What Will Restaurant Design Look Like After COVID-19?

The entire restaurant industry has shifted because of COVID-19 and the effects that that’s had on the global economy, consumer preferences and the marketplace as a whole. These industry developments have had far-reaching consequences, even affecting adjacent businesses who rely on restaurants as clientele. One of the many things that will have to change because of COVID-19, and how it’s likely altered the entire course of the industry moving forward, is restaurant design.

It seems almost inconsequential; as restaurants more thoroughly concern themselves with how to alter their business strategy to bring in customers and pay their employees while also saving enough money to last until the end of these turbulent times, they’re not as focused on reinventing their entire physical layout right now, although it would significantly benefit them in the long run.

This poses a problem for designers. They’ve had to change how they approach business too, because previously, restaurant design maximized capacity, profit and atmosphere—all considerations which are now either illegal or unethical to prioritize over safety. So much of restaurant design before now has been about cultivating environments where people want to hang out; gathering places for all different clientele to invite their friends and linger over drinks and food. Now, everyone wants the exact opposite. Crowds are suddenly lethal.

Restaurant designers knew they were in for trouble when most of their client base fell victim to the first wave of shutdowns back in March. Like nearly every small business, they had to rethink their approach and usher in the new era of restaurant design—and fast, before they went under too. One company, Goodrich, decided to do some work pro bono so as to draw their clients in all over again and hopefully start to make a profit.

Everyone was low on funds and terrified of the future. Now, restaurant designers are adapting; they’re focused on finding solutions for the new problems that suddenly plague society, and the food service industry in particular.

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Redesigning Space

The most obvious way to adjust a restaurant’s design for COVID-19 is to physically rearrange the space to accommodate social distance and other health expert recommendations. This is typically the first move restaurants make: Add room between furniture by shifting, closing down or removing tables to put the necessary amount of distance between guests. Of course this leaves restaurants at very limited capacity and doesn’t fully assuage customers’ fears about catching COVID-19, thus some have taken more radical approaches.

A lot of businesses took service outside over the past couple of months, more confident in the safety of al fresco dining and with way more space to work with, so they can accommodate more customers than reduced indoor capacity allows. When they have it, restaurants are also using patio space every hour they can; others have taken advantage of new permits which allow them to close down sidewalks, public streets and their own parking lots. With the right design team, it can even look nice done up with furniture, paint and a canopy for the weather; though there are downsides to this endeavor if it’s undertaken too hastily. One critic, witnessing this trend spread throughout San Francisco, thinks that eventually the newness of the design, thrill of dining out, and relief at some sort of solution will wear out and customers will feel that a lot of these outdoor spaces look cluttered and unappealing, not really suitable as a long-term solution.

Open kitchens and service stations are also becoming more popular. They allow staff to avoid too much close contact with one another, especially if they change shifts from day to day and interact with each other and customers close up on a daily or near-daily basis.

More temporary and flexible solutions are also on the rise. For example, many added removable screens in their dining areas, putting glass, plexiglass or something similar between booths and banquettes so as to reduce the spread of germs between parties. Removability is good, not just so restaurants can revert back to normal someday when it’s safe, but because it’s easier to clean the partitions periodically too. Some food service establishments have taken the idea of a barrier a step further and also installed them at the counter, if they have a checkout area with a cashier, to prevent contact between customers and staff. This is all done on top of other internal measures that restaurants are taking.

Changes like these are gaining traction because they’re temporary enough that restaurants don’t have to invest in permanent installations, but secure enough to add a layer of protection which restaurants can keep for as long as it’s necessary.

Restaurants are also investing in changes that do away with dine-in service entirely, either because they have to from a business standpoint or because they live in an area with legal restrictions on sit-down service. Drive-thrus, designated pickup areas, and curbside ordering are all on the rise across the country. There’s also been increased flexibility with takeout and delivery systems, as restaurants find ways to make interactions and service completely contactless. Not having face-to-face conversations, when customer experience is such an ingrained part of food service, would have been unthinkable six months ago but it’s now preferred.

For restaurants that do offer dine-in services, plenty of them have taken steps to introduce hands-free hardware so as to reduce the amount of shared surfaces customers might touch during their visit. For example, more restaurants than ever have started putting in foot pedals instead of door handles, and contact-free hand sanitizer stations are popping up all over their floor plans.

Restaurants need to find designs that prioritize safety, distance and health in a way that best protects their customers, avoids long-term commitments, and remains relatively inexpensive at a time when they’re more financially insecure than ever. It’s a tough line to walk.

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Enter Technology

Unfortunately physical accommodations are insufficient to properly ensure the total safety of customers and staff at your place of business; interaction is so ingrained in every aspect of our society that we tend to overlap in places where we might not think about it. That’s why more aggressive solutions are needed; we have to turn to advanced technology to help us out.

There are a lot of different contact-free solutions available for restaurants of any size who want to prioritize health and safety. Mobile ordering is one huge trend that’s taken off since COVID-19 changed how we think about food service; contactless ordering and payment have become prioritized as a way for businesses to ensure added safety for customers while also keeping lines moving. A lot of them are using QR codes so customers can view the menu, order and pay all from their own smartphone.

There’s also higher-grade tech available for restaurants which are a fairly low investment, considering all the ROI. For example some really automated restaurants implemented self-order kiosks which can sense heat from inches away, making it unnecessary to touch the screens at all.

Others have taken a more low-tech approach and simply accept payment which doesn’t require anything to physically change hands, nor the use of machines which a lot of customers share throughout the day. Banning physical cash and only accepting services like Venmo, Paypal or credit cards that allow you to hover near the checkout machine all add a layer of protection that restaurants can integrate at a very low operational cost.

The Future of Restaurant Design

Right now, nothing is for certain—or for long. It can be difficult to make long-term plans regarding your restaurant and business operations because protocols are constantly changing as laws surrounding COVID-19 go into and out of effect with various levels of enforcement. Statistics change so rapidly and health regulations are unclear and insufficient even when they are up to date; recommendations for best practices aren’t uniform or enforced across different states. All of this makes it difficult to plan from a data-driven mindset, which design inarguably is. Concrete decisions and inflexibility just don’t work anymore.

On top of lax regulations and no long-term plan of action, consumer behavior and priorities are shifting. What they’re comfortable with one week might not stay stable the next as news about the virus evolves.

One thing is for sure: The COVID-19 pandemic will radically change the trajectory of customers’ habits, preferences and opinions. The future will be marked by distance and safety where it never was before; conviviality has given way to caution. Thus it’s more beneficial to focus on new strategies that maximize flexibility, adaptability and temporality rather than investing in entirely new design schemas that might have be torn down and redone if the virus were to become manageable within the year; or even next week if scientists discovered more information that changed the way we handle crowds, again.

With so much uncertainty, restaurants should focus on one thing they can control: Branding. Become a brand known for positive atmosphere and congenial vibes which make customers forget about how uncomfortable it might be to wear a mask; let the elegance of the setup offset the additional safety measures. Restaurants who make customers feel welcome, normal and safe will strengthen their customer relationships and ensure positive experiences that have them returning again and again—no matter what your setup looks like next week.

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