New Albany’s Harvest Homecoming festival returned to the throngs-as-usual format this year, minus a riverfront tent, but with record attendance out in the streets for booth days. At the pub, where the entire staff is vaccinated, we crossed our fingers and hoped that enough of the city’s 500,000 festive visitors were jabbed, too, so as to forestall a “super-spreader” event.

At this juncture in the restaurant and bar business, any optimism not prefaced with the word “cautious” most likely is a sentiment foolishly misplaced. There isn’t an operator anywhere who hasn’t observed a “perfect storm” of impediments to getting the job done; as I’ve noted often in this Sunday slot, these difficulties cannot be solely attributed to the pandemic, but COVID can be credited with uncovering all the gathering structural weaknesses and exacerbating them.

Lots of us will make it through this. However, many others won’t, and when the restaurant and bar industry can once again speak to normality, the new version of food, dining and drinking stands to be different from the old. Or, it might be a case of old meeting new, as in the source of today’s cover photo: Take a look inside Automat Kitchen, a New Jersey restaurant that only serves food using lockers (Grace Dean, Business Insider).

Today, three cautionary tales. First, from Philadelphia.

Restaurants struggle with staffing, supply issues, and a recipe to recover from the pandemic, by Cris Barrish (WHYY News)

(Delaware’s) restaurant industry has taken one of the worst economic beatings, with about 10% of the 2,000 or so establishments shuttering their doors early on, said Carrie Leishman, who heads the Delaware Restaurant Association.

Now, even as the doors are wide open, with no capacity restrictions or masking orders from the governor, eateries face stiff challenges on several fronts — hiring enough workers, getting the supplies they need, and attracting enough customers to turn a profit.

Next, Mike Whatley of the National Restaurant Association cuts to the chase.

Restaurants hoped for a bright 2021 — but face a bleak winter, instead, by Andy Medici (The Playbook)

Restaurants continue to be stuck between a rock and a hard place as they navigate a web of vaccine mandates, mask guidance and in-person customer interactions that can be draining for employees, he said. Their research shows that customers are largely split equally across groups that support vaccine mandates, oppose and those who don’t care.

“It’s a no win. A third of customers love you for it, a third of customers hate you for it and a third of customers are ambivalent,” Whatley said. “It’s been challenging. And I think you are seeing a lot of operator fatigue. Things keep changing and new things keep coming down.“

Finally, a sobering prediction.

Hiring Challenges: Will The Traditional Restaurant Disappear Forever?, by Ashley Stahl (Forbes)

So what does the future hold?

I suspect the days of bartenders with Master’s degrees may be fading as many find footholds in long-delayed careers. Diners may be expected to foot more of the cost not just through tips but due to increased wages. Automation will accelerate –– expect to use a tablet for your order at all but the toniest of restaurants. In some cities, virtual kitchens and pop-ups are popular with cooks making meals in their homes or industrial kitchens –– some without permits or oversight. Smaller, bare-bones operations will also prevail. How long the jobless will be willing to look for the perfect job and not just “make do” depends on how long personal savings and government incentives continue.

In the meantime, if you feel safe eating out, do so soon. Be kind, be complementary and most of all, tip your server.