Dining out is back, as America gets vaccinated

By Danielle Wiener-Bronner, CNN Business

    (CNN) -- Across the country, Americans are getting vaccinated. States and cities are loosening pandemic-related restrictions. And people are heading back to restaurants.

According to OpenTable, which has been keeping tabs on the industry using data from the restaurants that employ its reservations platform, the percentage of seated customers at USrestaurants open for reservations is hovering just below pre-pandemic levels.

OpenTable is tracking the number of seated diners compared to the same period two years ago. For example: If 100 people made reservations at a restaurant on this daytwo years ago, and only 50 did today, the seated diner level would be 50%.

Recently, the number has been relatively high. With some dips and spikes along the way, the percentage of diners compared to 2019 rose from 75% on March 1 to 87% on April 29. On Saturday, for example, US seated diners reached 97% of 2019 levels.

Some states, like Florida and New Jersey, have been at 100% in recent days, according to the data. OpenTable is measuring markets with 500 or more restaurants on the platform and in which at least 10% of restaurants are taking reservations.

OpenTable CEO Debby Soo told Bloomberg TV in an interview on Wednesday that as soon as cities or states announce looser dine-in restrictions, OpenTable begins to see future reservations in those areas rise. "Dining is coming back, and it is coming back strong," Soo said.

Restaurant chains are also reporting signs of a recovery.

At Starbucks, sales at restaurants open at least 13 months jumped 9% in the first quarter of the year. The results pointed to a "full sales recovery" in the United States, CEO Kevin Johnson said in a statement earlier this week. McDonald's also saw sales spike in the first quarter.

Another encouraging sign? Industry jobs are coming back: Restaurants and bars added about 176,000 jobs in March. Chains have announced major hiring events, and smaller restaurants say they're desperately looking for employees.

The demand is good news for restaurants open today. But not every restaurant made it through the pandemic.

OpenTable data shows that about one in four restaurants have closed for good, Soo said in the interview. Over the summer, a Yelp report found that 60% of restaurants marked as closed on the platform during the pandemic were shut down permanently.

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