Masks are off and spaces are back to full capacity, but the ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are still felt throughout the restaurant industry. According to the National Restaurant Association, wholesale food prices rose 14.5 percent from January 2021 to January 2022. Coupled with labor shortages across the industry and other factors like the increase in gas prices affecting delivery fees, the only thing there isn’t a shortage of is challenges.
“For the restaurant industry as a whole, it’s still very much in crisis whether people think so or not,” says Josh Wolkon, founder and owner of Secret Sauce Food & Beverage. “They think it’s just back because the mandates are all over. It’s still super, super challenging and it hasn’t settled into any level of normalcy yet or ‘new normal,’ whatever that looks like.”
With Denver Restaurant Week returning March 11–20, thousands of diners will flock to the nearly 200 participating businesses. Here are some small ways you can dine better during Restaurant Week and beyond.
Be Patient and Compassionate
Remember: Your experience dining out isn’t going to be the same as it was in 2019. Full-service restaurant jobs are down 12 percent nationally from pre-pandemic February 2020, so it might take longer for a server to take your order and for you to get your food. Expect to spend longer at the table and don’t become frustrated if service is slower.
“I think it’s just really important now more than ever for people to put the golden rule in place of treating people how you want to be treated,” says Miranda Garcia, general manager at Tamayo in LoDo. “Just be a good person..Be respectful.”
Don’t Keep It Strictly Business
For the employees who are working, stress levels are high, says Wolkon, whose restaurants include Ace Eat Serve and Steuben’s in the Uptown Area. Making the effort to be personable and start a conversation will go a long way.
“Engage with your server,” he says. “Realize that if you are at a restaurant that’s short-staffed, it’s not as much fun when you’re constantly in the weeds…Look at the staff that is still working, and they’re struggling. They’re working overtime hours every week and guests are upset. You have to have some level of sympathy and compassion and engagement. Just say, ‘how are you doing?’”
Expect Changes to the Menu
Simply put, restaurants are paying more for their product. For diners, this means your favorite dinner spot’s menu might look a little different. Don’t be surprised if your go-to entrée costs more (average menu prices are up 6.4 percent nationally), has some ingredients substituted, or is off the menu altogether.
“Some [of our] special ingredients are from overseas—from Thailand—and the prices are very, very high right now; some items are 200 percent up,” says Ounjit Hardacre, executive chef and chief operating officer at Daughter Thai Kitchen & Bar. “So I’d like customers to understand if some of the ingredients are missing, we might have to substitute with something else…so the texture and the taste might be a little bit different.”
Make Reservations Directly With the Restaurant
Rather than using a booking system like OpenTable, make your reservation by calling the restaurant or through its website. This saves the restaurant fees, Wolkon says. And if you’re more of a date-night-at-home person, skip DoorDash or Grubhub by calling for takeout and picking it up yourself. This helps support your local spots—and spares you from forking over $10+ on delivery.
If You’re Not Coming, Cancel
We get it; things happen. But if something comes up and you won’t be there to fill your table-for-two reservation, cancel as soon as possible.
“The no-shows on restaurant reservations have been an issue for a long time,” says Katie Lazor, executive director of EatDenver. “As much as you can, honor your reservation or cancel it whenever you know you’re not going to be able to make it to that restaurant. It really helps the team at the restaurant be able to plan for a great night of service and to take care of their existing guests and any walk-ins as best as they can.
Eat Earlier (or Later!)
Instead of heading out for dinner at 7 p.m., eat a lighter lunch and make a reservation earlier. Or, push back your dinner plans by an hour or two. Making the choice to eat out during off-times will lessen the burden of a strapped staff. “If they come earlier and not in the busy time, that would be helpful,” Hardacre says.
Raise Any Issues Directly
Mistakes will happen. And when they do, take your feedback directly to a manager. This gives the restaurant a chance to fix any issues then and there.
“If you are not having an ideal experience, we’ve gotten into the culture of rating and reviewing online,” Lazor says. “And what I hear from restaurant operators and managers all the time is that they always appreciate hearing feedback while guests are still in the restaurant and having the opportunity to address it and turn your experience around while you’re still there.”
Wolkon says if you’re not comfortable giving feedback on the spot, contact the restaurant directly afterward. “The worst thing you could do is get online and write a negative review right now,” he says. “Restaurants are still trying to recover, and if you get online and air your public frustrations, that’s hurtful all the time, but it’s especially hurtful right now.”
Tip Well, Even With Automatic Gratuities
Tipping protocol may also look a little different than in the pre-pandemic days. Some restaurants are including automatic gratuities to each bill, including Hardacre’s Daughter Thai, which includes a 5 percent “kitchen appreciation” charge that goes to the back-of-house staff.
If you see a charge on your bill, you can ask what it’s for and where it goes. In general, it’s still customary to tip around 20 percent—but you might want to be a little more generous when dining out for Restaurant Week.
“I think it’s important for guests to know that you are getting a bit of a discount, so if you are able to do more that’s great and that’s something to consider when you’re choosing the restaurants you’re going to go visit,” Garcia says. “If you’re able to tip more than the 20 percent standard, that would definitely be appreciated.”