based on a sample of 20,000 restaurants that shared the information with OpenTable, and includes walk-ins and diners with online and phone reservations. I’ve converted all data here to a moving seven-day average.
Cities on the East Coast:
Restaurants on the East Coast struggle with renewed restrictions along with the impact of winter weather on outdoor dining. The number of seated diners in the latest week, compared to a year ago, plunged between 62% in Pittsburgh and 95% in Baltimore. In New York, the number of seated diners was down by 87%:
Cities in the Southwest and in the Rockies.
The number of seated diners in the six cities in these regions was down between 35% in Houston and 52% in Phoenix. In Denver (red line), restaurants were able to re-open their indoor dining facilities in early January, with big restrictions.
Cities in the Midwest:
Restaurants in Minneapolis went into strict lockdown on November 20, causing the number of seated diners to plunge by nearly 100%. Indoor dining with restrictions reopened on January 11, and business recovered some; in the latest week, seated diners were down 61%. In Chicago seated diners were down by 82%; in Cincinnati by 37%. The calendar shift massively distorted the year-over-year percentages in the top three cities over Christmas and New Year’s Eve:
Cities in the South.
The number of seated diners in the latest week was down between 16% in Miami to 66% in New Orleans, with Atlanta, Charlotte, Louisville, and Nashville in the -48% to -58% range. Here too, the calendar shifts massively distorted the numbers over Labor Day and New Year’s Eve:
Like many Americans, I’m looking forward to the moment when it’s safe for everyone to sit down at a crowded noisy bar of a thriving restaurant, have some Fed-free liquidity, and some delicious food, served with a friendly smile and maybe a joke about the bad old days of the Pandemic. The restaurant business is always tough, even during the Good Times. But the strain put on the industry now was beyond imagination not long ago. Meanwhile, we’re trying to support our favorite eateries with takeout – those that are even able to keep their doors open – and hope they can hang on.
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