Editor's Note: Return of the Restaurant

As the pandemic eases, the hard-hit restaurant sector eyes a resurgence
| Updated: May 24, 2021

This story is featured in the May/June issue of Seattle magazine. Subscribe here to access the print edition.

Like everyone else, MJ Munsell visits a restaurant for the food and social benefits. Unlike everyone else, she’s keenly aware of the sequencing, lighting and spacing.

Munsell, the chief creative officer at Seattle architecture, design strategy and branding fi rm MG2, has spent more than three decades studying the consumer experience in retail, food and beverage environments. And she has some very reassuring words about the evolution of the city’s restaurant scene as the pandemic begins to fade.

“We are in this really special moment when you can go into your own community and get some great food that you wouldn’t prepare,” says Munsell, who notes that many unique concepts have opened in neighborhoods across the city during the pandemic. Many of those are women- or BIPOC-owned businesses. “One of the really great benefi ts of the pandemic is people wanting to shop and support local.”

Even downtown Seattle’s restaurant scene should return to its normal vibrancy within two to three years, she adds, as most of the closed restaurants should find new owners willing to launch fresh concepts that veer toward fast-casual dining.

The pandemic, though, devastated the bar and restaurant industry. A report by the Washington Hospitality Association found that more than 2,300 restaurants across the state closed last year. Almost half of those were in King County. Sales plunged 37% from 2019.

Many restaurants pivoted to takeout or delivery to survive. Lots will continue to do that, Munsell says, but most restaurateurs favor a more balanced approach because a hybrid model is costly and clunky. Same with alcohol delivery, which Munsell calls a “novelty.” Research backs that up: The National Restaurant Association found that 72% of diners want their delivery orders to come from a location they can visit in person. 

“We went to a breakfast spot and the owner told us she was essentially running two businesses,” says Munsell, who along with her husband ordered carry-out “multiple times every week” during the height of the pandemic and recently began dining in-person about twice a month. “They have to buy all the containers, all the plastic and packaging. Especially if they’re using the delivery services that charge a fee, it makes it really challenging and expensive.”

Munsell predicts restaurants will bounce back faster than retail. Large restaurant chains — think Applebee’s or Chili’s — were struggling before the pandemic and will likely continue to do so, but fast-casual concepts will keep growing.

Diners will likely return in droves to all types of restaurants once they feel safe. The NRA survey notes that 88% of adults enjoy going to restaurants and 85% prefer dining out with family and friends to eating at home.

“Everyone I know is dying to go back to music, food and sporting events,” Munsell adds. “But I think psychologically, even though it may be perfectly safe, many of us will take a while before we go into those tighter environments and not feel we have to put our masks on.”

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