Tourists and locals alike relished the last of summer’s waning days this Labor Day Weekend by flocking to businesses and restaurants across Santa Barbara, driving up revenue for small businesses hit hardest by the pandemic.
The last 18 months have no doubt been difficult for local business owners in the region. Between pandemic-induced shutdowns, mandates and shifting precautions, many businesses felt the impact of the pandemic through revenue gaps and employee layoffs.
The pandemic was particularly hard for the local restaurant industry, which faced long periods serving customers through take-out only during the height of the pandemic. But as precautions have slowly lifted in the region, restaurants are once again filled with in-person patrons in Santa Barbara, aiding the recovery of the battered industry.
This economic recovery, which began for many restaurant owners early in the summer, was further propelled this Labor Day Weekend as some businesses saw a return to pre-pandemic revenues for the first time in months.
Miguel Flores, the general manager of the Moby Dick restaurant on Stearn’s Wharf, said the Labor Day holiday was the busiest weekend the restaurant has seen this year thus far. The restaurant is a favorite among tourists, Mr. Flores said, many of whom flock to the Wharf to enjoy the restaurant’s variety of seafood dishes.
When pandemic restrictions largely barred recreational travel, Mr. Flores said his restaurant faced hardships from the lack of tourists but was able to survive. The busyness of the holiday weekend gave him hope that things will continue to improve in the future.
“We were super busy since Friday afternoon, and busy all day Saturday and Sunday,” Mr. Flores told the News-Press. “The customers that we had, a lot were from out of town I want to say. This was the busiest weekend for the whole year and we had the most sales. It was busier than the Fourth of July.”
Restaurants on State Street experienced similar success over the weekend, with tourists and locals celebrating the “unofficial” end of summer with dinner and drinks out on the town.
At the iconic Joe’s Cafe on State Street, locals from Santa Barbara and tourists from Los Angeles packed the restaurant’s indoor and outdoor dining spaces throughout the long weekend. According to Joey Sommerville, the general manager of the cafe, the restaurant saw big success over the holiday, reaching pre-pandemic levels with service and revenues.
“Labor Day is a big weekend for bars and restaurants in general,” Mr. Somerville said. “Lots of LA people were out, and we were probably on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday busier than we were two years ago.”
But despite the success seen over the weekend, Mr. Somerville said the outlook for the future remains uncertain, as there is “no real timeline for recovery because cases keep going up.” He said that while he’s optimistic for the coming months, he still operates week by week as the county remains in a “crisis period.”
Mr. Flores echoed similar concerns on Tuesday, noting that Moby Dick’s recovery was slightly stunted by the county reinstating a mask mandate in August and could be further impacted by rising case rates.
“I have hope that it’s going to get better, but I don’t know,” Mr. Flores said. “If there’s going to be high numbers of cases, that has a huge impact on people getting out of their homes and going to dine.”
While restaurant owners are proceeding with caution, the rise in business activity over the weekend has city officials feeling optimistic the tourism industry is ending the summer on a high note.
The official reports on hotel occupancy and sales tax revenues from the weekend will not be reported for a few days, but city officials say the packed restaurants and heavy foot traffic across the city indicate that the region is ending summer successfully.
“Anecdotally, being in town over the holiday and seeing the level of visitorship and activity, it’s been fairly consistent throughout the summer, so I would make the generalization that our summer tourism was strong and ended on a strong note,” Jason Harris, the economic development manager with the City of Santa Barbara, told the News-Press Tuesday.
“Just by the level of activity in and around the city, we ended summer with a bang,” he added.
Throughout the pandemic, Mr. Harris has been consistently tracking the hotel occupancy rate on a regular basis. According to the latest reports, the hotel occupancy numbers are average for pre-pandemic times, even mirroring 2019 levels, he said.
In addition, the region’s tourism industry is outperforming competitor cities, such as Newport Beach, Santa Monica and San Diego, and this has remained consistent through the spring and summer, Mr. Harris said.
“Even though we’re on average in comparison to pre-pandemic times, I think we’re outperforming, exceptionally, our peer competition cities,” Mr. Harris said. “Normal is really good in this time when we still have the pandemic, when we still have COVID, when there are still some business restriction activities and restrictions on some large events and still masking requirements.”