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Restaurant design amid a pandemic

Experts, operators weigh in on the future that lies ahead

Design will play a defining role in the restaurant industry’s next chapter. The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced layout themes that will be cemented over the next six months. Moreover, restaurant operators will lean on design both to navigate reopening restaurants and to keep customers and employees safe. For example, Chris Degan, owner of Tricky Fish at CityLine in Richardson and Fort Worth, Texas, is separating tables with plexiglass as a way to maximize capacity during reopening. “This experience will inform future design, but I think dining rooms and bars will eventually return and somewhat resemble what we used to see before COVID-19,” says Degan.

“Guests are more aware and appreciative of safe sanitation practices, but when it comes to distancing, people are tolerating it out of necessity.” Degan’s premise encapsulates many restaurant operators’ viewpoints: this pandemic will pass and they’re best served by responding to the moment and showing they can adapt their practices to the best interests of their guests.

Factoring design into the future of operations

Many restaurant operators yearn for a return to the social aspect of dining. Consumers dine at restaurants for the experience, and restaurants have differentiated themselves from food retailers by becoming purveyors of occasions. However, the restaurants that we have come to know may change substantially over time as off-premises business grows. Restaurant delivery and pickup are accelerating rapidly, fueled by restrictions and fears arising from the COVID-19 health crisis.

Joshua Zinder of JZA+D Design sees a dual set of benefits. “I think there is an opportunity to be had here: restaurateurs can take less space (and pay less rent), make the experience more exclusive and provide a space with an arch or turnstile or pass through that can be kept separate from the dining experience.” According to Zinder, this is an interim opportunity because in the long run, consumers will want to return to being “social animals.”

Restaurant space may be turned on its head, suggests Degan. He acknowledges that more consumers will be working from home, which will change demand for dining-out lunch business. A popular development during this crisis has been the ability to create craft cocktails for to-go orders. According to Degan, this solution has staying power and will help propel business forward.

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An evolving layout and functionality focused on safety

A number of design modifications can offer restaurants formidable solutions as they reopen businesses while still navigating the pandemic. JZA+D has recommended installing windows to accommodate pick up orders. Another idea is to provide pickup food on lazy-Susan turnstiles for customers who want contactless service. Incorporating locker pickup on the exterior of restaurants is yet another creative way to provide contactless service to customers. Restaurant staff place food in the locker from inside, and customers with codes can retrieve their orders from outside.

Restaurant space will have the look and feel of what one would find in Europe, suggests Rebecca Stone, principal and practice area lead for OZ Architecture’s resort and hospitality practice. “Outdoor ‘dining rooms’ will become much more common, and patrons will experience different levels of service and menus between the indoor and outdoor spaces, where the indoor space is an elevated experience over the outdoor space,” she says. In addition, restaurants are now able to have overflow seating on streets and sidewalks, much like in Europe. Indoor restaurant design will take on new importance. With heightened emphasis on hygiene, designers will be rethinking materials.

Stone adds, “The interior space needs to be an interesting experience in and of itself. Material selections will become sleeker as designers will favor less-porous surfaces, less fabric and upholstery, and more emphasis on surfaces that can be cleaned easily and frequently.” She explains that “spacing regulations may ebb and flow over time,” so indoor spaces need to be more flexible—particularly with tables that can be removed or moved.

Interiors will take on a new look that favors less-porous surfaces. Demand for dining-out lunch will also change. Photo by JZA+D.
Interiors will take on a new look that favors less-porous surfaces. Demand for dining-out lunch will also change. Photo by JZA+D.

Open kitchens have risen in popularity over the past decade, but now they will gain even more importance by providing transparency. “Guests also want to see how clean the kitchen is, so open kitchens will offer this reassurance. From a materials standpoint, cooking services will be clad in anti-microbial materials and guests will expect this,” Stone says. She also predicts that as consumers continue to embrace the convenience of takeout, ghost kitchens will become more common, preparing food for the restaurant and to-go. “Take-out dining is here to stay, so kitchens need to adapt to providing a combination of both.”

Lessons for fine-dining restaurants

For fine-dining restaurant operators and chefs, the dining landscape was already changing; COVID-19 has only accelerated the shift to consumers enjoying fine dining at home. With states keeping some restrictions in place, it has become challenging for fine-dining restaurants to operate profitably. In response, the creativity of many of these restaurants has spurred meal kits, family meals and subscription meal services to make the most of the takeout game. Meals can be scheduled for pickup and delivery and employees can be rehired to help with the corresponding demand for off-premises business.

“Getting a 6 course meal in a box or bag that you eat in front of the TV is not the experience most chefs want for their diners,” says JZA+D’s Zinder. “At the same time you can’t ignore the financial impact on the business. Initially the dining experience may be more exclusive, like a chef’s table where they can charge more for the unique layout, but home dining boxes and take out I expect will be a part of all food businesses for some time.”

For many chefs the on-premises dining experience is still the way to go. “People are desperate to go out, and not getting a table at your favorite place will only stress things more,” Zender says. “For years to come tables will be more spaced out, and lower seat counts will be typical.” A frequent prediction by designers and experts alike is that reservations will come at a premium and menus will be condensed to enhance the on-premises and the takeout experience.

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In Washington, DC, fine-dining restaurant Seven Reasons implemented both a minimum spend and a time limit for its outdoor patio dining. Its management team announced that this was a way to keep the operation profitable and to ensure they could continue to bring back employees.Interim solutions impacting a restaurant’s layout should change as things get back to normal.

Flexibility is key in the new normal, notes Kana Ahn, CetraRuddy’s interior practice leader CetraRuddy has designed restaurants with a large open kitchen and counter space,” she says. “Even though those restaurants weren’t originally designed to accommodate takeout, the open plan design offers flexibility to accommodate the new takeout services. We believe many existing brands will consider minimal renovation to create the needed flexibility.”

Ahn also believes that open kitchens are important, particularly as a launching pad for to-go orders. She adds, “We recommend reviewing the current kitchen layout and space outside of the kitchen for possible reconfiguration and renovation.

Not every kitchen was originally designed to accommodate delivery operation or has the flexibility to expand.” If possible, a kitchen can be opened up toward the dining room and offer an additional outlet for takeout orders. “Incorporate a large pickup counter at the kitchen opening so that pickup and delivery flow well.” When opening up the kitchen is not possible, decorative furniture pieces can be placed along openings to provide a welcoming area for pickup and delivery orders.

As delivery opens up possibilities for fine dining restaurants, takeout is here to stay and branding helps export the restaurant experience to customers’ homes. “We also want to emphasize the importance of the branding, graphic design and packaging,” says Ahn. With an evolving set of regulations and ordinances, restaurant operators are challenged both to adapt to the moment and to incorporate long-term lessons into redesign and future restaurants. Designing with flexibility in mind, remembering the importance of sanitation and enhancing takeout options are key success strategies today’s restaurant operators can embrace.

Photo credit: Ken Duquet for Eatery Pulse Media (featured preview image), JZA+D (inline)

This article was originally published in Restaurant C-Suite Magazine, part of the Eatery Pulse Network magazine portfolio. To view this issue, navigate here.

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