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Holiday dining is back in a big way, but can US restaurants keep up?

Some restaurants will offer limited reservations while others will push forward to try and keep up.
Friends Catch Up
Many restaurants hope that the holidays look more like 2019 for their guests. SolStock / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Americans are ready to celebrate the holidays again. And although many diners are looking forward to the type of in-person gatherings they last experienced in 2019, restaurants across the country will be struggling to meet the increased demand in the face of labor shortages and other challenges.

"We’re currently seeing a pent-up demand among consumers for in-restaurant dining as there’s an increased interest in utilizing restaurants as a social occasion coming out of the pandemic," Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of Research and Knowledge at the National Restaurant Association, told TODAY Food in an email. "In order to focus on enhancing the dining experience and ensuring that it’s living up to customers’ expectations, coupled with supply chain headwinds and labor shortages, there is the possibility that some restaurants will begin to scale back their offerings on the carry-out and delivery-side to ensure the proper allocation of resources towards the in-person dining experience and catering to those on-premises primarily.”

Other changes guests may encounter may include limited reservations at their favorite places. There's also the possibility that some eateries may opt to stay closed on the holidays to give staff a break.

At KNEAD Hospitality + Design in Washington D.C., founder Jason Berry says there has definitely been an increased demand for the holidays.

"Our plan of action is to keep our heads above water and hope for the best," Berry said in an email. He said they are thrilled to have people booking events again and have pivoted to cross train their employees to ensure more flexibility.

"More people know how to do different jobs so our managers don't have to be everywhere at once," he said.

Still, staffing is a major issue for Berry and other restaurant managers.

Mitch Miller, vice president of Ocean Prime, Cameron Mitchell Restaurants' national steak and seafood restaurant, said that their plan is to operate at the highest level possible while taking advantage of the increased demand. If that means turning away some reservations, Miller said they will do that rather than sacrifice quality.

"While we will need to lean on our current associates more heavily during this busy holiday season, we do close all but two of our restaurants for Christmas Eve and Christmas each year, to give staff time to enjoy the holiday with their families and friends," he said. "So while this may be a busy holiday season with a slightly smaller staff, we hope those days off will give them time to relax."

Miller said that certain restaurants or departments are not as staffed up as he would prefer. "It’s challenging staffing a new restaurant any time, but particularly given the current labor challenges and during a holiday season," he said.

The busy restaurant group is hoping that the holidays look more like 2019 for their guests.

"While 2020 dining featured more heated outdoor dining and take out, in 2021 we are seeing that people want to celebrate and enjoy the season with family and friends," he said. "Our private dining rooms are booking well, we are seeing a very nice uptick in both family private dining groups as well as a return to corporate private dining."

Not all restaurants are ready to jump into the holiday fray headfirst. At Southern National in Mobile, Alabama, Chef Duane Nutter will close operations from December 23 until they reopen on January 6, 2022 in order to give staff a break to be with their families and recharge their batteries.

"We are getting increased calls for reservations, but we can only handle what we can handle," Chef Duane Nutter said in an email. "We have five servers and three chefs on the line, so we don't want to have anything less than an outstanding dining experience. Too many chefs and restaurant owners put an emphasis on the dollar instead of the experience, and that's not a recipe for growth."

Chef Nutter said that the restaurant would be short staffed if he wanted to work seven days a week but that instead he chooses to put the focus on the experience.

"Ninety percent of our customers are locals, not business travelers or business professionals gathering for a meeting," he said. "Thursday to Saturday accounts for 90% of our business so we staff accordingly."

The chef said that he and his business partner Reginald Washington would rather be at a New Year's Eve party than throwing one this year. "The pandemic has helped us find the right balance to keep everyone rested and ready for 2022," he said. "We really care about our staff and our customers. I think you'll see a lot of restaurants closing around the holidays this year to give staff an extended break. From a restaurant owner's perspective, that's really important."