Looking back, all the chatter about how the years following the pandemic would be like the Roaring ’20s seems a little naïve. We might have known that once you shut down entire industries, the roll back would be a slow one. But given where we are right now, at the close of 2022, it’s almost hard to recall that a year ago we were feeling the icy grip of omicron and fearing the worst. While it did slow down the holiday season, the restaurant industry fared pretty well despite all.
Ghost Kitchens Ghosted
Hellooo? Weren’t ghost kitchens supposed to be the major shift in the way we eat? Delivery companies and national chains spent a lot of money developing commissary kitchens for the future of delivered food. Perhaps it was the emptiness of a food concept fronted by YouTubers that left people cold, or maybe it was just the apex of hastily executed delivery food that was cold. Turns out, after being cooped up with only delivery and takeout, people wanted more.
People Want to Go Out
Have you noticed that Thursday is the new Friday and Tuesday is the new Thursday? People are packing their favorite restaurants most days of the week. Reservations now feel necessary, even for barstools in some spots (to the annoyance of those of us who love to just dip in). This has forced people to plan ahead a bit more, and maybe even value the seats they do score.
There’s no doubt: One of the reasons places are busier is because hours are shortened. It can still be tough to find a dinner out on a Monday night. And if you’re planning to double-dip on a weekend night with dinner and a show, make sure you’re not planning to dine on the late end. Many kitchens are still closing by 10 pm (or earlier!), even on weekends, and that has more to do with giving their hard-won staff livable hours than it does with not wanting your business.
To Tip or Not To Tip?
The tipping models used among restaurants are still quite varied. Non-tipping service charge models are still a work in progress, so there hasn’t been a big shift as of yet, it seems, and tipping has not been eliminated. Meanwhile, there are experiments all over town. Some places that vociferously launched no-tip policies moved to add a tip line on their checks. Other places found themselves having to defend their percentages and explain where the money was going in order to satisfy guests. And then there are the ones who’ve completely eliminated table service but still kept the tip button on the counter order screen. Confused? You’re not alone.
The Perfect Storm
While we’re still trying to do the math for service charges and tip lines, it’s hard not to notice that overall it’s more expensive to dine out. But you can’t blame it on one thing, which means it’s not an easy fix. Due to the labor shortage, wages have already gone way past the feared $15-per-hour model. To offset this, though, you can’t really just raise menu prices anymore, because the cost of food has already been increased by producers. Inflation has also impacted prices, and supply chain issues are still causing delays and shortages. Everything costs more, and restaurant margins have always been pretty thin to begin with. But many are worried: Once you hit a $20 burger as normal, how does that beefy genie get stuffed back in the bottle?
From what I’m hearing from both workers and owners, the subject of mental health in the service industry is discussed more than ever before. Just the fact that it is being talked about is a step up for that world, in which it’s easy to turn to chemicals to get you through. Local organizations like Project Black and Blue and Serving Those Serving have opened the doors to help while also encouraging people in the industry to be honest and open about their struggles.
Here we stand at the cusp of 2023 with forks at the ready. The restaurant industry did not fail or fall, though it did stumble. As it keeps working hard to stand up once again and help knit our Cities and our lives together, I think we can be optimistic that it’s going to be better than ever.