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Colby Cosh: Death and resurrection — peeking at data on the restaurant industry


In the early days of the pandemic, there were many shocking charticles about the sudden annihilation of restaurant patronage. These usually incorporated data from OpenTable, the popular restaurant reservation app. OpenTable has an enormous base of customers that it uses to gauge the health of the restaurant business, and it has been publishing some of its analytical data since the COVID-19 Bowl kicked off.

At the height of the lockdown in North America, this led to charts that weren’t especially subtle. Here, for example, are OpenTable’s daily all-Canada estimates for “year-over-year seated diners” on dates between Feb. 18, where their data series starts, and May 1:

Hey, at least February 23 was a good day! Ah, memories.

OpenTable has a note on the methodology behind these numbers at its “state of the restaurant industry” website , if you’re curious. (You can’t just compare April 12, 2020 to April 12, 2019, for example, since there are huge day-of-week effects in the restaurant trade. You want to make sure a Thursday is matched up with the appropriate Thursday from the previous year.)

OpenTable’s seated-diners data are updated daily, and include breakdowns for some significant cities, so we can peek at the latest numbers for a few Canadian places since we all started squirming out of our warrens. We’ll start these out on the date axes where the first chart left off, on May 1:

These charts, too, reveal things you kind of already knew — but maybe some things you didn’t. You can see the differences in the reopening dates of the various cities, and the differences in the confidence levels of the potential restaurant diners in them. In none of these cities is the restaurant business even close to the 2019 baseline, but in Calgary and Edmonton, where eateries can seat customers up to 50 per cent of the house’s legal capacity, the volume of business is actually close to 50 per cent of what it was last year. Although B.C.’s performance at fighting COVID-19 is generally deemed as good as or better than Alberta’s, customers in Vancouver seem more reluctant relative to one year ago.

In fact, data series like these are being used by epidemiologists as a loose index of social timidity for cities and states. Day-by-day estimates of restaurant patronage can even be plotted against the day-to-day local reproduction rates of the virus. Down south the local fluctuations are more dramatic than ones depicted here, as some places enter a “second wave” phase of the epidemic and some citizens realize that they might not have been careful enough. The numbers are worth watching.

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Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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1 being least likely, and 10 being most likely

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