We’re all exhausted from reading about how COVID-19 has put the world into a tailspin—the only way to look forward is to refocus on the light at the end of the tunnel, rather than rehashing the gory details of the day-by-day. And one of the longest, darkest tunnels has been for the restaurant industry. There’s no way to work remotely, margins are slim, and, with the situation ever-changing, it’s incredibly difficult to make any kind of future plan for success.
The best-case scenario for many restaurants across the country is a seven-to-eight-week closure, but the moving target of reopening dates makes everything harder. If the government announces that reopenings can happen in a week, that’s not necessarily great news for restaurants that aren’t already in operational mode. They’d typically need nearly a month to re-mobilize labor and order food and supplies—almost like opening the first time.
Moreover, once restaurants do open again, they’ll have to contend with the consumer fear factor; the floodgates aren’t going to open immediately. Not only will restaurants likely not be allowed to go to max capacity, many people won’t want to be so close together. The harsh reality is that owners and operators will have to rewrite their business plan for at least a full year, anticipating income at half to two-thirds of pre-virus levels.
In addition, eateries are going to have to immediately alter both their operations and designs to fit a new reality: one where guests want to eliminate as much contact as possible across the board. In both actuality and appearances, creating a clean, safe space will be more important than ever.
Restaurants need to have visual cues in place that let diners know they’ve been paying attention and have gotten road-ready. Money isn’t a commodity for operators, but there are still things that can be done.
Evaluate, Edit, and Expand the Menu
As chefs and operators are assessing current menus to consider supply chain and labor, they’ll need to be both eliminating items to concentrate on core dishes, as well as expanding avenues of food delivery. Even restaurants that have remained fully closed should be prepared to offer meal kits, take-and-bake versions of restaurant favorites, and special packages so that people can cook their favorite dishes as home, too. Take-home cocktail kits are another great option for restaurants that have spent a lot of time curating their beverage programs (and they should be able to include the alcohol soon, too).
And a plan should be in place to keep these operations in effect (or start them) once things are back up and running. Consumers will initially be more comfortable outside of the traditional restaurant space—so a strong takeout/take home program will need to be part of a successful long-term playbook.
This is an easy one. Consumers are going to want to see a bright, shiny, fresh-smelling space that looks like it’s been thoroughly and deeply cleaned when they come back, and they’re going to want that maintained. With labor either gone or at a minimum, a professional service may not be an option, so it’s going to become a DIY project.
Once the hard work is done, visual clues of cleanliness are key. Add foot handles in restrooms and put sanitizer and wipes in plentiful, accessible places. Go touchless wherever possible, or put towels near handles along with additional trash receptacles. Keep it as aesthetically pleasing as you can, but know that right now, consumers are going to be happy to take “sanitary” over “pretty.”
Plan for Spacing
Given information on how COVID-19 spreads and after getting used to distancing regulations, diners aren’t going to want to sit shoulder-to-shoulder. Plan to reduce seating counts to spread tables and chairs far enough apart. Again, it’s about giving the visual perception of cleanliness and healthiness, and spacing people out is an effective way to do that.
Consider repurposing private dining spaces to add regular dining tables. It’s probably going to be awhile before people are comfortable having parties in small restaurant spaces again, so it may be more efficient to use the space that way.
And specifically think about bars—both the seating and the aesthetics. Just eliminating bar seats will encourage patrons to linger on foot, so a short-term, creative solution is to eliminate some bar seats and introduce a few small bar-height tables that butt up against the bar. This will create additional seats for the bar experience, but introduce some forced spacing—consider them to be miniature bar-table peninsulas. Or take a page from European and South American countries and temporarily remove some bar seats and fill in the space with movable purse/bag/coat stands to create extra breathing room for now.
The beautiful bounty of herbs and bitters that make the theater of bartending so engaging will need to be cleaned up. And prepare bartenders to have every glass and shaker they touch scrutinized under customers’ newly germ-conscious eyes.
Since spending money is an issue right now, it’s about adapting, rather than replacing, existing materials in restaurants. Guests will be more in tune than ever to potential germs, so remove any extra elements like pillows that could hold the perception of unnecessary germs. Antimicrobials can be integrated into fabric and plastic as a way to adapt, and tables and counters can get extra coats of sealant to ensure they’re non-porous and can be deep-cleaned. Or simply use butcher-block paper to cover tables, and replace it between diners.
Ensure that other existing materials can stand up to the types and amounts of sanitation they’ll be going through. Manufacturers’ instructions give details on sanitizing safely and effectively, but recovering fabric pieces can also be considered.
Labor and Operations
Restaurants also need to prepare for the major operational changes they’ll be facing, both internally and customer-facing. In both the short and long-term, labor and employees will be a huge hurdle for restaurants to contend with. Some restaurants are trying to hire employees back right now, and are hearing a lot of “no” due to the current unemployment offerings. After this length of time, some employees may choose not to come back to the industry at all. Employee shortages, combined with rising hourly wages and tip credits, will require all restaurateurs to rethink the labor model. Regardless of type and size, operators need to start considering how to run the most efficient, productive restaurant with the fewest, and the best people.
In terms of customer experience, it’s going to change from beginning to end. Table caddies and pre-set tables are a thing of the past; diners will want to see their silverware placed in front of them and be served individual condiments. Server stations will become more plentiful, and used for more-regular handwashing, and buffets and any serve-yourself stations will virtually disappear.
Everything else will follow suit, with the goal of minimal interaction. The days of the elegant leather wine book and cool check presenter are gone: Menus will be either printed on cost-effective paper and recycled after each use, carried digitally by servers on a constantly-sanitized tablet, or made available in an app on people’s individual phones.
All of this will require training and re-training, almost like starting over. It’s all new, or at least modified, best practices.
Taking tactics from European bistros will become the norm—menu boards posted around restaurants for all diners to see, or carried from table to table by servers, and payment at the table where guests are the only ones who handle their credit cards. Even better, payment electronically through the apps, POS, and reservations systems that have been utilized during this takeout dance will eliminate contact altogether.
And in restrooms, it’s time to embrace simplicity. Any extra décor should be removed, and disposable towels should replace anything cloth-based. Always having extra towels near any touchable surfaces (along with waste receptacles) is critical.
Looking ahead, restaurants will embrace these new lessons and take them even further. Spaces that are being built post-COVID will have a completely different feel, where design will be used to help reinforce those visual cues of cleanliness—we’ll see new spots lean back towards the light and bright, where diners feel like they can see anything that’s amiss. Light quartz and butcher paper or branded paper placements over wood tables will reign, and fresh, pale hues will be soothing right now. And functionality will be at the top of mind for the long-term. (Sneeze guards are going to be more popular than ever, especially near check-outs and anywhere with close consumer interaction—like we said, it’s not going to be about aesthetics for awhile.)
From a restaurant’s first impression—automatic and push-button front doors—restaurants will have to embrace truly minimal touch throughout the guest experience. Sanitation stations right by the front door will become common, so diners can wash up before sitting down. And in restrooms, of course automatic soap, faucets, and towels will become regulation. Hand dryers and cloth towels will disappear completely, with an abundance of disposable towels and extra waste bins located at every touchpoint. High-end and high-touch features will go into hiding in favor of functionality.
New restaurant design has to strike a balance between intimacy and the interaction that makes restaurants so popular. Newer opens won’t be filling up with max-capacity seats, but should be designed with flexibility in mind to add additional seating layers as social-distancing regulations relax. Thinking long-term, intimate booths will become more spacious, or replaced with banquettes, and cool factor of community tables will go away for now. Bigger tables and more well-spaced chairs will become the expectation, seating and table options will eschew variety and interest for basic function and easy-to-clean features, and aisles and walkways will increase in size to give more room for staff to pass around patrons.
Banquettes and loose dining tables and chairs will be imperative, as operators can place tables along banquettes and in dining rooms to their discretion and slowly add more back in. It will be tempting to consider fixed seats to create forced distance, but that eliminates all future flexibility, as well as the option for patrons to move closer or further from one another.
With durability to hold up to maximum scrubbing and spraying in mind, non-porous and easy-to-clean materials will be huge. Copper and other alloy metals have natural antibacterial properties and will be embraced, especially in high-touch areas like pickup lines. Quartz and surfaces with microband technology will be seen even more often, and the hospitality industry will begin looking to materials innovations in healthcare, where antimicrobial and durable materials have long been the standard.
We’ll also see better synthetic materials come out of the crisis. As people are looking to be using vinyls and laminates more because they’re so easy to clean and maintain, their aesthetics will become more sophisticated.
While social distancing will be a consideration for quite awhile, people will likely be more comfortable and open to dining outdoors than in an enclosed space. Tables will be spread apart on patios as well, but it’s really the materials that are key for tables and chairs. There will also be operational implications: Servers will need to be able to enter and exit the restaurant with as few touches as possible, so patio doors will need to be automatic as well. If you have the opportunity to improve outdoor options, or even introduce outdoor seating for this summer season, now’s the time to plan for it.
The crisis will undoubtedly have a lasting effect on takeout, especially in the months right after restaurants reopen, when consumers are still wary of sitting still in enclosed spaces. Giving diners every opportunity to spend their money with you is a must, and people have gotten used to being able to get whatever they want via takeout.
All new dining establishments will need to consider how take-home comes into play, regardless of restaurant style. We’ll see an influx of market items in restaurants, as well as take-and-bake options in addition to traditional takeout as part of a longer-term strategy.
Takeout and walk-up windows are an ideal solution, and will be incorporated into more and more future designs. Restaurants can also consider a separate area for pickup and for delivery services to use, so that people aren’t creating spatial blocks waiting in the dining space. These spaces will need to have considered design that’s on-brand and in keeping with the tone of the restaurant, and will be another high-touch area that will need to stand up to constant sanitization.
Now, more than ever, is the time to innovate. Operators are already thinking outside the box, and we have another idea: blending restaurant and grocery to improve name recognition and cater to a further consumer base. Chefs can partner with innovative grocers and markets who are always looking for local ties (like our client Lunds & Byerlys) to sell their take-and-bake items and meal kits. Or they can take the opposite track and sell grocery items from their restaurants—items that are signature to the experience and easy to package, like cheeses, meats, and signature sauces and dips. This is an operation that’s simple to expand and easy to keep up as the situation continues to evolve, and is a great way to offer daily grocery-type items to neighborhood guests. Blurring these lines between industries will benefit both permanently, and we’re all for businesses finding new avenues to expand their brands.
As restaurants strive to move forward after the Coronavirus crisis, there will be major changes that need to be made—aesthetically, operationally, and in terms of functionality. More than ever, hospitality is going to be about making people feel taken care of, but now it means making guests feel safe and confident in their environment. Design is a great way to not only make restaurants functional in this new era, but to give the visual clues of cleanliness and health that diners will be seeking when they start venturing out again.