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Creative Restaurant Meals in a Pandemic Age

Bill Grote

Creative Restaurant Meals in a Pandemic Age

Posted: May 22, 2020 | Tradewinds, Estimating

Even before the COVID-19 crisis hit, operating a restaurant was a risky business that skated along on razor-thin margins, and with an often transient workforce. Cooks typically endured long shifts in steamy hot kitchens. Servers were on their feet all day trying to smile at grumpy customers as they sucked up their feelings for a larger tip. Health insurance and paid time off were rare for most workers in small restaurants. Anyone who complained about insurance or time off could be quickly replaced.

But change is on the way in the restaurant industry as a healthy and happy group of busboys, waiters and waitresses will be essential to any restaurant who wants to make customers feel safe enough to return. Restaurants are now required in some municipalities to conduct daily wellness checks of their employees, who must don masks and abide by the six-foot rule to hamper the spread of the Coronavirus.

After all, restaurant employees serve and come in contact with hundreds of people every day. Without protection, their chances of becoming ill multiply — as does their ability to spread the virus. It’s imperative to promise the anxious public that checks are in place to assure their safety when dining in. One sick customer reporting a specific restaurant as the cause of their illness could easily put that restaurant out of business … forever.

As restaurants begin to reopen, many expect their business will drop. Some expect this drop to be as high as 25%. The decrease will be caused in part by the physical distancing rule, which will require customers sit further apart — hence limited seating. But most of all, the general public still has to be convinced that it’s safe to dine out again.

Have restaurants made changes to ensure the safety of their customers and workers to prevent contracting the dreaded COVID-19 virus from someone who may be an asymptomatic carrier? Unfortunately, there isn’t a Code that defines specific measurements necessary, like the ADA Code provides to increase access for disabled customer in restaurants. Other than the broad safety standards offered by the CDC, restaurants have to rely on local standards — which may change from township to township.

Without crystal-clear guidance, restaurants have become creative in designing a safe eating environment to limit the spread of airborne diseases. Some have placed clear plastic shower curtains around tables to stop the airborne droplets that spread the virus. Others are offering Plexiglas barriers which allow sunlight and views of other patrons, but possibly keep germs from others out. Some restaurants are looking to add mirrors, which provide the illusion that there are more people around … even though six-foot distancing rules prevail. Still others are looking at creating separate “tatami” style rooms, as some Japanese restaurants provide, where small groups can gather but feel shielded from the germs of strangers. New hospital-quality air-purification systems can help assure customers, as can prep practices where the number of hands touching the food is minimized.

As restaurants remodel, new materials will likely appear from their use in healthcare: More antibacterial coatings along walls and in the bathrooms, and fixtures made of copper (which has antibacterial properties). There are new materials, such as wall coverings, which have been shown to reduce up to 80 percent of bacteria on high-touch surfaces in hospitals, and will likely work their way into restaurants and other public buildings.

The days of the large multi-stall bathrooms will probably be coming to an end. And customers more than likely won’t be washing their hands shoulder to shoulder with strangers. Hands-free technology for toilets, faucets, and even bathroom stalls will probably become much more standard.

As Architect Ed McCall, of McCall Sharp Architecture, recalls, “Architects went through a lot of new design changes with the initiation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. I can easily imagine that happening again to protect against this and future viruses. I think that the new bathrooms will probably be an individual single water closet restroom with antimicrobial and durable surfaces, no-touch doors, UV light disinfectant, and plenty of hand sanitizer.”  

The real measure of change is on restaurants to help customers to feel safe. This will be something that changes the way that restaurants do business. This is especially important in the short term, and will probably extend to the long term. How they change to this customer-driven demand will be up to their creativity; and is likely to drive new dining experiences designed to make dining more about the experience than just about the food. Imagine comedians donning masks delivering a performance as people dine following social distancing guidelines. A shared experience to bring together our humanity as well as dinner — something we can’t get at home, making it worth the risk to leave the house.

Really, it’s the customers who are in charge. If they feel safe, the food is good, and the experience worth the risk of leaving the safety of the house, they’ll wander in to be served. In terms of the physical dining experience in a restaurant, there is an obvious need for an emphasis on safety and hygiene, and adherence to safety standards.

With a lack of real guidance in a constantly changing pandemic, restaurants have to decide if these changes will be temporary (in which case they’ll apply shower curtains and short-term safety measures) or whether to hire a designer to think about making changes permanent or perhaps even flexible, so seating arrangements can change as the pandemic starts to fade or increase. Creativity and safety will be the key ingredients to any dinner in a pandemic.

The two most common changes seen throughout most restaurants are the addition of masks and physical distancing. Because of distancing requirements, there aren’t as many seats available. In order to stay in business and to keep their brand relevant, many restaurants have considered curbside pickup or even delivery service. The dining-in experience isn’t likely going away, but it is possible that it will be more balanced with delivery or curbside pick-up service.

Then there is the menu. Instead of trying to offer the full menu for limited customers, many restaurants will try to get by offering a different, simpler, and cheaper menu of five items or less. Some have switched to one daily dish for eat-in or carry-out that is designed specifically so that it is not only a gourmet treat, but it is easily packaged and able to be reheated for later.

There’s also the question of preventing bottlenecks as the line to enter grows due to the social distancing rules. That line may serve as an impediment to hungry customer who will drive on to a less-crowded place. Some restaurants are looking at providing multiple entry points, where diners could reserve a private dining room from their phone and be ushered in a side door to access it, rather than waiting in the main entrance line.

All of these changes are happening quickly as restaurants grapple with what their customers want in a dining experience during a pandemic. They’re searching for how they can provide dining and entertainment in a safe way that assures the customer that the food is better than what they could make at home, and that the experience of getting out of the house was worth the risk — so much that they’d want to do it again and again.

About the Author: Bill Grote is a staff writer for DCD Magazine