The COVID-19 pandemic has rendered traditional models of hospitality impossible. Here’s how restaurants are adapting.

By Khushbu Shah
July 16, 2020
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The restaurant business has never been more challenging. For our F&W Pro Guide to Reopening Restaurants, we've been collecting wisdom and best practices from leaders in the hospitality industry to help you navigate this unprecedented time.

When chefs Tavel Bristol-Joseph and Kevin Fink opened their newest Austin restaurant, Hestia, this past December, they thought about the hospitality just as much as they thought about the food. Not only did they assign each table with an attentive and patient server who knew the ins-and-outs of the constantly evolving menu, but different members of the kitchen's staff would also bring out the dishes they made, pausing to chat with each customer in the middle of a busy service. Their goal was to make the dining room feel just as warm as the flames of the live fire they were using to cook the meals, and for the guests to walk away feeling both well-fed and taken care of. Just four months into service, the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world and their restaurant to a brutal stop. To survive, Bristol-Joseph, Fink, and other operators had to swap smiles for masks, wine lists for hand sanitizer, and doting service for strict social distancing. Virtually overnight, restaurants were forced to reimagine what hospitality looks like. 

Restaurateur Danny Meyer defines hospitality as a “dialogue” in his book Setting the Table, which is what differentiates it from service. “Service is the technical delivery of our product. Hospitality is how the delivery of that product makes its recipient feel,” he writes. Pre-pandemic restaurants would do this through verbal cues, says Bristol-Joseph. This includes constant conversation between staff and guests, extras like tableside presentation of dishes, and anticipating the needs of customers by doing things like offering to refill a water glass. Now, restaurants have had to shift to a more visual approach to hospitality, turning to physical cues and gestures to make diners feel taken care of. “We truly are reexamining the structures of everything,” explains Markus Carter, the Maître D' at Austin’s Comedor

In many ways, the newest measure of hospitality is safety. “These days it is all about alleviating fears,” says Bobby Stuckey, a co-owner of Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, Colorado. “I tell my team that every person is on a different point on the bell curve of COVID-19 stress levels and they need to adjust to those.” Mariah Pisha-Duffly of Gado Gado in Portland, Oregon seconds this notion, noting that customers are never going to feel relaxed in a restaurant until they feel “100 percent safe.”  To show diners that their health and wellbeing is the top priority, restaurants across the country are engaging in strict safety measures like placing hand sanitizer bottles on every table, creating large distances between tables, requiring staff to wear masks and gloves, and regularly spraying down dining room surfaces, and offering disposable menus. Going no-contact, which includes having customers order and pay ahead, has also been key in making sure people feel safe, says Pisha-Duffly, whether they are dining outside or taking food to-go. 

Other operators have hired extra staff for their dine-in operations (though it should be noted that dining in is an extremely hazardous endeavor that places a lot of risk on restaurant staff). At his restaurants, Stuckey now has multiple hosts to greet customers. One host checks in the guest and walks them through what the experience is going to be like, and then a second host will guide the diner to their table, point out the different features of the dining room — such as where the bathrooms are, and where the hand sanitizer is located — to make them feel secure in the space. He adds that customers are comfortable with different levels of service — some want high-touch while others want low-touch, and so the restaurant adjusts to each diner’s needs. 

Courtesy of Wayla

Masks, a necessary safety precaution, are now as common in restaurants as knives and aprons. They also make communication challenging. “How do you know if someone is smiling from behind a mask? How do you convey feelings?” asks Cater. To tackle this problem, Bristol-Joseph had custom masks made for his team that cover both the nose and mouth but are cut so that they cover less of a person’s cheeks, and show more of a person’s face. This way you can see more emotions, such as a server’s face crinkling because they are smiling. At Wayla, a Thai restaurant in New York’s Lower East Side, servers wear masks that are printed with a photo of the server’s smile. “Our neighbor, who is a regular, takes school photos,” explains general manager Steven Lee. “So he came up with this idea of taking pictures of staff’s faces and printing them on the masks, which he then donated.” The results are goofy but cheerful. “During this time, we are happy to do anything that brings happiness and laughter, even for two seconds.” 

The team at Wayla has found that personalization is a really nice display of hospitality. Not only does the team personally do food drop-offs way beyond their delivery zone to regular customers, in each of their to-go meals, they include a handwritten thank you note that is funny, quirky, or inspirational, says Lee. (“I am not allowed to write because I have terrible handwriting,” he adds with a laugh.) Victoria James, the sommelier at Cote in NYC, has also turned to handwritten notes to interact with guests. “Whenever you order bottles of wine from the restaurant, you also get handwritten custom tasting notes for each bottle written by me,” she says. “This way it feels like more of a conversation.” 

Figuring out how to translate beverage service into delivery was a huge challenge says James. In addition to the custom tasting notes, Cote also sells wine flights from around the world that allows customers to taste multiple wines at home without having to buy several full bottles. James says that with 24-hour notice, she has been creating custom flights for customers based on their preferences. “It’s really hard not being able to see the guests,” James notes. “But it’s an honor being able to provide hospitality in another format.”

Social media has also proven to be just as important as analog thank you notes for restaurants. Pisha-Duffly says that it’s the best way to safely communicate directly with customers not just about the food, but also music, art, and other interests they might have. “Social media in a way has never felt as important as it does now,” she says. At Comedor, the restaurant provides a certain window of time for customers to ask the chefs questions via Instagram message (and phone calls) about the meal kits the restaurant provides. “It lets the guest feel like they are right there with the chef,” says Cater. And at Cote, James asks customers to provide their Instagram handles so that the team can send them videos of their cocktail order being made before it goes out for delivery, to somewhat mimic the restaurant experience of sitting at the bar. 

Video messages have become an integral tool. At Comedor, each meal kit comes with not just recipe cards but cooking demos with the chefs. (They even go so far as to provide a playlist from the restaurant so customers can pretend they are in the space.) At Frasca, Stuckey says they also provide a video with their “Frasca at Home” kits of the chef cooking the meal, as well as a video interview with their winemaker of the week. 

Ultimately, it’s about trying to make their spaces as comfortable as possible. At Gado Gado, Pisha-Duffly set up a vibrant tent outside where guests pick-up their food orders with fun music, lots of plants, photo frames, and fake fruit. And their outside dining seating also features bright and playful table coverings, to bring the vibes of the restaurant outside. At Pizzeria Locale, Stuckey’s more casual restaurant in Denver, he took over some of the parking spots to create an outdoor dining area complete with AstroTurf and a mural wall. “We want it to feel as normal as it can during these times,” he says. “It might feel like it’s harder to engage right now, but I see COVID-19 as a chance to give our customers even better hospitality.”