It was deja vu. As December 2021 marched into January, restaurants that were eagerly awaiting holiday sales bumps were haunted by cancellations. Patrons wavered on whether they felt safe inside. Outdoor dining was back, even in the winter cold. As the omicron variant disrupted the holiday season, workers wondered whether to risk getting sick or risk not getting paid. It was the new year, but there was nothing new about a holiday season overshadowed by fears over COVID.
“We saw omicron exploding on the East Coast, and then it was happening here, and [it was] like in 2020,” says Yuka Ioroi, owner of Cassava restaurant in San Francisco. In light of omicron, Ioroi and her husband, Kris Toliao, decided it was best to do what they’d done twice already with their Outer Richmond restaurant: fully close for the time being to see what would happen. They ended up extending their already scheduled weeklong break after January 2 this year. “We often did [a January break] pre-COVID as well.”
It became clear, however, that their January break would be coming sooner than expected. “On Christmas Eve, the guests that stopped by saw that the case numbers were [at] 900 that day,” Ioroi says. “Because it’s a particular disease that can take away our sense of smell and taste, we are very scared of that,” she says. “[It] just felt really dangerous.” They hadn’t bought their ingredients yet for the week, so the couple hosted service on Christmas Eve, then did an about-face. They closed the next morning and stayed closed for all of January. Cassava didn’t reopen until February 11.
It’s not uncommon for restaurants to close for a short time in January, like Cassava historically did pre-pandemic. After the crush of the holidays, during which most businesses are still open, restaurant owners and their staff need a break more than anyone and sales tend to slow down as diners recover from their holiday spending. Several restaurant sources said that January sales completely fell off a cliff in early 2022, and only now, in February, are they starting to see some return to normalcy. It tracks with the way omicron has impacted the United States, with cases only beginning to drop in late January. The pandemic has shifted what restaurant owners think of as traditional seasons — rather than August slumps and holiday rushes, the new seasons are defined by comfortable outdoor dining weather and coronavirus surges. Nothing is as predictable as it was before.
“The seasonality of business hasn’t changed much but what we’ve seen is that there have been almost extra seasons thrown in,” says Ricky Gomez, owner of Palomar in Portland, Oregon. “There was the delta variant season. There’s now the omicron season.” There is often a slowdown when the weather changes in Portland in October, Gomez says, but in 2021 that slowdown happened much earlier because the delta wave hit Portland in August. “By the time the wave ended,