San Diego, CA

Dining in San Diego: Five Changes to Expect in 2021

Michael Beausoleil

San Diego is opening back up, but restaurants are still feeling the impact of closures. Many people going out to eat are starting to notice some changes. Seating still feels different, lines are long, and food still costs a lot.

Behind the scenes, restaurant owners are feeling the stress of a shrinking labor pool. The whole country has been impacted, but San Diego has its own burdens. Restaurants must abide by California’s ever-changing guidelines, and servers need higher wages to afford life in California.
A server at Cafe Coyote in Old TownCafe Coyote

The San Diego community can expect some differences when it comes to the restaurant experience. Some of them can be positive, and there are new options that didn’t exist before. In other cases, there will be growing pains. This is a new landscape, but adjustments are necessary for businesses to survive.

Reducing Hours

To maintain profits, some restaurants have resorted to closing the doors for periods of time. Cocina 35has needed to close every Wednesday due to a reduced number of workers. The number of applicants has significantly dropped, and changes in the work landscape have made other options more appealing. Some restaurants needed to lay off workers while capacity was reduced earlier in the pandemic. This means some staff didn’t return when the restaurant could operate at full capacity, and now the restaurants need to keep doors closed once a week so they’re not constantly short-staffed.

Price Increases

Inflation is a regular part of economic growth, but San Diego has experienced more inflation in 2021 than other parts of the country. Most notably, food costs have increased by 4.8%, meaning the supply is more expensive. Local restaurants will be likely to need to increase the price of menu items to keep up with local demand. Even if you’re not dining out, the fact that restaurants are operating at full capacity means they need more food. As a consumer, the cost of groceries may increase to align with the regional demand.

Outdoor Seating: Here to Stay?
Outdoor Dining at Rockin Baja Coastal CantinaGaslamp

Some restaurants are not only thriving, they’re trying to make up for lost time. During the pandemic, San Diego allowed restaurants to use sidewalks and public spaces to increase the number of tables and allow for distanced eating. Permits for dining expansions were set to expire in the summer of 2021. Now, they can be maintained until summer 2022. As of June 15, 2021, restaurants have been allowed to operate at 100% capacity. With the addition of outdoor dining, 100% is bigger than before.

There’s no telling if outdoor seating will be allowed beyond summer 2022. For now, the popular restaurants may consume more resources from the already small applicant pool.

Indoor, Outdoors, or At Home

Before the end of 2020, the adoption of food delivery apps more than doubled in the United States. Now, more people are comfortable ordering take-out than ever. With many restaurants opened at full capacity, some people would rather visit in person. Other people are still hesitant to return to physical restaurants or just prefer to order in. Consumers have more options than ever, but it’s a logistical challenge for restaurants. Employees need to manage dine-in and take-out queues. They’re likely to experience some growing pains as the kitchen will need to manage additional orders and hosts will need to deal with walk-in customers and delivery drivers. The actual change in dynamic is uncertain, but the data suggests dining habits will look different by the end of 2021.

Unemployment Benefits

Early in the pandemic, many restaurants needed to lay off workers. This qualified many individuals to receive unemployment. San Diego workers might receive more from the $300 unemployment benefits than they did while working. This may be part of the reason San Diego’s unemployment rate is higher than the national average by 0.8%. However, these benefits will end in September. Workers may want to return once they can no longer rely on unemployment. Until then, the labor pool is expected to remain small.

Eating in San Diego: The New Experience

San Diego has amazing restaurants, so there’s no reason not to eat out. While the experience may change a bit, this is also a great time to support businesses. Just be aware that many places are facing challenges. Some restaurants will have lines, but they’re still being impacted by struggles from 2020. The number of employees has been reduced and they’ve likely experienced financial struggles due to closures last year.

As restaurants can serve more people, this should be a reminder to try something new. Even if you don’t want to leave the house, apps like Uber Eats and Door Dash have made most restaurants accessible from your smartphone. Even takeout orders help to support restaurants, and this support will keep San Diego filled with culinary diversity.

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Writer, educator, and a few other things.

San Diego, CA

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