As much of the country recovers from the pandemic restaurant goers are eating out more than ever. This increased demand for dining out is hitting the restaurant community at a time when venues are just reopening and are hard-pressed to find staff.
As so many reservations are booked through Yelp, the company has been tracking a number of dining trends. So, I recently sat down with Devon Wright, Yelp’s general manager of the restaurant business to explore how restaurants are reopening and the tools they are using to accommodate the new influx of customers. All responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Liza B. Zimmerman (L.B.Z.): What is driving the new surge of interest in restaurants?
Devon Wright (D.W.): There are numerous reasons for the recent surge in people returning to restaurants, including higher vaccination rates, lower COVID-19 case counts, local jurisdictions lifting capacity requirements, the CDC’s recent mask mandate lift for vaccinated people and more. After more than a year of restrictions and with the summer approaching people are eager to get back to normal life.
L.B.Z.: Why is there a staff shortage? How are restaurants coping with the staff shortage?
D.W.: As restrictions have lifted many restaurants began rehiring at the same time: flooding the market with opportunities. For many business owners, the current restaurant industry labor shortage is another hurdle in their ongoing fight to stay afloat during the pandemic. While contributing factors such as career change and the need to take care of children or loved ones all play a role in the recent worker shortage, filling open positions in the hospitality industry is not strictly a post-pandemic problem.
L.B.Z.: Do you think the trend of dining out will continue to increase?
D.W.: With the summer months approaching and local restrictions continuing to lift we anticipate this diner demand to stay: at least through the summer. In time, it may lower to pre-pandemic levels. However, we anticipate the diners’ demand we’re seeing on Yelp to continue to remain elevated beyond pre-pandemic levels as restaurants adopt technology at a higher rate to manage their front-of-house operations and consumers have become more accustomed to transacting with restaurants through technology and online.
Another consideration is that Americans now have the highest level of personal savings since the 1960s making it feasible for them to keep up this increased level of dining out for some foreseeable time in the future.
L.B.Z.: Is dining out safe with only 65 percent of the country vaccinated?
D.W.: Many restaurants have implemented strict health and safety protocols into their reopening plans. Consumers can also see on a business’s Yelp page what health and safety practices a business may be implementing (such as staff wearing masks and that social distancing is enforced), as well as their most recent service offerings, to give people further confidence to support businesses in their local community.
L.B.Z.: How are restaurants using technology to help with the new surge in dining out?
D.W.: At Yelp, we’re continuing to build on our existing table-management software, Waitlist, to help restaurants increase front-of-house efficiency and stay connected to diners through enhanced guest management capabilities. We’ve introduced new features to help restaurants’ front-of-house operations through the recovery, including takeout management features and guest management features: such as capacity management, manual wait controls and QR codes to join the waitlist.
Yelp Kiosk has also been leveraged throughout the pandemic, by helping restaurants across the country manage the current hiring crisis by automating check-in, waitlist management and contacting diners when their table is ready.
By no means do we expect restaurant operators to start replacing new employees with technology. But we are seeing that if they can automate specific steps in the diner experience, the savings on labor costs can be re-distributed as higher wages to their employees. This pay increase could result in better employee retention and more talent competing for restaurant jobs.