DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – On the day before Thanksgiving, Kamilah Brown and her classmates at the Dallas College Culinary Center served their first in-person lunch since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Brown said, “It feels good just to know there’s going to be a lot of people here.”

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For the past three semesters, they only provided lunches curbside.

Brown graduates from the program this spring, then plans to continue her studies at Texas Woman’s University. “I would like to get my own restaurant or at least start a catering business and start from there and build my way up.”

Steve DeShazo, the Senior Director of Workforce and Career Connected Learning at Dallas College, said the in-person lunch is a major step forward for their program after the Texas Restaurant Association reported last month that 91% of their operators experienced a drop in dine-in sales because of the delta variant.

Even before that, COVID-19 took a big bite out of Texas restaurants.

The Association said 9,000 eateries closed their doors across the state.

DeShazo said, “The restaurant industry took a hit to the tune of about 770,000 employees who lost their jobs overnight when the pandemic struck. It was tough.”

Even before the pandemic began, the Association said there was a shortage of workers in the restaurant industry in Texas.

Now, there are 170,000 job openings at restaurants across the state.

The Association said 91% of its operators reported they don’t have enough staff to operate at full capacity.

DeShazo said, “From an operator’s standpoint, that’s a crisis. And it’s going to be a huge challenge for them to work through this. From a professional standpoint, this is a huge opportunity.”

Because of pent-up demand for eating out, he said the industry is expecting to fully recover in 2023 and 2024. “The hospitality industry family is strong and it is making a tremendous comeback. Demand is very high right now for culinary, hospitality, and restaurant services. It’s just going to be gangbusters in this industry.”

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Before the pandemic, the Texas Restaurant Association has said the industry racked up $70 billion in sales and employed 1.3 million people, effectively becoming the state’s second largest employer.

DeShazo said entry-level culinary classes at Dallas College are filled this year and that the advanced classes here will be at capacity next year.

As a result of the worker shortage, restaurants have had to increase salaries.

Employees who have a formal education he said will be paid as much as 30% more than front-line workers.

Chui Kaping graduated from the Dallas College Culinary program last year. “I love food and I want to make sure it’s done right. I like to see people’s faces light up when they eat really good food.”

He said his experience at school has helped him move up at the nationally renown Mansion Restaurant at the Rosewood Mansion Hotel on Turtle Creek in Dallas. “I think it was important to learn the fundamentals, to build a great foundation and I think that’s what I accomplished there.”

Since 2017, Kaping has moved up at the restaurant from Apprentice to Lead Cook to Junior Sous Chef.

Despite shutting down March 27, 2020 and reopening August 10, 2020, Kaping said Rosewood helped employees through the pandemic by paying them half their salaries and for their health benefits during that time.

“Those people above us have always been telling us that we’re going to try to make sure that you guys have something to come back to and they’ve always been in our corner. We have a great team here. We’re kind of like a family.”

He said he never doubted the career choice he selected.

“People have to eat. I felt like this industry might have taken a hit during the pandemic, but I knew it was going to bounce back.”

Back at the Dallas College Culinary Center, Kamilah Brown said her hunger to succeed kept her going through the industry’s challenges.

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“Food is a way to people’s hearts. So when you have food, you’re always happy. Some people eat food and do a little dance, I like that.”