'May is actually our busiest month': Restaurants brace for busy stretch with holidays, graduations

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Restaurants across the Triangle are anticipating an increase in sales through the weekend, continuing a recent trend.

"We are seeing month-over-month increases," said Kevin Jennings, who owns Urban Food Group, which operates eight restaurants, including Vivace in North Hills.

"Last year was just absolutely phenomenal for us, and I know that a ton of restaurants are experiencing that same kind of boom. This year, our restaurant is a small restaurant, and every time I think that it can't possibly do any more, the guys really step up. We have a great staff," added Ken Smith, owner of Salt & Lime Cabo Grill in Raleigh.

He credited their strong bounce-back to establishing relationships from pre-pandemic.

"We like to go around and talk to people as well, especially thank them for coming back," said Smith, referencing himself and his wife; the pair run the restaurant together.

Salt & Lime saw a heavy lunch rush as part of Cinco de Mayo celebrations, expected to continue through the evening.

"This time of year for us, it really kind of kicks off our summer program and it's just going to be busy all the way through, hopefully," said Smith.

Improved weather has also been a bonus, especially for some diners still hesitant to return to in-person dining.

"Particularly for the restaurants that have patios, as you can see today we're busy, and continue to get busier, particularly with the change in the weather," Jennings explained.

Jennings said holidays and special gatherings hold larger value outside immediate sales.

"All of these different springtime events that are going on are huge. So any time with either the (Hurricanes) or special events or concerts or whatever it might be that draw people to Raleigh, and then they come to our restaurant, the likelihood of them returning to this restaurant when they return to Raleigh is very, very high," Jennings said.

OpenTable reports reservations for Mother's Day are up 39 percent compared to pre-pandemic levels.

The focus for restauranteurs has shifted from convincing diners to return to making sure they can keep up with demand, as they navigate challenges including staffing shortages and supply chain limitations.

"You can't get avocados. You can't get limes. Everything is priced up, 50, 70% for avocados. And those are just kind of some of the things, you try to prepare for, but you can't prepare for," said Smith.

"We still have menus that are smaller than they used to be. We still have people performing jobs that they didn't use to perform. We have across the board, we have newer staff," Jennings added.

The National Restaurant Association found that 2021 industry sales were down about 7.5% compared to 2019 pre-pandemic levels. Furthermore, they reported there were 1 million fewer restaurant employees, and 900,000 locations either temporarily or permanently closed.

Smith and Jennings are both hopeful recent positive trends continue.

"May is actually our busiest month. So it's a lot of excitement for our staff. We're definitely seeing the return to sales from pre-COVID," Jennings said, adding Mother's Day is the busiest day of the year for restaurants.
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