Dominique Crenn and other restaurateurs are taking no chances, even if it comes with a hefty price tag.

By Kristen Hawley
November 06, 2020
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Credit: Joseph Weaver / Courtesy of R-Zero

Award-winning chef and cancer survivor Dominique Crenn spent a lot of time in a San Francisco hospital during treatment last year, and it was there she noticed the similarities between hospitals and restaurants. Both have lots of people, tons of foot traffic, and plenty of person-to-person interaction. There, she started to think more seriously about safety at her own businesses, she says, even though “you can literally eat off the floor” at Atelier Crenn, her 10-year-old, three Michelin-starred restaurant. 

But the COVID-19 pandemic took Crenn's thoughts on safety further, and she’s added a new piece of hospital-grade technology to Atelier Crenn, which is just beginning to host guests indoors. According to a press release, the futuristic-looking R-Zero Arc uses “energetic waves of ultraviolet light known as germicidal UV that wipe out viruses, bacteria and other microorganisms,” both on surfaces and in the air. 

Guests don’t see the device, which is moved into the dining room before use, and can only be used when the restaurant is completely empty. (UV-C is not safe for human exposure, but it’s fine for furniture, or even food.) The team at Atelier Crenn runs the machine in the morning since there’s so much activity in the room as tables are set for 5 p.m. service, Crenn said. The disinfection process takes seven minutes.

Credit: Joseph Weaver / Courtesy of R-Zero

At $22,000, the Arc is a costly investment, so restaurants are choosing to lease the devices for around $17 per day. Sherry Villanueva, managing partner of Acme Hospitality in Santa Barbara who uses the same machine in two of her company’s restaurants, called the per-day expense “a small yet invaluable investment” given existing operating costs during COVID-19, which include hiring additional staff to clean and sanitize. 

This type of technology looks and feels more at home in the sterile halls of a hospital than the convivial restaurant dining room, but, COVID-19’s spread has changed the restaurant experience, prioritizing the physical health and safety of employees and guests. Servers across the country are tasked with asking questions and taking temperatures to screen diners for COVID-19 symptoms, and restaurant staff perform even more rigorous cleaning procedures than before. 

Guidance published on the CDC website advises restaurant patrons to sit at outdoor tables when possible, and to wear masks and maintain six feet of distance from other patrons. General guidance also suggests lots of hand-washing and minimizing touching shared surfaces like menus or doorknobs. But it’s become clear that person-to-person spread in common. Epidemiologists have warned that indoor transmission is far more likely than outdoor. 

Christina Corvino consulted an epidemiologist before choosing to reopen the dining room at Corvino, the Kansas City restaurant she co-owns with her husband, chef Michael Corvino. (The epidemiologist happens to be a family member who works for a local health department in California.) “When we were looking at reopening, I talked to my niece and discussed if there was a wishlist of best practices and looked at what we could afford," she said. "Air sterilization, higher quality air filters, and increasing outside air were the three biggest items [on the list].” 

The Corvinos installed something called a Needlepoint Bipolar Ionization system in the restaurant’s HVAC system that uses ions to purify the air. Eric Ripert recently installed the same technology at his restaurant, Le Bernardin, in Manhattan, and in an interview with Bloomberg News said that the same technology was just installed at the United Nations. It cost the Corvinos about $1,000 per HVAC unit. 

“Installation is pretty quick, they pretty much just place it inside the unit. So there’s not a lot of labor involved, the majority of the cost is in the product itself,” Christina Corvino said. They dipped into funds received as part of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) to afford the investment. 

Corvino didn’t open its doors to indoor dining until two months after Kansas City allowed restaurants to seat customers inside, relying on take-out orders as it had since March. Christina Corvino believes locals have been more willing to eat inside a restaurant than in other parts of the country. “Once other restaurants [in the area] started opening, to-go orders dropped like a rock,” she said. 

The technology itself isn’t new; it’s been around for decades and has been used in places like food processing facilities, airports, and office buildings to catch airborne pathogens. But marketing a restaurant on air quality is new—at least to Corvino, who says that the newly installed safety measures are part of every social media message and every mass email to guests. 

“All very sexy stuff,” she said. “I like talking about Burgundy wine and Paso Robles a lot more.” 

Corvino hasn’t heard of others in her community installing similar air filtration systems. “I recommended it to a lot of people, because, honestly, the people who are in there the longest are us,” she said. The restaurant has also installed hospital-grade air filters and increased the intake of outdoor air to the HVAC system’s maximum of 30 percent. 

Both Crenn and Corvino say that the newly installed technologies are just one part of their restaurants’ safety plans, which also include rigorous COVID-19 testing among staff. “I don’t know how many COVID-19 tests I’ve been getting, but it’s pretty crazy,” Crenn said.

Both proudly report zero confirmed COVID-19 cases among restaurant staff. Neither has had a reported infection from a restaurant guest, either. Both Crenn and Corvino say their newly employed safety technology is here to stay. “It’s not just for the now, it’s going to become part of the way we are approaching safety,” Crenn said. “For me it’s literally redefining luxury. And really keeping the highest level of hospitality as well as health and safety.”