Dining activity at pre-pandemic levels for first time: OpenTable CEO

With half of the U.S. adult population now vaccinated and many COVID-19 restrictions lifted, restaurants are beginning their long road to recovery.

The online restaurant reservation site OpenTable.com finds pent-up demand for dining out is exploding across the country. CEO Debby Soo tells Yahoo Finance Live that May 25 was “the first day where we saw dining activity exceed pre-pandemic levels.” Soo says it’s “encouraging” to see people eager to dine out again, but she acknowledges that for some restaurant owners, the recovery is coming too late.

“At the onset of the pandemic, we anticipated about one in four restaurants wouldn't make it. And the data that we're currently seeing supports that thesis,” she said.

Eighty percent of restaurants on the OpenTable platform are accepting online reservations again, while 20% couldn’t survive during the pandemic and have shut their doors. Soo says she anticipates new restaurant openings in the coming months to be added to the platform.

Restaurateurs have had to get creative over the past year to stay afloat, including increasing their outdoor seating, reducing their turn times so they can seat more guests, and upping their takeout and delivery offerings.

And there is no denying what the pandemic has done to indoor dining. While capacity limits for indoor dining have either been increased or eliminated in some cities, plexiglass between tables has become commonplace. Temperature checks and mask wearing is also prevalent and some restaurants are collecting information from customers to help them with contact tracing.

Soo says her platform is helping its restaurant partners get back in action and navigate regulatory restrictions by offering reopening guidance, ways to drive revenue and insights into diner expectations and behavior.

Data collected by OpenTable finds the top performing regions for restaurants on the platform globally as of May 28 are Connecticut, Oklahoma, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Georgia.

Still, the biggest challenge for the restaurant industry is finding workers.

The National Restaurant Association reported that the restaurant and bars industry added 187,000 jobs in April on a seasonally-adjusted basis, marking the fourth consecutive month of payroll growth.

New York restaurateur Danny Meyer told Yahoo Finance Live he’s seen a “dramatic” shortage of talent for a myriad of reasons. The Shake Shack (SHAK) founder and CEO of the Union Square Hospitality Group said some workers in customer-facing jobs like restaurants and retail may not feel comfortable returning until more people are vaccinated against COVID-19, while others left the industry altogether to find opportunities elsewhere during the pandemic.

He warns customers to brace for lots of new faces at their neighborhood restaurants. “Maybe your favorite maitre d' is no longer working there, or your favorite waiter or waitress or bartender may no longer be working there,” said Meyer. “You might even find that the menus are somewhat shorter.”

Alexis Christoforous is an anchor at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @AlexisTVNews.

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