Wanna grab a bite? How restaurants are handling social distancing (hint: it's weird)

With cities reopening across the globe, how will restaurateurs handle social distancing requirements for diners? Learn some of the (occasionally weird) ways restaurants will greet patrons.

A masked waitress serves masked diners at an outdoor restaurant.

Rosa Trieu

June 19, 2020

min read
  • Restaurants are adapting to social distancing requirements by implementing touchless dining options, increasing transparency about cleanliness, and creating more space between customers.

  • Many hospitality businesses are seeking assistance from design firms and tech experts to redesign their operations and maximize seating under new social distancing regulations.

  • Some restaurants are implementing unique measures such as multistep disinfection processes, serving meals to single guests in silence, building temporary dining booths, and seating stuffed animals at empty tables to maintain a welcoming atmosphere amid the pandemic.

A masked woman orders a meal at a restaurant counter.
A masked woman orders a meal at a restaurant counter.

Dining out with friends or family used to be fairly simple. Ask said people if they’re hungry, make a reservation (or don’t), then venture out to grab some tasty eats.

But in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced many cities to issue a shelter-in-place order, effectively closing thousands of businesses and requiring people to stay home. During this time, many restaurateurs had to make an extremely difficult choice: either close completely or stay open for takeout or curbside-pickup service only.

Now, as cities across the globe begin to reopen, the main focus is on how to do so safely. Businesses in all industries are preparing to open with new restrictions and requirements—and that’s especially true for the restaurant industry. People have been cooped up in their homes for several weeks; the lure of dining anywhere other than home is looking incredibly enticing.

Although reduced interactions and capacities are expected, restaurant owners are finding creative ways to provide the safest experience possible for their clientele. Read on to learn what the future of dining might look like in a post-pandemic world.

1. Keep your hands to yourself: touchless dining is the future

The social aspect of gathering over food is something humans have been doing for centuries, and that desire for connection while sharing a good meal is coming back sooner than later. That’s why proprietors will have to rethink how to bring customers back in a way that will make them feel both safe and comfortable. Transparency about how restaurant owners keep their venues clean is one way to help diners feel safer. Creating more space between customers (no more shoulder-to-shoulder intimate dining); implementing open kitchens; and using touchless payment, service, and delivery methods are other ways to help increase patrons’ comfort levels. Read the article.

2. Tech to the rescue: hospitality industry gets optimized design options

For bars, restaurants, hotels, and other businesses in the hospitality sector, reopening while complying with new distancing regulations will be so costly that many are seeking assistance from specialty design firms and tech experts. For example, architectural firm MASS Design Group has helped redesign hospitals in Africa after the Ebola crisis and treatment centers in Haiti after the earthquake. Now, restaurants are relying on the firm to start redesigning their operations and maximizing seating under the new social-distancing rules. The firm is using simulation technology to understand how space is currently used and what it would look like if a restaurant had to accommodate 50% fewer people or a predetermined route to enter or exit the establishment. MASS is also using generative design to optimize design options for different criteria to retrofit the space, such as seating layout and how people can move safely within the space. Read the article.

3. Disinfecting stations, eating solo, and dining with Mr. Fuzzle the Stuffed Bear

A stuffed bear sits at an empty restaurant table.
A stuffed bear can be a friendly reminder to social-distance.

At some restaurants—including Cheers One, a cheerleader-themed pub in Tokyo—guests must undergo a multistep disinfection process when they arrive, including temperature checks, disinfecting mats, and multiple sprays. The servers at Cheers One also wear surgical masks and full-face visors along with red and blue cheerleader outfits. Swedish restaurant Bord för en (“Table for One”) opens each day for one single guest, who is then seated and served a three-course meal—all done in silence. At New Zealand street-food restaurant Daisy Chang, owners built temporary dining booths as the country lowered its alert status and allowed restaurants to open in May. In Bangkok, a Vietnamese restaurant has seated stuffed panda bears at empty tables to keep lonely diners company. Read the article.

4. Dining out: the new thrill-seeker experience

There’s no doubt that the hospitality industry will be hit hard by the pandemic, so business owners are rethinking what hospitality will look like after they adapt to the new normal. In addition to new spacing requirements, industry professionals are expecting a new type of architectural modernism to grow. For example, diners will likely see more open kitchens because they promote a sense of transparency, an increase in no-touch automation in bathrooms, and a replacement for buffets and sharing-style forms of eating. There will also be a growing trend of escapist restaurant interiors. As fewer people will be dining out, restaurateurs are looking to create a unique, surreal experience. Read the article.

5. Creating a warm and inviting vibe—behind plexiglass

While many hotels and restaurants contemplate how they will open up, many are not sure if they can open at all, given the costs. For those that are able to open up, California Governor Gavin Newsom predicts patrons will have a dining experience during which the menu is disposable, half the tables in the restaurant are gone, and the server is wearing gloves and a face mask. Architects and designers will need to think about how to make these new “defensive spaces”—such as check-in desks with plexiglass shields—still come off as warm and embracing. According to W. Brian Smith of Studio Tack in Brooklyn, NY, “Designers will need to tap into the psychology and emotional well-being of the guests more so than before.” Read the article.

6. The call Is coming from inside the house: reaching customers at home

“When the global lockdown starts to be lifted and we begin to find what many are calling ‘the new normal’ for the hospitality and travel industry, there won’t be a ‘business-as-usual’ bounce back, but instead a rethink and collective adaption of what hospitality means,” says Philippa Wagner, head of the insight division at Ennismore, a London-based developer of unique hospitality properties. As people have been sheltering in place, chefs have been sharing their recipes via social media, podcasts, and streaming channels in an attempt to connect with their clients. With the huge increase in home deliveries, some restaurants are getting creative in how they connect with clients at home. For example, fast-casual taco and burrito chain Chipotle launched a “Chipotle Together” campaign, in which celebrities and musicians gathered together on Zoom and Instagram to provide entertainment to customers—a move that also drove sales, with time-limited codes for free entrées revealed during the broadcasts. Diner chain Denny’s took advantage of the Animal Crossing video-game craze by creating a brand account for all the major console platforms, giving discount codes to a growing group of enthusiasts. Read the article.

Rosa Trieu

About Rosa Trieu

Rosa Trieu is a technical writer and journalist in San Francisco, where she works on making information more accessible.

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