Indoor dining is back, and patrons are hungry

By Tom Nightingale

Canadian restaurants were experiencing a post-pandemic renaissance. Then, the Omicron variant of COVID-19 hit.

It might not be quite that simple, but the boiled-down version is that foodservice was rebounding until the full effects of the most recent variant spread were felt earlier this winter. Restaurants had reopened and were finally free of capacity restrictions in some jurisdictions.

According to November 2021 data from OpenTable, the leading real-time restaurant reservation network, 70 per cent of restaurant owners and managers were approaching 2022 with optimism, reporting increased demand for reservations and increases in diner spending.

“Prior to Omicron, things were certainly looking optimistic,” Matt Davis, Canada Country Director at the company, tells RestoBiz. “Diners were enthusiastic about increasing their spending and socializing more by dining out and we looked set for a strong recovery.”

By January, that kind of prognosis seemed a thousand miles away. Omicron set everything several steps back, shutting dining rooms once again and undoing weeks and weeks of recovery.

Throughout it all, though, one thing has remained true: people love to eat at and from restaurants.

Resurgent demand

Thankfully, as of January 31, dining rooms are open again in Ontario and Quebec, albeit at 50 per cent capacity. Though it’s still midwinter by eastern Canada’s standards – always something of a down time for restaurants with harsher weather conditions, short daylight hours, and a limited appeal for outdoor dining – diner demand has been resurgent since the reopening announcement in late January.

“We’ve seen an almost immediate uptick in both Ontario and Quebec for people searching for reservations,” says Davis. “So, I think we’ve seen enough to be confident that the demand will return and the recovery will persist after what has been a brief pause.”

Davis notes that in other parts of Canada, those that don’t have such severe winters, OpenTable has seen diner optimism and enthusiasm hovering around levels that are close to pre-pandemic. He cautions that some of those that are hesitant after the latest wave in Ontario and Quebec may wait for the spring before fully re-committing. Based on early indicative data after the reopening announcement, though, a large cohort of diners are eager to get back out and support their local community and restaurants.

OpenTable’s November data found that more than one-quarter (27 per cent) of Canadians intend to eat out more frequently than before the pandemic to support local restaurants again, and 56 per cent say they want to support local restaurants and the community at large. While that data dates from before Omicron’s full effects, much of that sentiment is expected to remain.

Capitalizing on diner enthusiasm

More than was seen in the summers of 2020 and 2021, every restaurant looking at reopening or starting anew in spring and summer 2022 will utilize a plethora of methods to entice, retain, and serve guests.

While there is hope for a surge in indoor dining and confidence that takeout will persist as a major revenue stream, eating out (or in) has become a truly omnichannel experience. Today, food sales are made at pickup counters, via websites, through mobile apps, delivery aggregators, kiosks, and more. The revenue potential is everywhere.

RELATED: After Omicron delay, summer should help foodservice get back on track

OpenTable offers a suite of solutions to help restaurants capture that demand on all fronts, such as support with takeout and delivery options, operational management tools, and communication and direct messaging. That sort of integration and assistance can be a lifesaver for restaurants in the current climate of labour shortages and economic constraints.

The company has adapted its offering as the industry has evolved, too. A new tool being offered is table categories, which enable restaurants to adjust table types and make those visible to diners, thus offering more transparency on what is available – seating plans, outdoor tables, and so forth. Davis notes it will be interesting to see in the coming weeks whether there is still significant diner demand to sit on makeshift patios or heated outdoor areas in the cold weather now that indoor dining has opened again.

Another thing he adds that OpenTable is finding critical at this point is new safety tools. “We’re helping restaurants to communicate on their profiles the measures they are taking to keep diners safe, as well as to answer questions about reservations and opening hours.”

Combating no-shows

One trend Davis notes OpenTable has seen from its restaurant partners is that the majority (55 per cent) have reported an increase in reservations of parties of three or more. “That to me is very interesting because it’s evidence of the hypothesis that people are keen to recapture these experiences with their friends and their families,” says Davis.

As any restaurateur knows, getting those large parties in is great for business, particularly at a time when a rebound is needed.

But what happens when those parties don’t show up?

No-shows can kill business, and the margin for error is in many cases far slimmer now than it was pre-pandemic. If one four-top doesn’t show up, that can be the difference between a profitable night and not making any money.

OpenTable’s Show Up For Restaurants campaign aims to educate diners on the impact of no shows. 

“Having been a restaurant operator and manager myself, no-show reservations are one of the most painful and frustrating things about running a restaurant,” says Davis. “There is nothing more important to a restaurant’s revenue than the seats saved in the restaurant. When that’s restricted to 50 per cent, each seat becomes even more valuable.”

The idea behind the initiative was to better communicate to diners the importance of showing up to restaurants, leveraging the public’s desire to support local restaurants to help them understand that it’s far better to call and cancel than to not show up.

“When a diner calls to cancel, what they’re actually doing is give the restaurant the opportunity to fill those seats with potential customers who often could be right in front of them,” continues Davis. “Younger people, to be frank, aren’t that used to making phone calls and so it behooves us to make it easier for them to contact restaurants to make a cancellation. We built tools to streamline that process and help restaurants recoup that business.”

Part of that system even includes a ‘four-strikes-and-out’ policy wherein OpenTable locks a user’s account if they no-show a restaurant four times. “The bottom line is that it is bad for restaurants,” concludes Davis. “It’s a serious and harmful issue and one we wanted to shed more light on.”

Harm is certainly a word that Canadian foodservice has been familiar with over the last two years.

But, with tools such as those offered by OpenTable, more potential revenue streams than ever before, and the value-add of the return of indoor dining and a gradual return to more appealing weather, there is plenty of room for optimism for the times ahead.