What Will Make Restaurants Feel Safe in the COVID-19 Era?
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As states begin to consider reopening struggling restaurants for dine-in, operators are reimagining the entire restaurant landscape, hoping to safely accommodate Americans hungry for normalcy in the form of a nice night out for dinner after months of just takeout and delivery. But for customers to return to restaurants, they’ll need to feel safe from unacceptable health risks.
A slate of changes big and small are now under consideration by government agencies, industry leaders, and chefs and restaurateurs—from closing city streets for additional outdoor seating, to masked employees, universal health checks, socially distant tables, and strict sanitation guidelines — a complete 180 from the intimacy formerly associated with dining out. “The old model of hospitality with many people touching your table, and closeness to others, that’s gone,” said Beatrice Stein, a New York City-based restaurant consultant. “In this new world, trust is the new hospitality. If people trust you and can see that you have made changes to your service that show you are thinking about health and safety—that is hospitality.”
What follows is a rundown of what restaurants need to deliver when they welcome diners back. Read More: The F&W Pro Guide to Coronavirus: What Restaurants Should Know
Entryway: Masked Hosts and Temp Checks
The host is still the first person that guests will come in contact with when they arrive at a restaurant, and creating a sense of welcome, even in a time of face masks, remains essential. Since smiles and facial expressions will be obscured, it’s important to train staff to be extra expressive with their eyes, explains restaurant-industry consultant Kate Edwards. “Teach your staff to use eye contact and eye expression, and train them to use body language to evoke warmth and hospitality,” she said. “Just as importantly, you must remind staff to lose old habits like shaking hands, air-kissing regulars, or taking belongings. All these habits have to stop and in their place we must build new habits of kindness and compassion.”
We have left the world of walk-ins for now; restaurants will not allow gathering at the bar or in the host area, so guests should be prepared to wait outside until that space is cleared.
Reservations are going to be essential. “Reservations not only control capacity,” explains Stein. “But they give operators a record of their clientele in the event of an outbreak.” To keep crowds to a minimum, tech companies like Resy are offering mobile waitlist and occupancy control features which can be integrated into a restaurant’s website, so that diners can get a virtual idea of how crowded a restaurant is before deciding to dine there.
Restaurants may also ask guests to submit to a temperature check and to answer a few questions about recent contacts and health issues such as fever, sore throat and dry cough. While this may seem invasive, Carolyn Richmond, a hospitality industry lawyer with Fox Rothschild, says these sorts of questions are fine, as long as everyone is treated to the same standard. “If guests who have over 100.4F cannot enter the restaurant, that has to be the policy for all guests.”
But this can also open up a can of worms if restaurants begin to discriminate, or if guests asked to leave become belligerent or uncooperative. “Your teams need to be ready to handle customers who do not want to comply with public-health regulations,” said Dr. James Giordano, Professor of Neurology and Biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center, and a Fellow of the Defense Medical Ethics Center COVID-19 Task Force. “As a restaurant you never want to be kicking someone out, but you have to enforce policies stringently, which might create tension between guests and staff.”
PPE and Health Checks
A survey by BentoBox, which runs the websites of over 5,000 restaurants across the country, found that 88% of diners agreed that restaurant staff should be required to wear Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) within the first month of reopening restaurants. “It’s important for restaurants to give their guests the comfort of feeling safe. Without this, not only do they hurt their ability to foster revisits, but they almost guarantee a decline to repeat visitor rates,” said Krystle Mobayeni, BentoBox’s founder and CEO. The survey also found that diners are willing to pay a surcharge of between $1 and $9 per bill to cover the cost of safety protocols.
In addition to PPE, Edwards says it may be time to bring back some relics of old-world dining like cloches (domed covers for plates that keep food warm), and underliners—extra-large plates placed under the dinner plate. “If waiters can carry an underliner, then the guest can just take their dinner plate off, it's less hands touching the plate,” she said. “The cloch protects your food on its journey to your table.”
Employees will also be subject to health checks. As with guests, Richmond emphasizes that issues of discrimination must be top of mind. “Temperature checks are permitted for staff, but you have to do it consistently and for everyone. If you do it for the back of house, you have to do it for the front of house and management too. Everyone must be held to that same standard,” she said.
Service will change in many ways. There will be a lot of regular wiping down and sanitizing of tables and chairs, touchscreens, doorknobs, and hard surfaces. Stein suggests that labor be divided into teams. Servers and runners should only touch clean items, and bussers only dirty. That kind of clear division of labor between team members bolsters diners’ trust.
Operators are also figuring out how to handle silverware. While one solution is to offer disposable flatware, the associated cost to the business and the environment is high. Experts recommend using rollups—where clean silverware is rolled inside napkins, keeping utensils protected from the elements until it is given to the guest. “It’s even better if customers see the staff rolling up the silverware with masks and gloves,” said Stein. “That goes to trust.”
Meal times may also change. Steven Hall, a restaurant consultant and public relations expert, says restaurants should shift to an all-day model to increase revenue and spread out the number of diners across all meal times. “People are working from home and they might want early dinner or later lunch. People’s habits have changed and restaurants can adapt to those habits,” he said.
Kitchen staff working in tight quarters must wear masks, gloves and face shields. To help make more room in the kitchen for the hot line, Edwards suggests moving stations like cold apps and dessert to the bar area, since guests cannot be seated there. “It’s a place where you have running water and refrigeration,” she said. “Just add plexiglass and it can be a point of visual interest for your guests.” To ensure proper social distancing, menus may have to be simplified and shortened to accommodate a reduction in staff, and some restaurants may choose to offer more options that are made out of house, or prepped further in advance to space out kitchen work.
Safer Menus, Ordering, and Paying
Seventy-five percent of diners are worried about using reusable menus, according to the survey conducted by BentoBox. Public health experts consensus is that all menus should be single use and disposable. “While we are less concerned with contamination of surfaces, we don't know if someone is shedding virus, and if that person sneezes or coughs on a menu, it should not be reused,” said Dr. Giordano. “Menus should not be reused.”
As an eco-friendly alternative, experts suggest blackboard menus hung at various points around the restaurant. Online menus that can be viewed in advance at home and on personal devices at the restaurant are an easy contactless solution. “Be sure to have your web designer optimize your menus for mobile viewing, and obviously make sure your menus are up to date,” says Nader Ashway, a marketing consultant with extensive experience in restaurants and hospitality and a professor of marketing at NYU. “You can also offer open Wi-Fi, so that the experience is seamless and simple for the guest.”
Restaurant technology also allows customers to order and pay online and from their personal devices, further reducing contact, which not only protects customers, but also servers who will be interacting with diners who may not be wearing masks as they dine.
Socially Distant Dining Rooms
Indoor viral spread is an understandable concern to diners. In the BentoBox survey, 60% of diners said being seated too close to other guests meant they would not return to a restaurant. Health experts agree that this is a significant issue and emphasize that tables have to actually be more than six feet apart to accommodate the perimeter to where individuals push their chairs back from the table. Recycled air and climate-control systems may also serve to disperse viral particles further than six feet away with sustained exposure, so the more fresh air and space a dining room can afford, the better—even though all that space can cut into revenue even further.
Too many people in a room, even with social distancing, is another concern. “In closed spaces, even if we have physical distance we have to consider the number of people in the room,” said Dr. Giordano. “The more people you have in the restaurant, the more the chance of droplet spread.” He suggests adding partitions so tables are more private and to minimize viral spread. To make things more cozy and less sterile, use natural barriers such as vertical gardens, living walls, or tall plants. Other ideas include plexiglass, curtains, or even bookcases filled with interesting books and artifacts.
Dr. Giordano also points out that guests eating with friends who are not intimate family is problematic. “Obviously you’re not going to be able to wear a mask while eating and drinking, so if you are going out to dinner with friends who you are not sheltering with, this is another risk.”
Also, worth noting is that when people are drunk, they speak louder. Anytime you are more forcefully expelling air, there is a greater risk of viral spread, so diners may want to limit the alcohol they consume—and restaurateurs may want to implement a limit, or introduce a program of lower-alcohol cocktails or offer wines by the glass instead of by the bottle. Likewise, restaurants with loud music or acoustics that bounce plenty of sound may want to address those issues before guests return.
A continued focus on takeout and delivery, even after reopening dining rooms, could help offset the reduction in revenue from dining rooms while also serving customers at increased risk from COVID-19.
Nonstop Sanitation for Bathrooms?
Restrooms are an area of high anxiety; 70% of diners surveyed by BentoBox were concerned about bathroom cleanliness. Because restrooms are characteristically smaller spaces and do not have circulating air, Dr. Giordano recommends bathrooms be used by one person at a time, and that they be sanitized after each use. While guests are not required to wear masks while eating, he recommends that restaurants require guests to wear masks when they get up to use the bathroom and will have to walk through a dining room, close to other tables and service staff.
Creating bathrooms that have contactless towel dispensers, faucets, and flushers will go a long way to allay the fears of the public. “Toto toilets are going to become the new Peleton,” says Hall. “They are automated and you don’t have to touch anything.” Hall also suggests restaurants consider the Japanese tradition of oshibori, handing all guests warm moist towels with tongs, to cleanse their hands.
Outdoor Seating for Protection
“Occupancy outside is a brilliant way to move forward because people feel safer outside than in closed space,” said Stein. Restaurants with sidewalk cafes can certainly take advantage of the warm weather and offer seating outside. Some municipalities like New York City have arranged for sidewalk consent fees to be waived and are lobbying for open streets for extra seating.
While this idea is gaining traction, Dr. Giordano cautions that walkways for pedestrians need to be established to reduce risk to passersby. “You have to make sure individuals sitting and eating without masks are distanced enough from where people are walking past,” he said. He also cautions that sitting outside in the dog days of summer and with the changing weather and rain may present logistical problems for restaurants who may have to move people inside, but can’t do so with capacity restrictions.
Communication and Transparency
If consumer trust is the new hospitality, one of the most important tools a restaurant can use is communication. “Restaurants must be transparent about safety procedures and actively communicate with guests,” said Ashway. “Before you reopen, you should be alerting the public about your plans,” said Ashway. “This means details about new hours of operation, new menu items, and of course, all safety policies and social distancing guidelines that have been adopted. All these details should be updated to your website, with pop-ups and dedicated pages on safety and compliance, as well as posts across your various social media platforms, and detailed in a 'welcome back' email to your contact list.”
Ashway says this kind of honest communication goes a long way to helping guests feel comfortable coming back to your restaurant. “Guests need to understand what you have done for their benefit,” he said. “You are setting the expectations, which should also make the experience more seamless for everyone involved.”
Rick Camac, Dean of Restaurant and Hotel Management at New York's Institute of Culinary Education, says messaging should also be posted in the restaurant itself. “That can include lines on the floor for distancing and visual cues, as well as signs about what procedures and safety policies are in place. You want people to feel this is a safe place,” he said.
If You Build It, Will They Come?
Experts warn that even with a slew of well-communicated safety protocols in place, some diners are not ready to eat out yet. A survey of 3,500 people nationwide done by Azurite Consulting found that 53% of Americans say they won’t be comfortable going to a sit-down restaurant for at least three months after social distancing ends. Also, 24% won't dine out until a vaccine is available, and 15% will delay eating in a restaurant three months after a vaccine is accessible.
“I'm not really willing to risk my health, or my family's health and lives to be able to go back into a restaurant yet,” said Andrew Ross, a restaurant critic in Portland, Maine. “Before I'm able to do that comfortably, I'll want to see hard data that shows that the current restrictions are working. For me, that means a sustained, significant drop in new cases in the few weeks after things open up again.”
The fear of the virus is part of it, sure, but the issue is also related to the quality of this “new normal” dining experience. “I am desperate to go out to eat, but do I want to go out if my server has a mask on and we have to be afraid or worry?” said Camac. “Do I want to sit behind partitions inhaling disinfectant while watching staff mopping? Is this relaxing? Is this what I crave right now?”
It’s a fair point. Richard D’Amico, a veteran restaurateur, who recently reopened his Florida restaurants Campiello and D’Amico & Sons Naples, has seen what it’s like. “When you walk through the dining room now, it's enough to make you cry,” he said. “It looks like a brunch after a funeral. Everyone is so far apart. There is no buzz, no camaraderie, no intimacy. It’s just so sad. ‘I am smiling under my mask.’ That’s what I say to our guests, who have been grateful to come back. But how long can you do that?”
“I think there is going to be some solidarity and people will go out to help restaurants, but then people will tire of it,” said Tom Colicchio, the Top Chef star and owner of Crafted Hospitality. “It’s not the experience people want.”
Colicchio also points out that at limited capacity, restaurants are going to lose money. “I know that restaurants want to get open, but unless landlords go down to a percentage of sales for rent, for a la carte service, in the summer, which is the slowest quarter of the year, without tourists, it’s just a recipe to lose money.”
Beyond the strangeness of a socially distant and regularly disinfected dining experience, it may not be safe enough yet, suggests Dr. Giordano. “Even if we gave a certification to restaurants that have met safety and sanitation standards, what you cannot guarantee is patron compliance. How do you know if a guest is asymptomatic and eating without a mask and shedding virus? That throws a wrench in the works.”
He also wonders what an outbreak will do to a restaurant’s reputation. “What if you have a restaurant that has done everything right, but there is an outbreak of the virus traced back to them? Then you have a mark on your reputation because of a customer who was not careful.”
But Dr. Giordano also recognizes that not reopening for dine-in may be a death knell for the many restaurants. “It is very difficult for businesses to remain closed,” he said. “We are going to lose those small personal favorite restaurants that are the heart of our neighborhoods. We don’t want that. We have to find a way to re-establish economic health, and public health and allow guests to feel perceptually safe.”
Others agree that a delicate balancing act will have to be the way forward. “I think it’s important to realize that even though there are safety measures that will make the dining experience different, that restaurants can still deliver their own unique vision of hospitality,” says BentoBox’s Mobayeni. “It may not work for everyone, but the desire to re-engage with your community and have some semblance of a social interaction will bring people back.”
“Ultimately we are going to get there,” agrees Camac. “But this short-term road is really going to be a rough one.”