A casual Cajun-inspired eatery from the owner of Café Monte
June 25, 2021
Lunch meetings are creeping back onto our calendars, but many restaurants aren’t serving it — and it’s not because of diners
Back when office towers were full, the noon hour brought power lunches to tables around the city, with suit jackets draped over the backs of chairs at restaurants like Aria and The Asbury. When restaurants got the all-clear to reopen their dining rooms last month, most started with dinner service, with plans to add lunch hours as customers returned to pre-pandemic dining habits.
Many restaurants, however, are still operating with dinner-only hours — and those that have brought back lunch service are doing so in a limited way. In Uptown, restaurants are preparing for office towers to be filled with workers again come September.
“That’s kind of when we’re shooting for right now,” says Mike Long, executive chef of The Asbury in the heart of Uptown. “But that’s been a moving target for a year.”
Near the other end of Tryon Street in Uptown, Fin & Fino is looking at the same timeline.
“We are waiting for people to return to the office en masse,” says owner Jon Dressler. While Dressler has noticed some office workers trickling back into the restaurant, he expects a return to work as usual after the summer.
The lack of customers isn’t the only thing holding up restaurants, however. A lack of staff that makes adding hours nearly impossible right now.
“Essentially, we need another two line cooks from where we are right now, bare minimum, to open up for lunch,” Long says. “Being open seven days a week with our brunch, that’s 18 services a week that we have to staff. That’s essentially adding another two full time people.”
In other neighborhoods, where lunch is in high demand, service remains slow to return. In South End, for example, Mac’s Speed Shop reopened its dining room for lunch as soon as the restaurant was allowed. Limited staff, however — not a shortage of diners — has meant the restaurant’s opening hours have also been limited.
Shang Skipper, president of Mac’s Hospitality Group, says the restaurant’s various locations are open on different schedules, due to the varying levels of difficulty hiring in different neighborhoods. He estimates Mac’s is losing 10 percent of possible customers because of the hours they must close due to staffing. Right now, he says the hospitality group is short about 150 employees across concepts, which include eight Mac’s Speed Shop locations, SouthBound, and BackStage Lounge.
What isn’t in short supply, however, is diners.
“One interesting thing we have seen is people are back, and they are back in full force for dining,” Skipper says. “We are busy. We’re excited, and we’re seeing numbers that haven’t been seen in a few years. I can only imagine if we had lunches and dinners at full capacity every day.”
In NoDa, where Jeff Tonidandel and Jamie Brown own three concepts — Crêpe Cellar, Haberdish, and Growler’s Pourhouse — labor is also holding them up from opening for lunch once again. Between the need for staff and the time it takes to train new team members, opening for lunch service continues to get pushed back on the calendar. Once that labor is back, lunch will be, too, in full force.
“As a business owner, I would hope that we could start working on [opening for lunch] in July or August,” Tonidandel says. “But I think realistically, the forecast of having all the employees we need is probably more like September, when kids go back to school and women get back in the workforce.”
September generally brings restaurants a boost following the lull of summer. This year, expect that boom to be even bigger — especially in Uptown — as restaurants fill open positions and diners return to life in the office, bringing lunch and happy hour back with them.