Asheville’s summer tourist season could lead to longer restaurant lines

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ASHEVILLE — Dining halls are filling up across the city as the summer tourist season kicks off in what can be a blessing for business but a nuisance for customers waiting to enter.

“Historically, Memorial Day weekend kicks off the summer tourist season, so Saturday, Sunday and Monday we typically see larger than normal crowds,” said Mary Evans, spokeswoman for Pack’s Tavern in downtown Asheville.

Vanessa Salomo, COO of Chestnut and Corner Kitchen, is “optimistic” about the summer tourist season. Reservations and walk-in customers are already on the rise in downtown Chestnut and Corner Kitchen in Biltmore Village, she said.

“From what I understand, from hoteliers I know in the community, occupancy is up and higher than it has been for many years,” Salomo said in an email. “We’re lucky to have a strong local clientele, and they know to book ahead or call to get a seat.”

The corner kitchen in Biltmore Village.

Memorial Day weekend marks the start of summer, said Kathi Petersen, director of public information for Explore Asheville. Hotel and vacation home rental occupancy is an indicator of tourism trends, and is expected to rise each year over the holiday weekend.

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Peterson referenced a Smith Travel Research report that showed hotel occupancy nationwide peaked at 98.1% on the Saturday of the holiday weekend in 2019. In 2021, there had 96% occupancy in hotels on Saturday.

Overall, the city “is experiencing a dramatic recovery” from the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic which dealt a devastating blow to the local economy, Peterson said. Although some industries are taking longer to return to normal pre-pandemic operations and revenue rates, food and beverage suppliers are among those meeting and often exceeding the 2019 benchmark year.

“We’ve seen people are excited to travel and go back, so we expect a rebound to 2019 levels or better,” Evans said.

Pack’s Tavern customer volumes began to increase after winter when the weather began to break, she said. Staff shortages have been an issue many restaurants have faced amid the pandemic, but Pack’s Tavern has a “strong team” and plans to increase staff for busier times.

The outdoor patio of Pack's Tavern adjacent to Pack Square Park in Asheville.

“We stay pretty busy on the weekends anyway, so I think our hope is that people will come to town with the expectation that there will be crowds, that there will be expectations, and to just try to relax and enjoy and understand that everyone in the restaurant industry does their best to make sure everyone has a good experience,” Evans said.

Last year, Luella’s Bar-B-Que reduced its hours of operation to five days after Memorial Day weekend due to staffing issues at the South Asheville site, co-owner Jeff Miller said. In addition, a few dishes have been removed from the menu. Now, the North and South restaurants are “about back to full speed” with staff and operations and are open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.

“I feel like we pulled it off,” Miller said.

Luella saw higher revenue and customer volume in the week leading up to Memorial Day weekend compared to the previous week, he said. However, it is a growth that has been seen long before.

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“Last year was a huge year – if you’ve talked to restaurateurs a lot – it was a huge surge in business because of vaccinations and excitement etc.,” Miller said. “It was astronomical growth – more than most people expected, I think. Even said that, already this year, we are experiencing a higher gross percentage than last year.

The weather should be good for the holiday weekend, so Miller predicts Asheville will be “booming.”

This means queues and wait times can be longer.

Luella's Bar-B-Que co-owner Jeff Miller expects increased customer volumes at the restaurant's north and south locations in Asheville.

A few tips from restaurant chefs are to make reservations when possible, dine out of peak hours, and be prepared to wait patiently.

“Also, understand, 6:30-7 a.m. is the busiest time to try to eat, so if you can eat a little earlier or a little later, that might reduce the wait time,” Evans said. .

Miller advises diners to show up when the doors open.

Additionally, take-out and delivery are options to avoid crowds in dining areas. However, if you plan to order a meal or dine at a restaurant for the holidays, make plans as soon as possible.

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“For us, in particular, if people want to pick up food, they should call and place orders now because we’re likely to have to disable our third-party apps — UberEats, etc. — because the volume will be so huge on Saturday and Sunday,” Miller said.

Some restaurants, like Pack’s Tavern, don’t take reservations but may offer waiting areas with access to a bar to pass the time. Pack’s Tavern also has a text messaging system to alert customers, who are encouraged to wander outside in the park or downtown streets until their table is open.

“I would advise them to embrace the Asheville vibe,” Evans said. “It’s a really laid back and fun place. And just make sure they don’t have unreal expectations – that they understand that it will be crowded and there can be a wait at most downtown restaurants.

Tiana Kennell is a food and restaurant reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA Today Network. Email him at tkennell@citizentimes.com or follow her on Twitter/Instagram @PrincessOfPage. Please help support this kind of journalism with a subscription at the Citizen Times.

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