OpenTable’s new CEO sees shakeout looming for U.S. restaurants

OpenTable Inc.’s new leader said she is confident consumer demand will return after the pandemic. But it might already be too late to save many restaurants.

The industry remains on track to lose 25% of its eateries nationwide based on the pace of reservations, according to Debby Soo, who took over this month as CEO of the restaurant-booking service. Without a vaccine to ease customer concerns, she’s standing by the bleak estimate first offered by her predecessor in May, even as some establishments say sales have started to stabilize during the summer months.

“Restaurants are doing everything they can to be scrappy and make it work and find pockets of growth,” Soo said in an interview. Many dining spots have expanded takeout and delivery service to survive, or even started offering groceries.

Soo, who began her career a decade ago as an intern for Kayak, the travel-search company owned by OpenTable parent Booking Holdings Inc., is taking the reins at a tumultuous time for the industry. To help draw back crowd-fearing customers, OpenTable is encouraging restaurants to list not just when it has free tables, but also what sanitation protocols they’ve put in place. The app also now offers options to arrange takeout or make grocery reservations.

The industry saw mixed results from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, she said. The program, which provided loans to help small businesses get through the economic shutdowns, closed this month and talks on another stimulus package for the economy have stalled in Congress. “It really depends on who you ask,” Soo said, but “any aid that restaurants can receive now is a good thing.”

What restaurants need most, though, is an end to the pandemic, she said. That means a vaccine.

“Dining will come back. We’ve seen even with cities opening back up, the demand for dining is there,” she said. But “it won’t go back to normal, meaning pre-Covid levels, until we have a vaccine.”

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