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U.S. Cities Are Trying To Figure Out Restaurant Week In The Pandemic

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Restaurant Week was designed to get diners in the door during the slow post-holiday period. The promotion looks very different this year. For starters, the food industry is just trying to survive. From member station KCUR, Laura Ziegler has more.

LAURA ZIEGLER, BYLINE: Tim Zagat, creator of the influential Zagat Restaurant Survey, first rolled out Restaurant Week in New York City in 1992. It's since expanded to become a winter celebration for foodies across the U.S. From Santa Monica to St. Louis to Boston, restaurants are offering three or four-course meals at a fixed price, traditionally $35 at the high end.

At Le Fou Frog, a French bistro in Kansas City's River Market, owner and executive chef Mano Rafael and his wife Barbara talked with kitchen staff and servers about whether it was even smart to do Restaurant Week this year.

MANO RAFAEL: I'm very sorry. This year, we won't do that. It's not because I don't want to do it. I have to care about the people that work here.

ZIEGLER: Kathleen Bryant, a longtime server at the restaurant, is grateful her boss didn't lay her off. Already 8 million restaurant workers have lost jobs since March. And she's also grateful not to be exposed to large restaurant crowds.

KATHLEEN BRYANT: It means the world to me. They listened. It's a really big deal.

ZIEGLER: In a handful of states, including California, New Mexico and Illinois, most indoor dining is banned - not Kansas or Missouri, where the governor lifted all restrictions, including a mask mandate. For Le Fou Frog's Barbara Rafael, it's just not possible to protect people with their bistro-like seating.

BARBARA RAFAEL: On the banquette it was really fun because two tops would sit next to other people that they didn't know. They'd all become fast friends. People would try food off of each other's plates.

ZIEGLER: The pandemic has hurt bars and restaurants disproportionately. Kansas City already has lost 10 to 15% of theirs. The National Restaurant Association reports 17%, or about 110,000, have closed nationwide, with a projected $240 billion in lost revenue last year. The National Restaurant Association's Sean Kennedy says this is far more than just a business loss.

SEAN KENNEDY: It doesn't matter if you're in Kansas City or St. Louis or New York or San Antonio. There are restaurants that define your city and that you're proud of.

ZIEGLER: And this is one of them. There's a packed house this first night of restaurant week at Piropos, an Argentinean restaurant perched on a bluff overlooking downtown Kansas City.

GARY WORDON: How was everything?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Oh, excellent. We had the lobster tail and the beef medallions. The beef...

ZIEGLER: The owner, Gary Wordon, an effusive man with a prominent head of silver hair, says revenues at Piropos are down by almost half, and carryout just isn't a sustainable model for Restaurant Week. He bought a high-tech gizmo that checks if guests are wearing masks and takes their temperatures. But even that poses an issue for some customers.

WORDON: I was walking in the other night, and three people were walking out. And I said, well, how did things go? Well, they want to take your temperature. And I said, well, was that a problem? Yeah, we don't take our temperature anyplace.

ZIEGLER: Cities across the country are still trying to figure out Restaurant Week. Santa Monica decided to opt out. Las Vegas is optimistically planning to bring back their June event, canceled last year because of the pandemic. But Restaurant Week in many cities is still up in the air as what was a culinary celebration has turned into survival. For NPR News, I'm Laura Ziegler in Kansas City.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIOHEAD SONG, "THERE, THERE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.