All signs point to busier dine-in days ahead.

In normal times, summer has been an especially lucrative season for restaurants, particularly those in destination locations. Last year marked a hard downturn, and while summer 2021 isn’t expected to reach pre-pandemic levels, there’s reason for optimism. Indoor dining restrictions continue to ease, while warmer temps open up more al fresco seating options. Furthermore, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s relaxed guidelines for domestic travel could mean restaurants are welcoming out-of-towners, too.

In short, 2021 could prove a promising summer for restaurants.

“People have been champing at the bit to dine out more on-premises for a while now,” says Loren Dalton, a small business consultant and founder of local deal app WhutsFree. “I’m an eternal optimist, so as long as we follow all the regulations, we should have a safe and enjoyable summer.”

A potential business boom would be even more pronounced in states like New York and California, where dine-in regulations have been stricter and more drawn-out. Restaurants in these markets have watched with envy as their peers in neighboring areas reopened.

“We’re way behind our neighboring states as far as what we’ve been allowed to do in reopening and execution. From Nevada to Arizona to Texas, everyone’s been able to open to a certain degree. … But California is one of the last in the nation to be opened up,” says JC Clow, founder and managing partner of The Winery Restaurant & Wine Bar.

The modern, California-style steakhouse operates three locations across Orange and San Diego counties. The state’s five-tier color-coded system for tracking the coronavirus has dictated the restriction level for each county and yo-yoed somewhat over the past year as the number of COVID cases waxed and waned.

At press time, both counties were in the “moderate” orange level—just one step away from the least restrictive yellow level—and the state was on track to reopen June 15. Clow is optimistic that this plan will stay on course and business will continue to rebound.

“In past months, that rearview mirror was pretty large where you kept looking at those big dark clouds looming behind you. They were catching up fast and you just didn’t know what was going to be next,” Clow says. “Speaking specifically for Southern California, we [now] feel we’ve been through the worst, and we’re all looking at the front windshield as opposed to the rearview mirror.”

Even as far back as Valentine’s Day, Clow caught glimmers of hope for what was to come. At the time, his restaurants were in the purple tier, which allowed for outdoor-only dining, while Los Angeles to the north was shut down. It was a busy weekend for The Winery Restaurant with guests driving an hour or more for on-site dining.

Another example came not long after when students were on spring break. The Newport Beach location’s waterfront location meant it welcomed the most guests, even though the Tustin and San Diego restaurants are only 10 minutes inland. A similar trend could take hold at other seaside and vacation-area restaurants this season.

Clow doesn’t anticipate any difficulty in managing a summertime spike in foot traffic. For one, the brand was able to retain 90 percent of its employees, eliminating the need to hire and train new workers. At the same time, California’s gradual progression from half capacity to 75 percent to full has allowed for a steady readjustment period so it “doesn’t feel like a tidal wave is coming,” Clow says.

Across the country, Bella Gioia chef and owner Nick Daniele isn’t necessarily expecting a tidal wave of activity, but compared to last year, it will be a significant change.

“New York City won’t be the ghost town it was last summer,” Daniele says. “People have been cooped up in their homes for a very long time. With the warm weather coming, I feel like more and more people want to get out and experience some semblance of normalcy this year.”   

Specializing in Sicilian fare, Bella Gioia is located in Park Slope, a normally bustling, residential neighborhood in Brooklyn with a rich dining scene. Before the restaurant reopened for dine-in business three months ago, Daniele put key systems in place to ensure guest safety. Several of these measures, like limiting parties to four guests per table, spacing tables six feet apart, and capping visits to two hours, have the indirect, added benefit of easing Bella Gioia back into business as usual.

Even in states where restrictions weren’t as austere as New York and California, restaurants are facing a readjustment period. Kitchens that had diverted their focus to carryout and delivery may find themselves overwhelmed with new dine-in orders. Customers and staff alike may be skittish as dining rooms fill up. That said, guests could end up spacing themselves out naturally.

“Prepare for more focus on customers within extended and nontraditional dayparts,” says Aaron Ruef, director and project manager at architecture, design, and brand strategy firm Nelson Worldwide. “Customer behavior is consistently shifting away from more traditional dining habits, and brands need to be flexible and proactive in response to these changes. Be ready for the unexpected by developing marketing, operational, and hospitality protocols that can respond.”

To that end, Clow urges his fellow restaurateurs to prioritize communication among managers and across the company to keep all staff members abreast of changes within the restaurants and their respective municipalities. The Winery Restaurant’s three locations hold weekly Zoom calls, during which, Clow says, his employees bring a wealth of intel from around their communities.

“They will tell you what’s going on with the traffic at the local airports, the hotels, the convention center … so we can anticipate what’s coming our way,” he says. “Don’t just sit back and open your doors and wait for things to happen; look ahead and reach out to any applicable organization or venue that’s going to feed you with information that lets you know what’s coming down the pipeline.”

Consumer Trends, Feature