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Bay Area restaurants in 2024: Your neighborhood pub is in trouble

Kate Bradshaw, The Mercury News on

Published in Business News

It was the end of October when Monica Plazola, owner of Oakland’s Seawolf Public House, gathered her staff to share some bad news: The neighborhood gathering spot, which opened seven years ago near Jack London Square, would close the following month if they weren’t able to turn things around.

She’d seen friends shutter other restaurants in recent months and had taken to heart what she’d heard from Bay Area diners and waitstaffers — that they’d like to know if things were going badly before things closed, so they might have a chance to help.

What happened next was remarkable: Her team rallied, as did her loyal customers.

They set up a GoFundMe campaign that raised more than $4,000 to help them through the winter. An occasional customer became a regular, and another added Seawolf to the monthly happy hours they were organizing in the area. There was no one big thing, Plazola says, but all those little efforts added up. Seawolf is not out of the woods by any means, but the pub and its crew are still standing. And they’re not alone.

It’s a weird moment in the restaurant world, especially in the Bay Area, where your favorite pub or neighborhood restaurant may be in more trouble than you realize. How they got here and what can be done are complicated issues. There’s no one cause and no easy fix, but four years after the pandemic began, restaurants are still struggling.

“Elevated costs, shallow labor pools and uneven customer traffic levels were the norm for many restaurants — but operators persevered,” write the authors of a new report by the National Restaurant Association. Staffing shortages remain the top challenge for restaurants, but the drop in sales from 2022 to 2023 reported by half the nation’s restaurant owners is a worrisome second. And 38% of restaurants reported that they were not profitable.

 

The pandemic era has wrought a substantial shift in restaurant-going habits toward off-site dining — takeout, delivery, drive-thru and food trucks — rather than dine-in. Last year, 74% of U.S. restaurant traffic came from meals eaten off-site, up from 61% pre-pandemic, says association spokesperson Vanessa Sink.

The result is that once-bustling dining rooms have become much more unpredictable. Take Wursthall, San Mateo’s German-inspired restaurant and beer hall. The once-reliable, post-work happy hour crowd and weekend foot traffic have evaporated, says Wursthall partner Xian Choy. The holiday season was slow. And while an occasional Wednesday is suddenly super busy, some Fridays are dead.

But restaurants have to be ready all the time, Choy says. You don’t want to be the eatery caught by surprise when a big crowd shows up. Wursthall cut its lunch service and restricted hours to build capacity for likelier peak times.

Walnut Creek’s Cuban-inspired Havana dropped its lunch service too — and happy hours — and instead created weekend brunch. So far, that experiment is working. Owner Joelle Scimia says one day of brunch service brings in more income than five days’ worth of lunches.

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